Amsterdam, with your crooked and badly isolated houses, legions of second hand and used-anything stores, restaurants that close at nine, grimy-wet winter days, awful hotels, dirty canals, expensive and rickety public transportation, pervading sense of dilapidation, your grossly exaggerated focus on secondary and tertiary pleasures and cheap ticky-tacky-selling tourist gift shops, be still my beating heart as long as you contain in your midst one of the world’s most lovely concert halls and in it “The World’s Best Orchestra”.
The opportunities to hear Pierre Boulez conduct are, let’s be honest, acutely limited. So the chance to witness him in Mahler’s Seventh Symphony was an obvious and welcome excuse to go to Amsterdam, even in the uninviting month of January. And what better cast—at least on paper—than Boulez and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra could one get for hearing that elusive Mahler Seventh for the first time in concert? After all, the RCO’s Mahler credentials are nonpareil and Boulez’ recording with Cleveland is one of the outstanding contributions to the discography.
In rehearsal, unaware of the program apart from Mahler and assuming—rather than paying attention—that Boulez was mixing things up with one of his compositions, I thought to myself: “Oh, Pierre, you just pretend to be so avant-garde but you’re really a bleeding heart romantic at heart.” Egg on my face, seeing how he was rehearsing Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, op.6. Then again, an unabashed romantic is of course exactly what Webern is. And the reaction might go to show that this romantic mooring of the Second Viennese schoolboys would be so more obvious to the listener if he or she came expecting Boulez, rather than romantic standards set by Der Rosenkavalier or the ‘Rhenish’ Symphony.
In concert, Six Pieces (in the original 1909 version) flit by in no time at all—rousing and enchanting en route, riveting and challenging to the ears. Piercing woodwinds, heralding trumpets, and distilled genius (if you’ve got the taste for it) made this—despite rampant coughing—in the very literal sense uncommonly beautiful.
G.Mahler, Symphony No.7,
Boulez / Cleveland - DG
A.Webern, 6 Pieces et al.,
Boulez / BPh - DG
In the first movement Boulez didn’t linger—he got right into the gritty business and led the orchestra like a little metronome, steady, subtle, and with small clockwork movements. If and when he wants a triple fortissimo orchestral crash, he doesn’t fling his limbs about, he tells the players beforehand. Boulez doesn’t emote for the orchestra, he just provides the pulse. But that doesn’t make his interpretations any less emotional. Amid superb contributions from trombones, trumpets, and Wagner tuba, the first movement was a scorcher. The finale was a massive, a wonderful noise, jocular witch clenched teeth… Mahler’s ambiguously jubilant Meistersinger send-up (and the finale of Tristan & Isolde’s first act) ever obvious. In short: an evening befitting the great Mahler moments that must have taken place in the Grote Zaal of the Concertgebouw. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that the best seats in the hall—Balcony Front, Row 1, Seat Sixties-something—are the ones right above the plaque that bears Mahler’s name.