Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Vienna Philharmonic, Pierre Boulez, March 1996. DG 453 416-2 (1997) and reissues

Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Vienna Philharmonic, Pierre Boulez. DG 453 416-2 (1997) barcode 028945341620:



Recorded 25 & 26 March 1996 in the Musikvereinssaal, Vienna

Collected in DG 477 9528 (13 CDs) Pierre Boulez Mahler (2013) 028947795285:

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(SMH-CD) DG Japan UCCG-90455 (2014) 4988005826688:


Collected in DG 479 7090 (44 CDs, 1 DVD) Wiener Philharmoniker 175th Anniversary Edition (2017) 028947970903:

Photo No.2 of Wiener Philharmoniker 175th Anniversary Edition

Collected in DG 486 0915 (84 CDs, 4 BluRay Video) Boulez the Conductor Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon and Decca (2022) 0028948609154:

(for complete contents see Deutsche Grammophon’s online shop)

Boulez in  the process of civilization
14 January 2023

When I first heard Boulez’ recording some decades ago, I remember – and the notes I took at the time attest –that I was put off by certain idiosyncrasies of the interpretation: for instance, the very slow pace Boulez adopts in the fast, second section of the first movement (starting at 5:12), despite and against Mahler’s instruction “plötzlich schneller (suddenly faster) – Leidenschaftlich (passionate) – Wild” (no need for a translation) –  I had scribbled down:“curious conception of Mahler’s notation – placid”. Or again, in the second movement, the very pedestrian and “clumsy” gait he adopts at the “più mosso subito” (suddenly more animated) section starting at 7:44 (measure 288). Sure, Mahler adds “but still not as fast as at the beginning”, so there is a margin of interpretation here, but Boulez seems to consider that it means only “suddenly faster than the very slow pace of the previous section”, which doesn’t make the new section “fast”: at Boulez’ gait it is still, if not “slow”, certainly “deliberate” in tempo, and akin to Mahler’s mock-clumsy Ländler in other symphonies (to give “objective” comparisons here, Solti, in his “historical” 1970 recording on Decca, lauches in the passage at a tempo of 109 half-notes per minute. Boulez is at 85).

Returning to it now, I have a better historical perspective on the traditions of Mahler interpretation – and on the evolution of Boulez’ own, having heard all his available live performances of the Symphony made in 1968 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (when he gave the Symphony at the Proms – his first ever Mahler performance, documented on a Nuova Era CD, see my review) and 1970 (Proms/BBC in August, originally released on Hunt CD 718, and Cleveland in March from St. Laurent Studio YSL 0425 T – the link is to the listing on St-Laurent’s website), and that makes me more accepting of those very idiosyncrasies, which were not quirks of a day but abiding traits of Boulez’ interpretation of the 5th, already present in his live performances from almost thirty years before.

For instance, that very deliberate pace in the fast section of the first movement? In fact, it is the very tempo of Bruno Walter, in his pioneering 1947 recording for Columbia, and it’s been part of Boulez’ interpretation ever since his first 1968 Mahler (except, strangely, in Cleveland). Of course, with Walter, it came in the context of a significantly swifter opening march, which smacked of the military as much as of the funeral (section taken in 4:41, to Boulez’ 5:16), so that Walter almost established a feeling of “fast-slow” rather than Mahler’s apparent “slow-fast”. But in 1968 particularly, although Boulez took the opening section even more funerally than he would in 1996 (5:53), in a manner that would be emulated in the studio the year later in the famed recording by Sir John Barbirolli (5:50), the impression of the fast section was still excrutiatingly slow – and though most would probably be put off by it, it is one of the elements that make the 1968 performance very interesting and even endearing to my ears: we have so many “mainstream” versions, there is a place on my shelves for the eccentric. The value of the Walter-Boulez approach is that it makes this sectional movement more organic than the interpretations that highlight, in a more flashy manner, the contrasts of tempi (Scherchen in 1952 on Westminster, Karajan in 1973 on DG) and thus make the movement feel more disjointed and patchwork-like.

Although tempo is exactly the same in 1996 (new section, from the “plötzlich schneller” at score figure 7 to score figure 11 after the “Allmälich sich beruhingend / progressively calming down”, taken in 1:55, to 1:53 in 1968 – for reference, Walter takes it in 1:56), the effect with Vienna is not so excrutiatingly slow, because the orchestra and recording offer much more tonal beauty, refinement and discipline. The resulting impression is that, far from establishing a contrast with the burdened and despondent funeral march that opens the movement, the faster section only prolongs it. Also, in Vienna as in his live versions, Boulez is interesting for staging the dramatic contrast not through speed but through dynamics: his ff really erupts with great, agonizing power, maintaining (especially in Vienna) a feel of lyricism (however vehement and torn) rather than rage.

