Gielen’s Brahms Insightful and Exciting

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MICHAEL GIELEN EDITION, Vol. 3 / BRAHMS: Tragic Overture. Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Piano Concerto No. 1 in D min., Op. 15*. Schicksalslied+. Double Concerto for Violin, Cello & Orchestra#. Piano Quartet No. 1 in G min., Op. 25 (orch. Schoenberg) / SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg; *Gerhard Oppitz, pianist; +WDR Rundfunkchor Köln; #Mark Kaplan, violinist; #David Geringas, cellist; Michael Gielen, conductor / SWR Music 19022CD (5 CDs)

Having skipped Vol. 2 of the Michael Gielen Edition because of my antipathy towards the stultifying music of Anton Bruckner, I took the plunge on this Brahms set and am glad I did. These are, in my view, the best stereo or digital recordings of the four symphonies you will ever hear or hope to hear, and most of the other performances are equally fascinating and riveting. The recordings were made between 1989 (Fourth Symphony) and 2005 (the Second Symphony and Schicksalied), with most of them falling in the early-to-mid-1990s.

We start off with a rousing performance of the Tragic Overture before moving on to the symphonies and the variations on Haydn’s St. Antoni and the Fishes theme. In each of these performances I was reminded of various performances by Toscanini I have long admired, with slight differences in approach. Those differences generally came in the first movements of the symphonies, where Gielen begins conducting them in what one accepts as a moderate pace, not too dissimilar to many German conductors, but then in each one he picks up the pace and begins nudging the music forwars in such a way that one is caught up in the unfolding drama—and he doesn’t let go until the last notes of the final movements have died away. The First Symphony has a warmer, more rounded sound than the others, which have the kind of bright sound profile I prefer, but I suspect that this was due to the microphones and not Gielen.

The Haydn Variations are taken at a faster clip than I’ve evr heard anyone play them, either on the podium or at the keyboard. Gieles paces the opening theme, which is marked “Andante” in the score but without a metronome marking, at quarter = 66. This is certainly within the realm of an “Andante,” but bear in mind that the music is written in clipped time. 2/4 rather than 4/4, which makes it sound faster. Toscanini, in his three most famous recordings of it (New York Philharmonic, NBC Symphony and Philharmonia Orchestra), takes it at about quarter = 62. This doesn’t seem like much of a difference until you actually hear it. And, of course, by taking a quicker pace in the opening theme, Gielen then takes similarly quick tempos in the variations and finale. It’s an exhilarating performance, to say the least.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 also begins somewhat moderately paced and with the same warm sound one heard in the first symphony, but picks up once the soloist enters. Oppitz is a fine pianist but takes a very Romantic view of the work, which I personally find a trifle soggy for my taste. I noted online that he had studied with Wilhelm Kempff, one of my least favorite German pianists, which might explain his approach somewhat, but at least he meets the challenge of the powerful ending of the first movement and plays with some energy in the last. Overall, however, I like the Rubinstein-Reiner recording rather better.

As you continue to listen to the performances in this set, what strikes you as much if not more than the enlivened musical line and forward momentum is Gielen’s wholly unorthodox phrasing. To an even greater degree than Toscanini, Gielen frequently introduced luftpausen in the musical progression to bring out a certain detail or details. This is true of everything he conducted, regardless of style or era, and it is a feature of his art that baffled and sometimes frustrated average listeners. As stated in the liner notes, Gielen’s career “was considerably hampered by his reputation as a strident nonconformist” which made him commercially unsalable on a large scale. This is why he was “Avoided by the record industry” while his few early recordings and many broadcast performances “are exchanged internationally by connoisseurs in private collector forums.” I should also add that another reason he was disliked was that he purposely avoided a plush, “beautiful” orchestral sound, but rather preferred lean sonorities. This is also evident on most of these recordings.

The Schicksalslied or Song of Destiny was new to me, thus I won’t pretend to be able to compare it to other performances. The music is similar to the Alto Rhapsody, which I don’t like: rather on the slow side, pseudo-reverent, and somewhat drippy. Nonetheless, Gielen’s performance of it is professional and not without interest.

Conversely, his performance of the Double Concerto is lively and energetic, and again with a bright sonority which is how I remember hearing Gielen in person. It is not, however, anything like the phenomenal performance Toscanini gave on NBC television in 1948 with Mischa Mischakoff and Frank Miller, where he essentially turned the work into a symphony with violin and cello obbligato. Gielen does maintain a strong grip on the orchestral portion of the score, conducting it powerfully and with tremendous purpose, but he allows the soloists freedom to play as they wish. Happily, he has two outstanding players here in violinist Mark Kaplan, whose Bach Partitas and Sonatas I raved about several months ago (see review here), and cellist David Goringas. They complement each other perfectly, taking their music out of the orchestral context and making it rise into an atmosphere of elegance with feeling. Gielen appropriately relaxes his tempos when they take center stage, the orchestra reduced to a few winds and strings behind them. A good indication of what I mean is the opening of the third movement. Kaplan and Goringas take it at a good pace but with a leisurely lope to the rhythm; when the full orchestra finally comes in, they all play with greater intensity.

This outstanding Brahms set ends with an oddity, Arnold Schoenberg’s orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1. Nowadays a rarity in the concert hall, in the early 1960s it was in vogue for some time, even garnering the subtitle of “the Brahms Fifth Symphony.” As B.H. Haggin pointed out in one of his reviews, the scoring is nothing like anything Brahms ever wrote, focusing on bright sonorities and including a xylophone for effect. Haggin thought it somewhat gauche, but I personally liked Robert Craft’s recording of it (in his complete Schoenberg set for Columbia) and I like Gielen’s way with it here. Perhaps because of his richer-sounding orchestra and more modern, digital sonics, Gielen is able to make it sound a bit more “Brahmsian” than his predecessor, and one is so involved in the listening process that it’s hard to step back and say, “No, no, this is wrong.” How can it be so wrong when it sounds so good? Gielen’s musical integrity saves the day here.

All in all, then, an outstanding set, well worth getting. Granted, you may not find yourself playing the Schicksalslied more than once, but nearly everything else is on an extremely high level that will intrigue and thrill you.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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