Mahler: Symphony No. 2

WORKS: Symphony No. 2
PERFORMER: Christine Schäfer (soprano), Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano); Wiener Singverein; Vienna PO/Pierre Boulez
Back in 1996, Boulez recorded Todtenfeier, the symphonic poem which eventually became the Second Symphony’s first movement. It seemed unlikely then that he would espouse in the round the full-blooded theatricality of Mahler’s most histrionic symphony; but now, for the sake of a Mahler cycle which nears its completion, he has. After the surprising hard hits of his Vienna Third and Sixth, a lack of primordial fire here was by no means a foregone conclusion. But so it proves at the beginning: for Boulez a string tremolo is just a tremolo, not a seismic promise of earthquakes to come; and these funeral rites file past with measured tread.


Impressive throughout the first four movements are the many passages of extreme refinement: above all the ever more distant perspectives as the march retreats; or the extraordinarily subtle harp work at the end of a minuet which benefits, as it always does, from true Vienna style (and above all the sweet Viennese glissando). Following Michelle DeYoung’s reliable, not especially word-sensitive ‘Urlicht’ – how swiftly this promising voice has worn – there are unexpected revelations. Every shift of orchestral colour, as Mahler assembles the component parts of his judgment-day canvas, registers in cleanly-recorded focus; the early glimpses of a better world are surprisingly broad. Yet although the chorus enters with suitably other-worldly gravitas, and Christine Schäfer floats seraphically above, Boulez misses the mark in each of the final great blazes.

So it’s back to Bernstein, as usual, to know what this young man’s music can truly become in the hands of another instinctive dramatist.


David Nice