Pierre Boulez / Wiener Philharmoniker

Mahler: Symphonie No. 2

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Arguably the finest orchestra in the world, the Vienna Philharmonic has recorded Mahler's monumental "Resurrection" Symphony with a host of different conductors. They include the Italian Claudio Abbado, the American Lorin Maazel, tycoon-turned-conductor (and "Resurrection" specialist) Gilbert Kaplan, as well as Leonard Bernstein, who played a significant role in the resurgence of Mahler's music. Finally, there were Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter, two conductors from the golden age who both knew Mahler personally.

None of those interpreters, though, have made the Vienna Philharmonic sound as good in Mahler's "Resurrection" as Pierre Boulez. At the tender age of 81, the French conductor, composer, and intellectual produced one of the most impressive and outstanding versions of this work available on disc.

The despairing, funereal first movement is gripping from start to finish. As one might expect, Boulez keeps a tight handle on the proceedings, only to let go when Mahler's music becomes dreamy and soars into heavenly, far, and distant keys. Somewhat unexpected from Boulez, though, are his emotionally riveting scenes painted throughout much of the opening movement's stormy procession. The following Andante lilts along nicely, a brief reprieve from the deep turmoil that envelops much of the rest of the work. Boulez and the Vienna Philharmonic perform the delicate rhythmic intricacies of both the Andante and the tumultuous Scherzo that follow with great deliciousness: never overdone (à la Rattle) nor undercooked (Ozawa). Even so, each movement retains its own character, especially the Scherzo, in which the horns and percussion section both exhibit outstanding technical and musical mastery throughout the dark and foreboding material. The Urlicht is brought to life with the help of Michelle DeYoung's colorful voice: her melancholic performance blends sublimely with the dark hues of the clarinets and English horn that are so prominent throughout Mahler's masterpiece. The half-an-hour long fifth and final movement combines stellar clarity, balance, and sound together with an acute depiction of the wide-ranging emotions that Mahler unleashes. Soprano Christine Schäfer delivers a performance that embodies the spirit of Mahler's theme -- as do the added forces of the Wiener Singverein. From the depths of darkness to the heights of spiritual attainment, it's all here. And, though unclear on many discs, the difficult offstage band work is extremely convincing and secure. The quality, resonance, and range of Deutsche Grammophon's sound are far above excellent.

As a final note, one feels compelled to mention that Boulez has always had his share of detractors, who label his performances as "cold" and "heartless." Indeed, his sometimes publicly reserved, indifferent, and even at times scornful personality has helped substantiate those charges. This does not necessarily translate, though, into a performance with the same characteristics, as this recording proves. Listen with a set of fresh ears in order to hear the power, achievement, transcendence, and yes -- even soul in this performance.

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