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 Recording of the Week  Mahler and Berg from Boulez

One of Gustav Mahler’s lesser-known works is undoubtedly his cantata, Das klagende Lied (The Plaintive Song). Completed when he was just twenty years old, it is based on a fairy tale in which a minstrel discovers a bone in the forest, and fashions it into a flute. When he plays it, however, he hears not music but the voice of a young man who was slain by his jealous brother as they both attempted to win the queen’s hand in marriage. The minstrel takes the flute to the queen on the day of her wedding to the murderous brother, and plays it again in order to recount the story to her. Shocked, she faints, the celebrations descend into chaos, and her castle collapses.

Pierre Boulez
Pierre Boulez

Originally in three movements and lasting just over an hour, the piece was significantly revised by Mahler almost twenty years later, in which he cut out the entire half-hour first movement. It is this two-movement version that we hear in a fantastic new live recording from the Salzburg Festival, with Pierre Boulez conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.

What I always like about Boulez’s recordings of Mahler is his attention to balance and texture, and this is certainly true here, with all the small details and colours impressively brought out. One of the piece’s more remarkable passages is the opening of the final part, depicting the celebrations of the wedding guests. Here, Mahler employs an off-stage wind band, far in the distance yet playing fortissimo. The contrast with the on-stage orchestra is quite striking, and shows how, even in his earlier years, Mahler was experimenting with new aural possibilities. As he himself remarked, “I use two orchestras, one of them in the distance outside the hall. I knew no one would ever do that!”. Boulez judges the distancing just right: after an extended passage involving solely the off-stage band, I got quite a shock when the on-stage orchestra suddenly came back in!

The singing from both chorus and soloists is really thrilling, too: the choir clearly revels in the variety of moods that Mahler’s writing offers, alternating between the lusty, boisterous wedding music and the eerie, hushed moments that occur after the dead brother has recounted his tale. It’s a weird and wonderful work, and with such an excitingly dramatic recording as this one, it’s definitely worth exploring.

Also on the disc is an absolutely riveting account of the Lulu-Suite by Mahler’s quasi-protégé, Alban Berg. This five-movement work for soprano and orchestra from 1934 was compiled from sections of his unfinished opera. Although this grisly tale of murder, suicide, and prostitution may not be to everyone's taste, there is much bewitching music here, and in this kind of repertoire there is nobody to touch Boulez. Every moment of this recording is exceptional, whether it be the anguish-ridden strings at the very opening of the piece, the terrifyingly mechanical piano writing at the end of the second movement, the woodwind section imitating the sound of a hurdy-gurdy in the fourth movement, or the devastating brass outbursts in the final moments of the piece as Lulu is murdered.

The suite includes two sections for solo soprano, principally the central movement, entitled Lied der Lulu, which, with its use of vibraphone, alto saxophone and muted horns, is genuinely unsettling. Anna Prohaska is a simply magnificent soloist both here and at the conclusion of the piece, where she assumes the role of the Countess Geschwitz, mourning the loss of Lulu and declaring her eternal love for her. As you can probably tell, I’ve really been knocked out by this recording of the Berg, and coupled with the Mahler it makes for an outstanding disc!

Pierre Boulez conducts Mahler & Berg

Anna Prohaska (soprano), Dorothea Röschmann (soprano), Anna Larsson (contralto), Johan Botha (tenor), Wiener Philharmoniker, Pierre Boulez

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC