Updates on Boulez’s Mahler and Salonen’s Orango

Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

Here are some follow-ups to previous posts that you may or may not have seen in this blog:

Pierre Boulez’s Mahler cycle was completed last year with the release of the video of Des Knaben Wunderhorn and the Adagio from the Symphony No. 10 – or was it?  Now we have an addenda of sorts, not part of the official cycle but still a something’s extra, a live performance of Das Klagende Lied from the opening concert of last year’s Salzburg Festival (C Major DVD or Blu-ray).  Boulez had recorded Klagende way back in 1969-70 with the LSO for CBS,  but did not record it for his current cycle.  So should Mahlerians and Boulezians shout Hallelujah? Not so fast, for you have to break the seal of the package and open it up to find out that for some unexplained reason, Boulez didn’t perform the whole piece – only the second and third movements. This is doubly strange because it was Boulez who made the first recording of the huge opening movement “Waldmarchen” shortly after it was rediscovered, thus launching a new performance tradition. Now the scholars can argue that the “Waldmarchen” which Boulez restored was from a discarded early draft that doesn’t quite match up with the final two movements in the published revised version.  But “Waldmarchen” is an essential part of the piece; it sets up the whole plot of Mahler’s astonishingly mature cantata (completed at age 20) and contains much inspired music that one wouldn’t want to lose. It’s like restoring a beautiful, long-neglected entry wing to a fine old building, and then tearing it down.

What we’re left with, though, is worth savoring – Boulez at 86 leading with an even barer minimum of hand gestures than ever, and no less effective for it; the Vienna Philharmonic caressing the lilting phrases as only the Viennese can; a fine trio of vocal soloists (Anna Larsson, Johan Botha, Dorothea Röschmann); a crystal-clear offstage band.  Boulez’s pace is quicker than it was some four decades before, now more in line with the two-movement competition (his CBS set was the slowest one of all), but it never feels rushed. The preliminary programming is pure didactic Boulez – Berg’s Lulu Suite, with a very impressive young soprano soloist Anna Prohaska (granddaughter of conductor Felix Prohaska of Vanguard Records fame), and Röschmann singing Berg’s Der Wein.   No extras other than some short trailers – just the concert, which sounds warm, full and gorgeous in Blu-ray. Get it if you’re collecting Boulez’s Mahler; just be aware of what’s missing and enjoy the rest.

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The Esa-Pekka Salonen/Los Angeles Philharmonic world premiere recording of Shostakovich’s prologue to the unfinished 1932 opera Orango is now out on Deutsche Grammophon – thankfully coupled with the Symphony No. 4 on a pair of CDs, now an almost-forgotten medium for the Philharmonic. Free of the sensory overload of Peter Sellars’s staging and accompanying video of present-day politics, the curious Shostakovich fan can at last concentrate upon the wonderfully madcap score, as cunningly orchestrated by Gerald McBurney from a 13-page piano sketch. The text is uproariously sarcastic and at times self-referential; it might have gone over in the avant-garde 1920s in the Soviet Union but clearly it would have been suicidal to present this in Stalin’s Russia. I still find that Salonen’s performance of the Symphony No. 4, though a fine one, just misses the point of total ignition; for that, go for the mocking grotesqueries of Rozhdestvensky, the stark power of Ormandy, the personal commitment of Rostropovich, or Gergiev’s confrontational fervor.  The sonics are excellent; this is the best-sounding CD to emerge from Disney Hall so far – and that should be an incentive, one would hope, to produce more and not confine this orchestra totally to downloads.