Boulez is nearing the completion of his Mahler cycle, and this Second displays all the features we have come to expect from earlier instalments: tremendous textural clarity, and a precision that some may find surgical, but that guarantees you will hear many things that went unnoticed before. Yet there is nothing academic or cool about the performance, and though in places it sounds surprisingly different from the (many) other versions I know, it is never deliberately revisionist. More often than not, what we hear is simply the result of faithfulness to the score. E.g., just before number 23 in the first movement, most recordings focus on the lovely line in the cor anglais; but it is the flute who has the main melody, marked "hervortretend", and Boulez gets the balance exactly right. Rhytmically, this version is as taut as any you will ever hear; in passages like the rush of demi-semiquavers before 44 in the Scherzo every note is articulated. Which is, of course, first and foremost a tribute to the magnificent VPO, possibly the best orchestra in the world. As in Boulez's impressive recording of the Third, the presence of trombone and tuba pedal notes is spectacular and lends a dark, raw edge to the music that is very appropriate. All through the symphony there are many moments of heartstopping beauty and delightful surprise; nonetheless, the overall impression is one of stern majesty (think Haitink) rather than romantic indulgence (think Bernstein).
Some listeners will no doubt take issue with the very brisk tempos of the second and third movements. I wasn't quite convinced that the Scherzo, especially, fits Mahler's description "ruhig fliessend" or follows up on his admonishment "nicht eilen". It is the same problem encountered in "Der Einsame im Herbst" from Boulez's otherwise thoroughly perfect "Das Lied von der Erde". Furthermore, though Michelle DeYoung's singing can hardly be faulted, I did not feel that her creamy voice with its strong vibrato was the right choice for "Urlicht", or for this particular recording. Petra Lang's performance for Chailly remains an unchallenged touchstone there.
The finale is marvellously executed almost throughout, combining a sense of purpose with sheer visceral impact, and culminating in the tremendous repetition of the opening measures just before the "Grosze Appel". The interchanges of the distant horns and trumpets, too, are done to a tee. After that, unfortunately, some of the momentum is lost. The chorus sing beautifully, but seem a bit lacking in bite, and are balanced just a tad too distantly. Then, at figure 48, the final peroration sounds somewhat clipped, and the organ is hardly audible. The final, orchestral bars, too, had me wishing for a more present organ, more assertive bells, and simply more decibels. In the end, this symphony is one giant crescendo that culminates here, and having heard the blazes unleashed by say, Bernstein (DG) or Kaplan (IMP), I find Boulez does not quite deliver the goods. Though that is disappointing, overall this is a highly distinguished performance by a formidable orchestra, full of revealing insights, and spectacularly recorded. No true Mahler fan should miss it.