First, I should point out that the set does not include Urlicht (Primeval Light) and there are no duets, but, apart from that, I needn’t have worried: these are finely performed, idiomatic accounts. Certainly, Boulez doesn’t see quite as much humour in the piece as, say, Tennstedt (EMI) and is, predictably, more at home in the darker numbers. But his soloists are both excellent. I’ve never been a fan of Kožená but here she’s charming, without being arch, and displays amazing breath control in the seemingly interminable “yodeling” effects in Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?, which Boulez takes at a dangerously slow tempo. Gerhaher is superb throughout, his lighter baritone exuding plenty of swagger and braggadocio in the martial numbers without the hectoring quality which occasionally obtruded into Fischer-Dieskau’s versions.
The final song segues perfectly into the Adagio of the unfinished Tenth Symphony (an interview in the booklet reveals Boulez has no truck with the various “realisations” of the work) and here both conductor and orchestra are at their finest. This version represents both an apocalyptic vision and the anguished beauty, not only of Mahler’s oeuvre, but of all Romantic music in its exquisite death throes. The sound is so stunning it’s hard to believe these are live performances.