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Reviews: Mahler: Symphony No. 3 - Boulez

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Reviews: 4

Site review by akiralx March 7, 2006
Performance:   Sonics:  
With a 6 movement work lasting an hour and a half it's difficult to talk of a 'best version' - it would be difficult for one interpretation of such a massive work to satisfy all listeners. But after surveying many versions of this, my favourite Mahler symphony, my conclusion is that Boulez's is the best recommendation for this work, superior to, for example, recent accounts like Abbado II, Nagano, Salonen, MTT, Chailly and Zander (the last three on SACD).

The main reason is the perfect symbiosis of the accurate reading of the score played with great accuracy by the VPO (but with no trace of cerebral coldness, a charge often levelled at Boulez), coupled with idiomatic Mahlerian warmth and rubato. And the great Vienna horn playing is the icing on the cake.

The lynchpin of all this is Boulez's ideal tempi choices: it's difficult to avoid the massive opening movement sounding episodic (partly because it is), but with the principal trombone's ideally-paced solo anchoring the whole thing, this has all the character and sweep needed. Boulez also manages to nail my favourite passage from this movement, the 'Nature Marches In' section superbly, combining ebullience with a hint of militaristic precision - and the orchestra respond exuberantly.

The second movement minuet is opened beautifully by the VPO, avoiding the slightly harassed phrasing of Litton's Dallas version (CD only) - though Boulez can't equal Litton's superb handing of the scherzo, which is perhaps the best on record.

However both manage to handle the long solo posthorn contribution very well, Boulez's played directly, Litton's rather more freely (in an acoustic chamber for a lovely 'lontano' effect) - though not so liberally as Tilson Thomas in his fine San Francisco version, where the solos tend to stretch out towards interminablility. This is perhaps the only really flawed section in MTT's reading, though a few other 'Lenny-isms' slip in as well, usually involving large ritards at climactic moments. Here Zander on Telarc is at fault as well, as his posthorn is inaudible rather than interminable.

Most recordings do the vocal movements well, though Boulez is one of the better ones in this regard - but the finale of the work is where he really scores. Of the shorter (i.e. around 22min) readings, this is perhaps the best, with exquisite string playing thoughout. Of the slower interpretations I would rate Litton above MTT, not least for the wonderful sense of restraint at the opening and the sustained piano string playing.

Sonically in stereo this is excellent if not quite state-of-the-art, like the Litton it seems to be 'cut' at a slightly lower level than normal. But tweak the volume up a notch and it snaps into focus immediately. The sense of presence from the brass especially is tangible, and the sonic picture has great depth. The highlight though is the razor-sharp detail which transcends other recent versions - Chailly's rather thick sound is surpassed in this regard.

In multi-channel this PCM recording has been criticised for sounding too diffuse, though I can't comment as I'm listening in stereo only at the moment via Stax earspeakers.

Review by peteyspambucket July 21, 2003 (5 of 8 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
A very boring performance of one of the most beautiful symphonies ever.

The first movement should be boisterous and gargantuan. This reading is way too uninflected and underemphasized. Mahler's scores have notations that say "FFF" and what we get on this performance is "F". In the more savage parts of the first movement the score calls for the percussionists to strike as hard as they can, but it's just not here. The music in this symphony demands to be felt and emoted by the musicians. As with Boulez's other Mahler interpretations in this series, he's missing the overall lyricism and feeling of a lot of the music. In some places, it's like Boulez feels he's doing justice to the composer by sticking to a metronome for whole stretches, without allowing any portamenti, even though they are marked. You'll understand how undernourished I felt after the Boulez if you know Levine's or Bernstein's or Maazel's interpretations.

The inner movements do exhibit some very playful solo playing from the winds. Overall, the music is well played and quite idiomatic, however, the balance and tempi are the main complaints I have about the performance.

The last movement is so bad, and lacking warmth. Ideally, it should evoke being in love or something deep and fulfilling, but on this SACD, it's just empty. The main theme of the last mvmt sounds like it's just repeated every time, instead of there being a sense that the theme evolves throughout the movement.