Not that everything has remained exactly the same, and what is also significant of the 1996 recording is that, from the onset of the first movement, taken at a more flowing and “normal” funeral marching gait than the despondent 1968, Boulez establishes a mood that is more plaintive than forceful, not a revolt against fate (as it could sound with Walter or Solti) but a meek acceptance of it. Contributing to the impression is the poignantly plaintive lyricism of the strings’ contrapuntal motive over the despondently tolling rhythm discreetly but effectively marked by the double bass pizzicatti, at Mahler’ “etwas gehaltener” indication starting at 1:07, and returning at 2:52 – which Boulez now takes at an, indeed, slightly held back marching pace, where he neglected the indication altogether in his previous live recordings.

Sonics are somewhat generalized, nothing near the glaring spotlighting of Solti’s 1970 recording (which will certainly be an advantage to those who find Solti’s recording unbearably over-exposed), outbursts tend to lack a touch of impact because brass are very much “into the orchestral texture”, and some details get lost, like: where is the small drum in the passage starting at 3:28 (measure 105): Mahler may indicate that it should be “gedämpft” (muffled), but it remains essential to highlight the implacably tolling funeral rhythm, burdened fatum bearing on the ghostly soldiers marching on.

When comes the third section (9:57), Boulez in 1970 (BBC and Cleveland live) invested the passage leading to the great crashing climax (adumbration of the 9th) with more passionate tension (he took the whole passage in 1:07). Now he keeps the proceedings reined in and somewhat pedestrian (taking it in 1:24), contributing  to an overall feeling that is more elegiac than truly passionate. But his great crashing climax at 11:20 has far more power and impact than in his live versions.

The second movement exhibits a remarkable consistency of approach, with Boulez again playing up the contrast between the opening fast-and-furious (“stormy, with the greatest vehemence” is Mahler’s indication there), and the ensuing slow reminiscence of the first movement march, although the effect with the Vienna sonics and silky strings (and slightly muffled and distant horns and timps) is less brutal and more lyrical than with the BBC in 1968, and also because Boulez now takes imperceptibly more time, at the cost of a slight loss of dramatic and forward-moving tension. One of the most idiosyncratic and disputable traits of his interpretation in 1968 was the very pedestrian gait he adopted when comes the “più mosso subito” section, lending the music the clumsy character of a Mahler Ländler; as mentioned above, it is still there in 1997 (at 7:44), although the effect is not as startling because of the slightly more relaxed pacing of the previous section, and the slightly more animated pacing Boulez now adopts in the new section (he takes it at a beat of 85 half-notes per minute, to his 80 in 1968 and in Cleveland in 1970; BBC 1970 was the most slumberous of all, at 76). It will continue to raise eyebrows, but if not entirely convincing it is at least a point of originality and… the mark of Boulez here. But it is really after that section, at the return of the first movement marching theme, on Mahler’s indication “ Etwas langsamer (ohne zu schleppen) / somewhat slower without dragging”, at 9:10, that Boulez, compared to his former self in 1968, lets the pacing somewhat slacken, going more for the lyrical  than for sustained tension, and building up to majestic and grandiose, never letting Mahler’s “pesante” be entirely erased by his “wuchtig” (powerful). It is telling that in 1968 Boulez reached that same “etwas langsamer” section in 9:09, within a second of Boulez in Vienna, but completed the movement in 13:47, to Vienna’s 14:51. No doubt many listeners will find it more “civilized” and palatable; it is also more “mainstream”, and I did like the London fury.

The same “process of civilization” is at play in the third movement, where Boulez is more expansive, less hectically high-strung than in 1968. Here again, you lose what you gain, although any impression of dragging is offset by the fine crispness of attack of every instrumental section (try the violins at 1:12 – measure 66). The sonics afford a great transparency of textures, letting you hear every strand of Mahler’s dense contrapuntal writing, but without the glaring over-exposure of Decca’s 1970 sonics for Solti. But there is a slight lack of sauciness in some instrumental phrasings (woodwinds at 0:46, measure 43 – the desired character is present upon the same motive’s return at 1:32, measure 84, now played by the brass). Contrary to some, Boulez doesn’t take Mahler’s indications not to press (“nicht eilen”) as instructions to slow down (1:05 measure 60, 1:58 measure 108): he simply does’t change his tempo – which leaves him nothing to do when comes Mahler indication “wieder fliessend – flowing again” – at 2:11 (Figure 5). He reaches the “etwas ruhiger” section in 2:31: compare with his 2:19 in 1968. For “objective” reference, Walter (1947) as well as Solti (1970) are there in 2:21, Bernstein in New York (1963) in 2:30 and Bernstein in Vienna (1986) in 2:40. The more laid-back approach lends great charm to that new “etwas ruhiger” section, where Boulez here is not just “somewhat” but significantly “calmer” (and the same emotive beauty is much in evidence also in the later “molto moderato” passage starting at 6:54, figure 11, belying the notion of Boulez as a purely “cerebral” and “cold” musician). On the other hand, after the return of Mahler’s “Tempo I”, Boulez’ “wild” at 4:03 is… very civilized and controlled, although the great climax to which the section leads to, at 5:24 (figure 10), isn’t short of crashing power; likewise, the progressive acceleration from the mock walz-theme at 10:14 (“a tempo molto moderato”) leading to the movement’s recapitulation at 11:28 is frenzied enough – not every version, after all, needs to be the scorching Solti. As the movement progresses to its end, comparatively to the most frenzied, Boulez may sound a bit tame, but taken on his own, he isn’t. The coda at 17:21 is superb, “sehr wild” indeed and getting even wilder.

