Das klagende Lied [1898/99 version] Berg
Dorothea Röschmann (soprano), Anna Larsson (contralto) & Johan Botha (tenor) Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor [Mahler]
Anna Prohaska (soprano) [Berg]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded July 2011 in Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg, Austria
CD No: DG 477 9891 Duration: 65 minutes Reviewed: April 2013
Pierre Boulez conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in Berg and Mahler at the 2011 Salzburg Festival [Deutsche Grammophon]
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
Pierre Boulez returns to Mahler’s revision of Das klagende Lied, which means that the original and lengthy opening section, ‘Waldmärchen’ (Forest Legend), is excluded. Boulez has recorded this though, for CBS with the LSO, back in the days of LP when it was coupled with the first-movement Adagio of the unfinished Tenth Symphony (first and final Mahler). Boulez also recorded at this time the amended score but on a separate vinyl release.
Whether as first conceived or in the composer’s reconsideration, Das klagende Lied (The Plaintive Song) is a compelling piece of theatre, particularly in this purposeful, exquisite, vivid and exhilarating rendition, Boulez fully engaged with and even smitten by the work that, in its original form, Mahler acknowledged as his ‘opus one’ for which he wrote the text. The second and third parts that were left to form the new whole were also modified, and although remaining as ‘early’ Mahler the score is remarkably assured and distinctive. In more recent times some conductors have returned ‘Waldmärchen’ to its first-movement slot; however, Boulez retains his younger-self’s instincts and stays with Mahler’s re-think, leaving us with ‘Der Spielmann’ (The Minstrel) and ‘Hochzeitsstück’ (Wedding Piece), although these titles do not appear in DG’s presentation. In the work as initially envisaged Mahler the balladeer gives us a fable involving two knight-brothers, a rare flower, a queen, fratricide, a story-telling flute carved from one of the dead sibling’s bones, and that titular minstrel.
From the suspenseful opening string tremolo, here with a carefully crafted diminuendo, typical of this performance’s refined care for dynamics and articulation, the Vienna Philharmonic plays with seasoned brilliance and total identification, and a dramatic journey is unfolded, wonderfully lucid as music (Boulez’s famed ear undimmed) and headily dramatic as narrative. The violins (unusually for Boulez, antiphonal, and to great effect) are particularly sweet and expressive, and the woodwinds paint many pictures. Boulez gives the young Mahler his head, relishing his individuality and imagination and leaving us in no doubt as to his mastery of the orchestra; some may be surprised as to how Boulez lets the music breathe and how sympathetically he ebbs and flows it, with no curtailing of Mahler’s exuberance and excesses; indeed Boulez seems positively inspired to be returning to this music. He is blessed with three excellent soloists, Anna Larsson in particular, a deep and meaningful contralto, and a lusty chorus, one that can fold into a madrigal group at a moment’s notice. The recording is both natural and wonderfully lucid, as reflects Boulez’s concern for clarity and good balance, and the off-stage band is ideally distanced.
No matter how complex, Boulez’s attention to the smallest of details ensures that everything is cleanly sounded and makes sense in the pieces that Alban Berg fashioned into a concert-hall Suite as a trailer for his forthcoming Wedekind-inspired opera of Lulu. Berg would not get the chance to finish the score, the opera being posthumously premiered in 1937 in its unfinished state, and then waiting four decades until Friedrich Cerha was able to offer a completion, and there is now one by Eberhard Kloke. The music of Berg is as second-nature to the Vienna Philharmonic as is that by Bruckner, Mozart and Schubert. With a conductor as fastidious as Boulez, who has X-rayed Berg’s scrupulous, even obsessive notation, the results are thrilling and moving, from sleazy (a superb saxophone contribution) to ecstatic release, from melodiously sensitive (those strings again) to gruesome, the murder of Lulu by Jack the Ripper when Berg unleashes terrifying dissonances, unflinching here from the brass yet without masking other detail. At the heart of the Suite (such a demeaning word in relation to the greatness and symphonic scope of the music) is ‘Lulu’s Song’, intensely and fearlessly taken by Anna Prohaska, and she returns as Countess Geschwitz to mourn for her lover. This is marvellous music-making captured with fidelity by the recording; the gaps between movements are minimal, presumably deliberately. DG’s booklet includes texts and translations, and the performances, said to be from the opening concert of the 2011 Salzburg Festival (but is that not traditionally always a performance of Haydn’s The Creation?), give us Boulez at his best.