First Installment of the “Michael Gielen Edition” a Winner

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MICHAEL GIELEN EDITION 1 / BACH: Prelude and Fugue No. 4 in CT min, BWV 849 / Michael Gielen, piano. Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft: Fragment from Cantata BWV 50 (with Berlin Radio Chorus). MOZART: Symphony No. 35 in D, “Haffner”; Two Minuets with Inserted Contradances; March in D, K. 249; 3 German Dances, K. 605; Il Trionfo della donne, K. 607; Symphony No. 30 on D; 6 German Dances, K. 509; Overtures to Die Zauberflöte & Così fan Tutte (Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra); Thamos, King of Egypt (Edda Moser, soprano; Julia Hamari, contralto; Werner Hollweg, tenor; Barry McDaniel, baritone; Stuttgart Opera Chorus; SWR Stuttgart Vocal Ensemble & Orchestra); Symphony No. 36, “Linz.” HAYDN: Symphonies Nos. 95 (Saarbrücken Radio SO), 99, 104 “London”. BEETHOVEN: Coriolanus Overture; Leonore Overture No. 1 (Saarbrücken Radio SO); Leonore Overtures Nos. 2 & 3; “Triple Concerto” for Violin, Piano, Cello & Orchestra (Edith Peinemann, violin; Jörg Demus, piano; Antonio Janigro, cello; Saarbrücken Radio SO). SCHUBERT: Die Zauberharfe Overture; Rosamunde Ballet—Andantino (Saarbrücken Radio SO); Rosamunde—Entr’acte 3, Andantino. Symphony No. 10 (arr. Newbould); Andante; Quartet No. 14 in D minor, “Death and the Maiden” (arr. Gielen-Mahler); Offertorium, “Intende voci” (Thomas Moser, tenor; Slovak Philharmonic Chorus); Mass No. 5 in A-flat Major, D. 678 (Sibylla Rubens, soprano; Ingeborg Danz, contralto; Dominik Wortig, tenor; Rudolf Rosen, bass; SWR Stuttgart Vocal Ensemble) / All recordings with SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden und Freiburg, unless otherwise noted; Michael Gielen, conductor / SWR Music SWR19007CD [6 CDs: 430:32]

The great Austrian conductor Michael Gielen (b. 1927) spent most of his career in Europe, and mostly in Germany, with one major exception: from 1980 to 1986, he was music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, thus I was privileged to hear numerous concerts by him and come to appreciate his sober, clear-minded interpretations, lacking all fluff and sentimentality without sacrificing feeling. His very first concert, given on a Friday at noon, was Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, one of the least well-known of his works. I was fascinated, my ears riveted to what Gielen and the orchestra were doing, but the audience wasn’t staying with him. Afternoon classical concerts in Cincinnati, in those days especially, were heavily attended by the Little Old Lady Brigade and their Little Old Husbands, and at one point during the slow movement one of the Little Old Husbands—evidently bored to tears—suddenly blurted out, loudly, “It’s ten after one!”

Well, there was one guy who would never be a Michael Gielen fan…but, I soon found out, neither were many of the musicians in the orchestra. They hated him, in part because his readings of older classics were too severe for them and didn’t have enough gemüchtlich or “coziness” about them, and in part because he favored a dry sound in order to enhance clarity of inner voices. He also made them work hard to learn and perform a lot of modern music, and the specific CSO musicians of that period hated modern music. I’ll never forget one concert where he juxtaposed, piece by piece, movements from Schubert’s Rosamunde with Anton Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra to illustrate the differences and similarities between the First and Second Vienna Schools. Again, I was fascinated by it, but neither the audience nor the orchestra liked it.

There were occasional moments when I questioned certain things Gielen did with music I knew, particularly the third movement of Beethoven’s “Eroica” where he inserted a pause between the opening moto perpetuo section and the trio with its jolly horn tune. I double checked the score and it wasn’t in there; it was just the way Gielen felt the music. But I didn’t let this isolated moment impact my feeling about his overall performance, one of the most exciting “Eroicas” I’ve ever heard in my life—and the only live performance I ever heard taken at Beethoven’s proper score tempo. In my view, Gielen was a genius, and that impression of him has stayed with me through thick and thin.

