Life is good. In fact, it's great. Besides the intelligent layout of the complete Boulez Mahler (including ALL of the song cycles, "Das Klagende Lied", "Totenfeier" - everything), the really good news is that the earlier releases in the cycle that DIDN'T receive the Emil Berliner Studios treatment - whatever the heck that means! - have now received the E.B. Studios treatment and sound significantly better. The upshot of all that is that I can now not just tolerate, but actually enjoy the Boulez "Das Lied von der Erde" - the one release in the cycle that was, for me, a big problem child.
In the orginal release of "DLvdE", Urmana was placed too far forward in the recording's perspective, and practically blew me out of the room at the movement's vocal climax near the end. All that has been corrected. I still think Urmana over-sings there slightly, but she's tolerable. In fact, she's now much easier for me to listen to AND enjoy. And for whatever reason, there's much more of the tam-tam (orchestral gong) throughout the funereal, orchestral interlude in "der Abschied" (the final movement).
I haven't checked out everything yet. I listened to the "Resurrection" symphony (#2) earlier. And while the end still has too little organ, the alternating salvos between the two tam-tams (low and higher pitched) and the three 'tiefe glocken' - tubular chimes, in this instance - couldn't possibly sound clearer - the full Boulez treatment, in other words. Needless to say, the Vienna brass section has a field day throughout M2. I like Boulez's zippier than usual tempo for the second movement - it really sets up that marvelous passage for pizzicato strings a la J. Strauss. Equally needless to state, is that the entire Boulez cycle is blessed with fantastic playing from the Chicago Sympyhony, Cleveland Orchestra and Vienna Philharmonic orchestras. Many of the vocalists are among the biggest names in the business. I'm particular fond of tenor Johann Botha's work on Mahler's thankless tenor part in the 8th symphony. He's also effectively employed in Boulez's "Das Klagende Lied".
The accompanying booklet comes with all the track listings, all of the credits, all of the lyrics for all of the vocal works, and a new and interesting essay by Wolfgang Staehr. That's just an FYI.
Ok, OK, I can hear many of you protesting that one can get better 'interpretations' (hate that word) by mixing and matching various recordings. That goes without saying. But for a comprehensive Mahler box that includes darn near everything, Boulez is hard to beat. Especially for the price. Here's the layout:
Disc 1: Mahler 1; Totenfeier (C.S.O.)
Disc 2: Mahler 2 (V.P.O.)
Disc 3: Mahler 3, mvts. 1-3
Disc 4: Mahler 3: mvts. 4-6; Das Klagende Lied (2 mvt. revised version) (V.P.O.)
Disc 5: M4 (Cleveland)
Disc 6: M5 (V.P.O.)
Disc 7: M6 (V.P.O.)
Disc 8: M7 (Cleveland)
Disc 9: M8, Part I
Disc 10 M8, Part II (Berlin Staatskapelle, recorded in the Jesus Christus Kirche)
Disc 11: M9 (C.S.O.)
Disc 12: Des Knaben Wunderhorn; M10 Adagio (Cleveland)
Disc 13: 3 short song cycles: Wayfahrer songs; Ruckert Lieder; Kindertotenlieder (V.P.O.)
Disc 14: Das Lied von der Erde (V.P.O.)
As I'm writing this, I'm listening to M3. It now sounds every bit as good as my SACD hybrid version of this - maybe even better in red book stereo. Let's talk about comparisons.
Obviously, any 'dye in the wool' Mahlerian should have some incarnation of Bernstein in Mahler (Sony or DG). For me, Gary Bertini (EMI) offers the clarity and precision of Boulez, crossed with a more innate, 'let's live for the moment' feel of a Bernstein. He brings us the best of both worlds (or at worst, a meeting of the two). But Bertini's box offers no bells or whistles other than the M10 Adagio and a very good "DLvdE". Worse, EMI broke Bertini's M4 across two discs. The Chailly/Concertgebouw box (Decca) is very good and includes a fine Mahler 10 in the Cooke performing version. But Chailly is bringing us even more vital performances on DVD from Leipzig these days (the Gewandhaus being his current orchestra). The Simon Rattle box doesn't include his remake of Mahler 9 from Berlin (and undoubtedly, Rattle will re-record many of the others). Nor does it have his fine Berlin remake of M2.
For a true complete-ist, EMI's Complete Mahler Edition gives us an interesting mix of different conductors, orchestras and vocalists. It's even more complete than Boulez in that it includes the early songs of Mahler, as well as a complete M10 in the Cooke version (Rattle/BPO). However, I feel that the Boulez box is more consistent in terms of sound quality, and a bit more consistent in the performances of the symphonies themselves. Others may feel differently, and I wish to make it clear that I very much like EMI's all encompassing box. At the very least, DG and Boulez's, 'modern box for modern times' approach should receive serious consideration. Merry Christmas indeed.