Remembering Pierre Boulez | Mahler 5 and the Vienna Philharmonic

by Glenn on January 9, 2016

Pierre Boulez died this week at the age of 90. He was an extraordinarily gifted musician who had a long and successful career as both a composer and a conductor. One thing I didn’t know was that he followed Leonard Bernstein as conductor of the New York Philharmonic (see article here). That’s a remarkable juxtaposition.

I confess, I’m not a modernist with music, so I’m not that familiar with Mr. Boulez’ compositions. The twelve-tone thing is not my thing. I relate to him primarily through his Mahler recordings.

In his memory, the other night I listened to Pierre Boulez’ recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic.

The Vienna Philharmonic is, of course, incredible. Somehow they are solid and soft all at the same time. The strings play the opening funeral march so warmly. It’s just beautiful.

At the same time, it’s interesting to think about the influence of a conductor on an orchestra like the Vienna Philharmonic. You have to use a word like influence because being who they are, they never stop being who they are.

Their New Year’s Concerts are fascinating in this way. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard The Blue Danube, now, but there’s a case of it’s always the same and it’s never the same. Same delightful piece, but the mood changes; the tempos change; the transitions are made speedily and efficiently or drawn out; and I believe even the approach to the second beat of the waltz changes—it’s always off, in their wonderfully Viennese manner, but sometimes it’s more and less prominent. I believe these differences are the result of the various conductors who conduct that concert. The same orchestra evidences a different nuance.

A great conductor can come in and get a great orchestra to do great things. Bernstein’s recording of Mahler’s Fifth with the Vienna Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon (the CD recorded in 1987, not the DVD recording from the previous decade which has some sketchy moments, in particular that opening trumpet solo) is fire and fury. It’s one of my favorite Mahler 5 recordings.

If the Mahler 5 was a home, Bernstein’s would be all about evidence of life—the kids’ toys are everywhere, their artwork proudly displayed on the refrigerator and the walls. Someone’s practicing the piano in the other room. There’s a wonderful conversation in this one, and argument in another. There’s a lot going on. It’s exciting. Overwhelming.

Boulez’ reading of Mahler 5 in my mind isn’t so much better or worse, but it has a different aesthetic. You hear the work differently. His version of a home is tidier. Everything has a place and everything is in it’s place. The lines are clean. There is no mess. This is a home in order. It’s a matter of where you want to live.

The thing about Pierre Boulez is that he brings so much clarity to a Mahler performance. You hear details that in other recordings get buried. Sometimes that search for clarity can take away from the emotional impact. I remember Boulez’ recording of Mahler’s First with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for example, where the power needed at the end of the work is dialed back so that we can hear the detail in the strings. It’s impressive, but it feels a little anti-climactic. Here in this work, though, Boulez handles things masterfully.

Boulez’ Mahler 5 is a less emotional reading than Bernstein’s, but it is still effective. It seems one of the things conductors can do to help a Mahler symphony in performance is to bring out details and let the polyphony speak.

It’s interesting that both Bernstein and Boulez were composers. But they had a different approach to performing music. I wonder if we could say that Bernstein was “spirit of the law” and Boulez was “letter of the law.” At any rate, Boulez certainly respected Mahler’s score. (Hope I can say that and not mean that Bernstein was disrespectful. But Bernstein didn’t mind “helping” Mahler. There’s a famous bass drum “thwack” that is added at the end of Bernstein’s Mahler 1 recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, which is both effective and not indicated.)

Pierre Boulez’s gift to the recorded history of Mahler’s music is an ability to help us hear everything Mahler had on the page. To me, the acid test of a great Mahler recording is what you hear, which could mean it bowls you over with emotional impact or tells you things you’ve never heard before. With Pierre Boulez, it’s the latter. You get lots of detail. You hear lines that are often buried.

I’ve never seen Pierre Boulez in rehearsal. When I’ve seen him conduct, he is understated. His beat is clear but his demeanor is reserved. You might think that he is just letting the orchestra do its own thing if there wasn’t evidence on these recordings of a very careful hand bringing precision to the sprawling and potentially chaotic sound world that is a Mahler symphony.

R.I.P.