In listening through the performances on this superb set, I enjoyed anew Gielen’s superb, clean-lined musicality and architectural approach to each score. In one respect he was like Toscanini in that he utterly respected the composer’s written directions and tried hard to bring out everything on the printed page with feeling (something that most modern conductors, also obsessed with score-accuracy, do not do). He was also a stickler for complete unity of section work. But unlike Toscanini, and similar conductors like Böhm and Rodzinski, Gielen seldom allowed moments of rubato or rallentando, and never, ever so much as a smidgen of portamento. His was, and remained, a completely post-modern style of conducting. In these respects, along with an even leaner sound profile, his performances were much closer to that of the great Hungarian conductor Ferenc Fricsay than to Toscanini or Rodzinski, who were always trying to invest their performances with moments of relaxation to offset the severity of their forward propulsion.

Gielen BeethovenDoes this mean that Gielen’s work is unlikable? Not at all. I find it fascinating because it is so different from anyone else’s. This is one reason why I prize his set of the Beethoven Symphonies on the SWR label as the finest of all stereo or digital recordings. He gives you the cleanliness of sound and attack that you hear, for instance, from David Zinman, but there is an extra dimension of emotion and feeling in Gielen’s work that marks him as a genius and not merely a time-beater.

That being said, I’m sure many American (and British) music-lovers will be scratching their heads over Gielen’s interpretations of Mozart and Schubert. They are so very strict that they never deviate so much as a hairsbreadth one way or the other from the initial tempo he sets. I admit that I found some of them a bit too strict, particularly the 6 German Dances of Mozart, but by and large I was thrilled with the way Gielen builds music. He is, indeed, the supreme musical architect of our lifetime, and now that he can no longer conduct (due to failing eyesight), we are all the poorer for his not being among the active conductors of today. It is almost as if The Great Teacher laid down his curriculum, walked out of the classroom, and never returned. We are, however, left with these artifacts of his greatness, and they are fascinating for what they reveal about the music—Gielen always made it clear, in talking to Cincinnatians, that his performances were all about Composer X and not about Michael Gielen. And although I would have liked a bit more give-and-take here and there, it is revelatory to hear the underlying structure of all of this music revealed to us as for the first time.

There is some interest in Gielen’s crackling performance of Mozart’s early incidental music for Thamos, King of Egypt. There are very few recordings of it in existence: Nikolaus Harnoncourt, John Eliot Gardiner, Jörg Faerber, Bernhard Klee, Leopold Hager, Carlo Maria Giulini and Bernhard Paumgartner (plus some excerpts recorded by others like Peter Maag), so it’s not as if we were overwhelmed with readings of this music. As usual, Gielen eschews such “historically informed” B.S. as straight-tone violins, yet still manages to suggest the more severe performance style of the 18th century with his lean sonorities and bright, wide-eyed tempos. The vocal soloists are superb, though most of the music is instrumental, and for young Mozart the musical quality is surprisingly high: listen, for instance, to the magnificent Interlude (track 9), with its amazingly daring key changes, or the first half of the following baritone solo with chorus, “Ihr Kinder des Staubes,” with its descending chromatics. This music sounds like rejected excerpts from Don Giovanni. I’ve since learned that Mozart spent seven years, on and off, working on this music, an unusually long period of gestation for this normally “write-it-and-run” composer. In 1994, Stanley Sadie of Gramophone raved about Gardiner’s “precise articulation, plenty of electricity in the rhythms, powerful accents and a wide dynamic range.” I can say exactly the same things of Gielen’s performance here.

The conductor’s readings of Haydn Symphonies are remarkably similar to those given by Toscanini with the NBC Symphony back in the 1940s, which is to say, austere but lively. They bring a certain resoluteness to the music often missing in others’ performances, such as those of Ivan Fischer, whose recordings I enjoy but because they have some Viennese swagger about them, a different view of the music from Gielen’s. Oddly, in the third movement of Symphony 95, the cello soloist sounds as if he is playing with straight tone.

