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THE GREATNESS OF BOULEZ'S MAHLER
on 6 February 2003
Since the mid 1990's, Pierre Boulez has been recording Mahler symphonies with the pick of the world's orchestras. Boulez performances typify a pared-down, purified form of interpretation in which you can hear most clearly what pretty much everyone in the orchestra are doing. Riccardo Chailly's style is somewhat similar, and Claudio Abbado, among others, has also gone this way, to great effect and acclaim. But Boulez is probably the most extreme exponent of this style. If you are used to a more typical turn of the century interpretation, such as Leonard Bernstein produced, you will probably find Boulez rather cold. But the music is there, along with the warmth, and I would recommend persistence. For me, enjoying Boulez has been like learning a new language: at first, nothing works or makes sense, but eventually everything gels, and the effect is amazing. When everything gels for you in a Boulez interpretation, the music really does sound superb, special and somehow very right.
Of course, conductors who were friends of Mahler, such as Willem Mengelberg and Bruno Walter, did not produce Boulez-style performances. So at first sight Boulez must be condemned as not being true to the composer. But to me, that is not the way of good music. If you can get more music, something special from the score, then to me that is how music should be. Boulez does that, and whether Mahler would be happy we can argue about forever. But I suspect Mahler, a great pioneer himself, would at the very least have found it interesting, if not invigorating.
In the 7th symphony Boulez directs the fabulous Cleveland Orchestra, who are more than up to the very high standards required by the piece. This is a great interpretation, which grows on me with each listening: for me there is so much sparkling,original, deeply affecting,memorable music here. And Boulez's penchant for clarity and precision brings out all those wonderful details particularly well. The superb recording methods of DG also helps to produce an especially beautiful, crystal-clear sound.
Tha composer himself described his 7th symphony as his best work, according to the German section of the accompanying insert. On the evidence of this disc I would certainly not disagree, even if it takes a fair few listenings, and a while to adjust to the unusual ideas of Pierre Boulez.