Even those who experienced the entirety of András Schiff's two-year eight-concert cycle of the complete piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven would probably be impressed with the current project at Carnegie Hall. The orchestra of the Staatskapelle Berlin is presenting a traversal of the complete symphonies of Gustav Mahler, supplemented, where appropriate, with that composer's orchestral song settings. However, while Schiff's Beethoven cycle was a single-handed (probably not the best figure of speech) effort, conducting duties for this Mahler cycle are being shared by Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez. As might be assumed, this project is keeping New York Times music critic James Oestreich rather busy, but his accounts are turning out to be a valuable mix of reporting and reflecting.
Most interesting to me thus far has been his background on Boulez' approach to the sixth of Mahler's symphonies:
Mr. Boulez has long made a specialty of the work, evidently drawn not only to the formal clarity of the first three movements but also to the challenge of bringing a like lucidity to the huge and unwieldy finale.
In a recent interview he discussed that finale at some length, calling it a crucial turning point in an evolution of Mahler’s language, leading toward the sound world of the Second Viennese School. The trick in performing it, he said, is to sort out the climaxes from the lesser peaks, so that the real ones stand out.
I once participated in a seminar in which one of my contributions was an examination of a famous paper that György Ligeti had written for Die Reihe about Boulez. The subtitle of the paper was "Decision and Automatism in Structure Ia." This composition was essentially a reductio ad absurdum of the use of serial techniques to select all of the elements of the music, not only the most quantitative elements of pitch and duration, but also more qualitative matters, such as dynamics and timbre. Ligeti's paper basically revealed the algorithms behind Boulez' compositional process in such a way that he could account for every detail in the notated score.
It took roughly three-quarters of my allotted time to explicate this algorithmic process, after which I posed the question, "What does all this mean?" My point was that there was no reason to assume that a musical composition was little more than a logical proof; but, at least on the surface, it seems as if such a logical representation had been the goal of Boulez' approach. Rather than try to look even more closely at the score details, I backed off and hauled out an old Wergo recording of a performance of this work. It only took a few minutes to listen to the result of Boulez' algorithmic meat grinder; but, as Boulez himself might have said, "Vive la différence!" The performance turned out to produce the effect of a wave of energy, building up to almost overwhelming strength and then dissipating back to the silence of its origins. As Jonathan Biss said at his recent "concert and conversation" event here in San Francisco, the notes are just marks on paper; the music is in the performance.
If I am to accept Oestreich's account, then it is clear that Boulez has a deep appreciation of just where the music resides. Furthermore, it resides in the same place, whether the composition happens to be the height of his own abstractions or the polar opposite of the final movement of Mahler's sixth symphony. From a theoretical point of view, that "residence" is embodied in a "logic of climaxes" that accounts for how many of them there are, how they are deployed, and (perhaps most importantly) when they are deployed. This takes me back to my own efforts to confront the challenge of listening to performances of longer-duration (if not more opaque) Beethoven with the visual aid of a graphic display of energy levels. Such a display says nothing about melodies, harmonies, counterpoint, or even timbre; it ignores all of those elements that were "processed" by Boulez' algorithmic approach. What remains, however, is an abstraction of how the basic intensity of the sound itself in managed as time passes. That management restored the music, so to speak, to "Structure Ia;" and it rescued Mahler's symphony from having that "huge and unwieldy finale" that concerned Oestreich. Could it be that those who best understand where the music resides are also those like Boulez who understand and appreciate the abstract foundations in terms of both their capabilities and their limitations?