Perhaps not too oddly, due to his lesser attention to rubato and rallentando, Gielen’s performances of Beethoven’s overtures have even more in common with Felix Weingartner’s electrical recordings than with Toscanini’s except for one thing, and that is the greater tensile strength of the overall flow of the performances and the stronger, more accurate attacks on marcato notes. Like his great set of Beethoven’s Symphonies, Gielen’s performances of the Coriolanus and all three Leonore Overtures have a certain grimness of determination that eschews “normal” German-Austrian tendencies to linger in certain passages. It’s particularly interesting to hear the Leonore Overture No. 2, so often played as an interlude in Act 2 of Fidelio with slower tempos and some rhetorical phrasing, played with such a straight-ahead style. It’s also particularly interesting to hear the Triple Concerto played with this much tension and energy, and the soloists are fine (particularly Janigro on cello), but I prefer Toscanini’s performance with the New York Philharmonic, which to me has more rhythmic lift and warmth.

In Schubert, Gielen is very close to Toscanini in approach, producing exactly the kind of swift but weighty and dramatic readings that gave Austrians coronary arrest but thrilled the rest of the world. He does not ignore the composer’s lyrical aspect, yet the slight overture to Die Zauberharfe contains unexpected dramatic turns of phrase, particularly in the opening Andante section, and Gielen does not let them pass unnoticed. This was yet another work I heard Gielen play with the Cincinnati Symphony, and like so many others it was a revelation to me. Likewise, his performances of the two extracts from Rosamunde recall his unusual Schubert-Webern juxtaposition of so many years ago.

The two unusual works here are, of course, Brian Newbould’s realization of the Andante movement from Schubert’s abandoned Symphony No. 10 and the Gielen-Mahler orchestration of Die Tod und das Mädchen. Normally I’m not a fan of such things, although in three isolated instances—Luciano Berio’s third act of Puccini’s Turandot, Larry Austin’s edition of Ives’ “Universe” Symphony, and Alexander Nemtin’s completion of Scriabin’s Mysterium—I like and agree with the completions. As it turns out, Newbould’s score of the Andante sound very Schubertian; apparently, enough original material existed to work from, unlike the last movement of the B minor symphony (“Unfinished”), of which nothing remains (many conductors perform the overture to Rosamunde as its last movement, which fits about as well as a cartoon picture of Eleanor Roosevelt as the head of the Venus de Milo). That being said, though it sounds Schubertian it is a long-winded dirge that doesn’t develop. I’m sure the composer, had he lived, would have revised it heavily before completion.

Despite my normally being opposed to orchestrations of string quartets (Toscanini’s version of the Beethoven Quartet No. 16, Op. 135, is one of my real bête noirs), some of this version of Death and the Maiden works pretty well. But then again, I’ve always liked the Joseph Joachim orchestration of Schubert’s Grand Duo for 2 Pianos. Perhaps it’s more the case that Schubert lends himself better to this sort of thing than Beethoven (or Brahms, whose Piano Quartet orchestrated by Schoenberg I also dislike). In addition, Gielen really conducts it with energy and passion, which I greatly appreciated.

The last disc contains some real Schubert oddities, the Offertorium: Intende Voci with tenor Thomas Moser in unfortunate voice (he wobbles and sounds flat) and the Mass No. 5 in A-flat with soprano Sibylla Rubens, alto Ingeborg Danz, tenor Dominik Wortig and bass Rudolf Rosen. Both works are well conducted, bringing out a real spine in Schubert’s often mellifluous scores, although portions of the Mass wander musically, not as focused in direction or development.

Many of these performances are issued here for the very first time: the Bach pieces, all of the Mozart except for the “Linz” Symphony, Haydn’s Symphony No. 95, all of the Beethoven and the Schubert Zauberharfe and Rosamunde music. There is one error in dating: Mozart’s 6 German Dances were recorded in 2013, not within the time-frame of 1967-2010 stated by SWR Music on the box. But no matter; this is clearly the work of a supreme musical mind.

Vol. 2 of this series, scheduled for release in June 2016, is going to be a 10-CD set of Bruckner’s Symphonies Nos. 1-9 (SWR Music 19014CD). If you are into Bruckner, I’m sure you’ll find it of interest. As for me, I’m holding out to see what Vol. 3 will bring. This one is remarkable in so many ways, and I also urge you to obtain his complete set of the Beethoven Symphonies on SWR Music.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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