Mahler Symphony no. 3 Pierre Boulez Anne Sofie von OtterGustav Mahler – Symphonie No. 3

Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzosoprano
Frauenchor des Wiener Singvereins
Chorus Master: Johannes Prinz
Wiener Sängerknaben
Chorus Master: Gerald Wirth

Wiener Philharmoniker
Pierre Boulez, conductor

Deutsche Grammophon, 2003

Pierre Boulez’s studio recording of Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 in D minor is a strange combination of fine inspiration and unfavourable result because, if on the one hand the symphony is undoubtedly conducted with sensitivity and attention and it is not to question that Boulez is inspired by good ideas, on the other hand the outcome seems a refined exercise rather than a dazzling performance and, to borrow a simile from one of the themes of the symphony, it gives the impression to never have triumphed over the winter stillness that struggles with summer in the first movement.

I will immediately explain this statement. Boulez offers a painstaking and meticulous interpretation of Mahler’s symphony, transforming it in a masterpiece of precision and lucidity where he gives prominence to sounds never heard before, thanks also to the superb performance of the Wiener Philharmoniker. Nevertheless, it is exactly this accuracy that constitutes the major impediment to the expression of inspiration, especially in the first three movements. The fact is that Boulez seems overwhelmed by his own refinement and, although it is clear from the features that he has been so clever to emphasize that he has a thought in his mind, the message is irremediably lost.

As I said before, I had the impression that this is more usual in the first three movements and the conduction is definitely more effective in the solo and choral pieces and in the finale. That painstaking work that compromises other parts of the symphony allows here to enjoy the careful attention with which Boulez echoes the feelings expressed by excellent mezzosoprano Anne Sofie von Otter and the same can be said of the chorus and the finale, where the atmosphere is definitely more congenial to him, although here too the outcome is never enthralling.

For these reasons, Boulez’s conduction of Mahler’s Third Symphony is not completely satisfactory. Of course, this is a very high level performance, but it is too much refined, too much sophisticated where spontaneity might have helped. This is the reason why, after you finish listening to it, you may have the impression that something essential has remained unexpressed and that is has been sadly lost.

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