Sonically, the orchestra seems to have no focus. The sound seems to shift in perspective a lot, and there's very little variation in dynamics (but I think that's an interpretive flaw, rather than a technical flaw). The lower to mid range sounds ok, but the higher ranged instruments sound shrill and metallic -- lacking warmth. The very low frequencies aren't really there, and therefore you don't get a very lush sound from this recording.

Since I love this symphony very much, having been to many live performances and having studied the score, and having bought/heard many recordings of it, my experience tells me this is a performance to avoid. I felt empty after hearing this SACD, and I'll be getting rid of my copy soon.

It's so frustrating that DG has decided to release Boulez's Mahler cycle on SACD. I just know that the rest of the symphonies are going to be terrible (and I've already heard some of the others on regular CDs, and I have nothing positive to say about them).

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Review by beardawgs November 30, 2003 (3 of 6 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
This is a tough one: Boulez is frankly a pretty crap composer who became (in)famous for his statement quite a while ago that all opera houses should be burned. Then, accordingly, he gave us the worse Wagner performances on record and in living memory. But, at the same time, with his Ensemble InterContemporain he produced some of the most insightful readings of modern music. He embarked DG as a Mahler Ďspecialistí and for years now Iíve been going hot and cold about his conducting. The cold and calculated approach I kinda liked in his recording of Mahlerís 6th doesnít necessarily works with this symphony, but having said that, this utterly impersonal performance is a great joy to listen to.

I wonder how would I react to this recording if somebody played it to me without telling me who is conducting. We were eying up this disc for long time, then got it for a fraction of the regular price, and we love von Otter, so itís sitting now right next to MTTís SFSO much admired recording of the same work. Basically, I donít have much respect for someone who changes his artistic beliefs as often as Boulez does, and I remember the shock when I saw his first Mahler recording out on DG. Sorry for such a long introduction, but I think I feel the need to justify (to myself first and foremost) the fact that I actually enjoyed this disc.

What we have here is clean, almost clinical and cerebral reading of such a complex work about life, universe and the rest. But at the same time, a rather enjoyable one. As if Boulez it trying (and succeeding) to show us that Mahlerís music doesnít need any Ďinterpretationí, just stick to the score, play exactly whatís in it and donít mess about. It is stunningly precise reading, utterly unexciting but accurate. And it works! Maybe we are all victims of over-blown over-romantic and over-emotional interpretations of Mahlerís music, and Boulez is stripping down all preconceptions we probably all have about the composerís life and work. As much as Iím trying, I canít find a single note that annoys or excites me here. But, even if clinical, this performance is not cold Ė itís just bare Mahler. And what a composer he is. What he left on the paper is more than enough to keep you glued to your seat and listen over and over again. Boulez is a mere servant to a much greater manís work, giving no more (or more importantly less) then the score provided.

Comparisons with Kaplanís recording of Mahlerís second with the same orchestra are inevitable, where Kaplanís main quality is child-like excitement of voyage and discovery, Boulez presents himself as an old wise man in a complete control of his emotions and mind. And the Vienna Phil responds accordingly. Solo or tutti, quiet or loud, soft or rough it all sounds as a great ensemble work, with nothing sticking out of the whole. Kaplan has better recording (this one is made in 48kHz/24 bit), with much more exiting surround sound. But then, every single element of this recording is here to serve the purpose of paying a tribute to one of the greatest composers and definitely the most meaningful symphony ever written.

Not sure how to rate it Ė marks for analytical are off the scale. Even if there is no conductor-induced excitement, Mahler provided it in abundance. Is it a safe choice? Not sure. But as a second or a fifth performance on the shelf, youíll be coming back to it more that you would expect.

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Review by Dr. O August 16, 2005 (3 of 6 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
I have NOT given this CD this highest Performance Rating (even though it DID receive the 2004 Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance) due mostly to the conducting.

If you love great orchestral playing, then you will probably enjoy this recording. The orchestra IS spectacular! However, I wonder if Boulez is the "right" conductor to convincingly pull off this music by one history's great Romantics. Consider for example his recording of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra; here we have a superlative recording, because the temperament of Boulez is that of the 20th century. And, at least for me, when evaluating "performance," we must also take into consideration that of the conductor as well as of the orchestra.

The Sonics are okay, but not as clean and clear as the MTT recordings.

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