Where Boulez’ approach has changed the most is in the famous Adagietto. To simplify, there are two possible approaches, understandings and interpretations of that movement: one is “Death in Venice”, a farewell to the world and a premonition of the 9th Symphony: slow, agonizing. Bernstein in 1963 was the first one to document that approach, taking the movement in 11 minutes. The other, illustrated by the two great contemporary champions and disciples of Mahler, Willem Mengelberg (1926, conveniently reissued in 2003 on Naxos Historical 8.110855, barcode 636943185520, in the transfer of Mark Obert-Thorn) and Bruno Walter, is more grounded in Mahler’s own declarations: a tender and passionate declaration of love to Alma Mahler, more flowing in tempo and flexible in its rubato (Mengelberg 7 minutes, Walter 7:42).

Remarkably, from his 1968-1970 performances to 1996, Boulez has evolved from Alma to Venice, and from 7:35 to 10:56 (when Abbado, from his first studio recording with the Chicago Symphony in 1980 to his last with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2004 on Euro Arts DVD 205 4079, went the other way around, from 11:53 to 8:33). He is elegiac throughout, his “fliessend” don’t flow very much, his observance of Mahler’s contrasts of tempo remains limited – but, needless to say, the Vienna Philharmonic strings are silk and the music remains beautiful. It can easily sustain both approaches.

In the Finale, although (fortunately) a far cry from Barbirolli’s soporiphic trudging, Boulez’ notion of an Allegro remains very “moderato”, robbing the movement of some of its “giocoso” and “frish” (lively) character, but this very taming (of the shrew?) will certainly be welcome to those listeners who find Solti unbearably high-strung. Although Boulez takes Mahler’s  “grazioso” as indications of character rather than instruction to relax his tempo (2:06 measure 100, 3:48 measure 191, again at 7:10 measure 373), later on in the movement he finds many spots where he can hold back yet more, even when Mahler indicates nothing (11:17 measure 581, where Boulez translates the calming of dynamics into a perceptible holding back of tempo, which Mahler indicates only a few bars later), or to remain at the same tempo (5:56, measure 307 – here Boulez imperceptibly holds back), or to return to the opening tempo (4:38, measure 233, and Boulez doesn’t; or again at 9:29, where the conductor appears to interpret Mahler’s indication “suddenly back to the beginning (tempo I) – Allegro commodo”, as an indication to hold back and go into a trudge rather than to accelerate from the previous “do not rush” indication), or to play flowingly (4:47, figure 9, and Boulez hardly does). None of this is unmusical and none would shock had Mahler written it. On the contrary some of that holding back enables Boulez to generate more tension in the ensuing build-up of tempo and dynamics, and as he moves to the movement’s climaxes (as in the section from  8:29 Figure 18 to 9:26 figure 21, or again 10:18 figure 23 to 11:17 measure 581, 13:21 figure 31 “progressively and constantly pressing” to the end), he is, as in the Scherzo, not lacking in power and excitement.

In the end, do I recommend Boulez’ version? Not if it’s the only version in one’s collection. Boulez’ idiosyncracies of approach mean that one would know the Symphony only through a somewhat distorted exposure. Not even if it were one of three in one’s collection: in that case, to have a “complete” view of the potentialities offered by the piece, one would need two “extremes” (like on the one hand, Solti with Chicago in 1970 on Decca and on the other pole, Bernstein’s 1986 remake in Vienna for DG, or possibly the even more radical version by the unexpected and overlooked Hans Swarowsky from 1971, released in 2000 by Berlin Classics), and a more “middle-of-the-road” version, which I can’t offer with certainty at this point among hundreds of possibilities, maybe Bernstein’s New York version in 1963, or Mackerras’ overlooked recording of 1990, or possibly Karajan‘s still superbe 1973 recording, although in some aspects it is not exactly “middle of the road” (see my review). But Boulez – not “despite”, but because of the idiosyncrasies – certainly has a place in a collection of ten. And the admirers of the art of conducting of Pierre Boulez won’t need my recommendation; but they should complete the late studio version with some of the earlier lives, BBC 1968 and Cleveland 1970.

Comments are welcome