This three-disc set may not include the strangest recordings Pierre Boulez made for Columbia -- his recordings of Handel's Water Music and de Falla's Three-Cornered Hat take that prize -- but it does include repertoire not usually associated with the conductor: the original three-movement version of Mahler's youthful Das klagende Lied and Wagner's exceedingly rare The Love-Feast of the Apostles. The performances aren't entirely satisfactory. They are not poorly played -- the London Symphony and the New York Philharmonic are never less than spot-on -- and the singers, from soprano Elisabeth Söderström to bass Gerd Nienstedt, are first-class. The performances are anything but poorly conducted; although they were recorded when he was a relative newcomer to the podium, Boulez was clearly a master of the baton, and one can hear everything in the scores.
These performances, though, are hardly characteristic of their composers. Boulez's Mahler sounds more like a composer of Romantic operas than a composer of post-Romantic symphonies. This dramatic approach is more appropriate in the youthful Das klagende Lied than it is in the mature Rückert Lieder, but neither piece sounds like it was composed by Mahler. Boulez's Wagner sounds not like Wagner, but like an anonymous and much lesser composer. Part of the reason is that much of the Wagner Boulez has programmed is in fact atypical of the composer. The Love-Feast sounds like minor Bruckner, while A Faust Overture sounds like minor Schumann. The better known works are also problematic, though. The Meistersinger Prelude sounds thick and stuffy, the Tannhäuser Overture sounds heavy and turgid, and the Prelude and "Love-Death" from Tristan und Isolde sounds like it lasts forever. Boulez devotees may want to hear these performances, but they are unlikely to interest most listeners.