Detailed and technocratic, Boulez’s Mahler lacks a fine madness

Fri Oct 15, 2010 at 3:40 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

A control-room view of Pierre Boulez leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 Thursday night at Symphony Center. The program was videotaped for “Great Performances.” Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

A Cherubini mass and commissioned world premiere were to be the showpiece items for this week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts in a performance that was slated for television broadcast, showing to the rest of the world the celebrated new partnership of Riccardo Muti and the CSO.

The taping is going on as scheduled this week, but the conductor and program are entirely different, due to Muti’s sudden attack of extreme exhaustion, apparently brought on by an overbooked opening month. So, while the national audience will see the CSO, it will have to wait to see its new maestro in action leading the musicians.

Pierre Boulez is graciously filling in, taking another week off from is supposed to be his sabbatical season—his other CSO dates apart. The fascinating program Muti assembled—a Cherubini mass, Hindemith’s Symphony in E flat and the premiere of Bernard Rands’ Danza Petrificada—was replaced by Mahler’s Symphony No. 7.

Deryck Cooke famously dubbed the Seventh, Mahler’s “mad, mad symphony” and it’s hard to disagree. The sprawling canvas of five movements, two delicately scored Nachtmusiks and a finale that can be charitably described as ramshackle make it Mahler’s most problematic symphony and one of the most challenging to pull off successfully.

Boulez has conducted many of the Mahler symphonies in Chicago, though, oddly, he has recorded the entire cycle with top orchestras elsewhere.

As illuminating and clarifying as Boulez’s objectivist approach can be in music of Bartok, Debussy and Stravinsky, his Mahler remains controversial. There is something in the French conductor’s noninterventionist style that is at odds with Mahler’s world of dark emotion, satiric waltzes, bitter humor and sudden heart-stopping radiant lyricism.

Rarely will one hear the garrulous Seventh presented with such scrupulous textural clarity, acute balances, and well-honed sheen. Yet for all that, Boulez’s technocratic Mahler lacks a fine (and essential) madness. Thursday night’s concert proved a bloodless traversal, that often felt more like a carbon-dated examination of the score than an actual live performance.

President George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy was once described as one of “extreme moderation,” and the term applies here.

Boulez’s ironed-out tempos actually paid the most dividends in the problematic final movement, which had more cohesion than usual though the stately tempos made it seem twice as long. Yet elsewhere the conductor’s literal approach seemed foreign to Mahler’s highly subjective music. Surely the central Scherzo should have more unhinged menace than the unruffled jauntiness heard here.

The orchestra played mostly gloriously, with the stellar principal winds adding a warm and humanizing expression to Boulez’s cool approach. While there were only a few outright bloopers from the principal horn, the grainy, tremulous tone and shaky high wire-act continues, which is especially unfortunate on a program to be broadcast to an international audience. It’s long past time that this situation should have been rectified, particularly now with the maladroit playing of the first chair starting to affect the musicianship in the rest of the section.

No complaints were to be had with the opener, Anton Webern’s Passacaglia. In this virtual non-rainbow bridge from Mahlerian Late Romanticism to the Second Viennese school, Boulez’s finely detailed dynamics and luminous textures were heard to fine effect in a first-class performance.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. 312-294-3000; The program will be broadcast on Great Performances 8 p.m. Oct. 27 on WTTW11 with a simulcast on WFMT.

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