The six movements that make up Mahler's Third Symphony positively invite expansiveness. In his original scheme for the work, sketched in the summer of 1895, there was also to be a seventh movement, a setting of a text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn that eventually emerged as the finale of the much more economically proportioned Symphony No 4. But the sequence that he finally settled upon for the Third is massive enough, with an opening movement that lasts more than half an hour, and a slow finale that takes a good 20 minutes under even the most brisk of conductors.
It is fascinating to compare the timings on Pierre Boulez's new studio performance with those on what is arguably the finest of all versions of Mahler's Third on disc, the live performance with the Berlin Philharmonic that Claudio Abbado conducted at London's Festival Hall four years ago: they are almost identical, with Boulez marginally the slower in every movement.
Earlier in his conducting career Boulez would have tended to hustle this music, never giving it a chance to settle or its melodies to stretch out to their natural amplitude. Now he gives everything full weight, without ever losing the precision and detail that are his trademarks. If he does not possess the natural instinct for Mahler that makes Abbado incomparable in this repertoire, Boulez's is still a fascinating reading, which predictably never wears its heart on its sleeve even in the luscious melodic unfolding of the finale, but instead has an intense seriousness imprinted on every bar.
There is a fierce drama, especially in the first movement, and unfailingly exquisite orchestral playing by the Vienna Philharmonic. Anne Sofie von Otter's slight detachment in her contributions to the fourth and fifth movements suits this approach perfectly.
Taken from concerts in San Francisco last September, Michael Tilson Thomas's second recording of Mahler's Third may be more purposeful than its rather mimsy predecessor (made with the LSO for Sony) but still leaves a bit to be desired.
The San Francisco Symphony plays superbly for him, but Tilson Thomas prefers to present the suave surface of the music rather than digging deeper into what is a far more complex work than he ever suggests. What other conductors find savagely ironic in the first movement, for example, he projects as merely jaunty. And as the vast structure unfolds, his approach seems increasingly laboured and two-dimensional, culminating in an account of the finale that is too drawn out to sustain its intensity.
It is paired with a performance of Kindertotenlieder that is equally underpowered emotionally. Tilson Thomas colours the orchestral accompaniments to the song cycle strikingly, and mezzo Michelle DeYoung's delivery is beautiful, but these settings should be powered by an anguish and sense of loss that she never remotely suggests.