G. Mahler, Symphony No. 2, WPh / P. Boulez / Schäfer, DeYoung
Last Tuesday, however, brought a Mahler recording that finally lives up to its high expectations: the éminence grise among conductors, Pierre Boulez is only one step (the 8th) away from finishing his Mahler cycle with Deutsche Grammophone after issuing a 2nd with the Vienna Philharmonic, Christine Schäfer (soprano) and Michelle DeYoung (mezzo) and the Wiener Singverein. Offering great sound and superb, precise, pristine playing (as well as good effects for the off-stage brass), it rivals the 2003 Kaplan recording with the same forces on sonic grounds. Boulez has the superior soloists (Christine Schäfer is absolutely wonderful – the Anne Sofie von Otter of sopranos; Michelle DeYoung is a great choice, too; only Claudio Abbado’s Anna Larsson might do more for me) and most conveniently manages to fit the second symphony on one disc, not two.
Of course he would, champions and detractors of Boulez may say, because Boulez is reliably that: analytical, collected, detailed, cool, clinical even, occasionally understated and, of course, fast! (He might as well be lumped together with Pollini and the Emerson String Quartet for how commonly these all-too-easy adjectives are attached to him.) But Boulez isn’t terribly fast at all (Kubelik, Klemperer are faster, only Tilson Thomas’s Urlicht is slower in my collection) and he is certainly not cool or understated. Sure, he is not a Schmalz-dripping romantic, even here, but this is an emotionally wrenching, grand, glorious presentation of the symphony with positively transcendent moments – especially in the last movement. It’s less wild than Kaplan I, but more believably emotional than the Rattle recording, more riveting than the solemn, beautiful Tilson Thomas, more gently moving even than my (hitherto) favorite, the superb Abbado (Lucerne). Kaplan II is just as well recorded - but you can tell Boulez to be the superior conductor: moments of glory sound glorious, not duty-bound to be glorious. His account is smoother, for one. Or listen to the way the great plane opens in the 5th movement (8'00"); this elated, completely unbound, unburdened and free music, transporting, mesmerizing. Bird twittering, utter euphoria, as jubilating as it gets, before it sinks into a calmer state only to submerge entirely, as if swallowed by the great swamp of recurring melancholy. Then listen to the 'footsteps' he sets down as melancholy turns to determination (10'15") to the drum crescendos. They are assertive, superbly separated, weighty. At other points, upon close listening, you will find little pauses, one just a fraction longer than the other, that give this music a warm, realistic air of hesitancy. Over and over, there are details that add to a great overall impression - especially as concerns movements two to six. This is a perfect marriage of Boulez's usual finely played, detailed rendering with what makes it a warmly welcomed recording: passion!