Gielen Edition Vol. 4 a Mixed Bag

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THE GIELEN EDITION, Vol. 4 / MENDELSSOHN: A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Overture.1 SMETANA: The Bartered Bride: Overture.1 LISZT: Mephisto Waltz No. 1.2 WAGNER: Lohengrin: Act 1 & 3 Preludes.2 Die Meistersinger: Act 1 Prelude.2 Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod.2 BERLIOZ: Roman Carnival Overture.2 Symphonie Fantastique.2 Requiem.1, 8 WEBER: Der Freischütz: Overture.2 Piano Concerto No. 2 in E-flat min.2, 5 J. STRAUSS, Jr.: Kaiserwalzer.2 SCHUMANN: Scenes from Goethe’s “Faust.”3,4 Manfred Overture.2 Die Braut von Messina: Overture.2 Symphony No. 1 (orch. Mahler).2 DVOŘÁK: Violin Concerto in A min.1, 6 Symphony No. 7 in D min.2 Cello Concerto in B min.2, 7 TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 6.2 RACHMANINOV: The Isle of the Dead.2 SUK: Ein Sommermärchen –Symphonic Poem for Large Orchestra2 / 4Günter Reich, baritone (Faust); 4Judith Beckmann, soprano (Gretchen/Soprano 1); 4Robert Holl, bass (Mephisto/Böser Geist); 4Margit Neubauer, alto (Martha/Schuld/Mater Gloriosa/Maria Aegyptiaca); 4Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, tenor (Ariel/Pater Ecstaticus); 4Doris Soffel, mezzo (Sorge); 4Mitsuko Shirai, soprano (Not/Magna Peccatrix/Soprano 2); 4Helmut Berger-Tuna, bass (Pater Profundis); 4Tadao Yoshie, baritone (Pater Seraphicus/Dr. Marianus); 4Brigitte Messthaler, alto (Mangel/Mulier Samaritana/Soloist); 5Ludwig Hoffmann, pianist; 6Josef Suk, violinist; 7Heinrich Schiff, cellist; 8David Rendall, tenor; 8Kölner Rundfunkchor; 8SWR Vocal Ensemble Stuttgart; 1Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra; 2SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden und Freiburg; 3SWR Radio Symphony Orchestra of Stuttgart; Michael Gielen, conductor / SWR Music 19028CD

This latest entry in SWR’s ongoing Michael Gielen Edition focuses attention on Romantic composers, ranging in timespan from the 1810s (Weber) to the last vestiges of that style in the early 20th century (Rachmaninov and Suk). Elvira Seiwert’s liner notes asks the question, “Who would have thought that Michael Gielen, a ‘down-to-earth, nuts-and-bolts, professional Classicist’ would have revealed a weakness for Romantic music of all things?…Perhaps he was attracted by that state of compositional crisis experienced by the Romantic ‘post-Beethoven’ composers, who felt that Beethoven, in his later works, had ‘burst form itself asunder.’ The dying embers of the Classical era began to draw new nourishment from contemporary literary sources, and darker shades of nuanced, woodland gloom began to be heard in the music.” All of which, pardon the crudity, is a crock of BS. Any conductor’s work in any period of music must be judged in light of its appropriateness of style to the music as well as whether or not the conductor’s concept works.

I heard Gielen conduct a fairly wide range of music when he was with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and liked much of what he did with Schubert and Brahms, among others, but in listening to the rather huge collection presented here I have to say that, for whatever reason, several of these performances just don’t click, and principal among the misses (and they’re not even near-misses) are the various Berlioz pieces (I don’t recall him conducting Berlioz in Cincinnati). Berlioz is one of those composers who, like Beethoven, Wagner and Mahler, absolutely need a plugged-in DC-current approach in order to work, regardless of whether or not the tempi are fast or relaxed, and Gielen simply doesn’t respond to this music. Neither the Symphonie Fantastique nor the Requiem have anything like the energy they need in order to put them over, and it isn’t just Berlioz who suffers. So too does Tchaikovsky, another composer who needs an injection of passion. Gielen’s rendition of the Fourth Symphony isn’t even as intense as Artur Rodzinski’s, let alone the brilliantly-driven recording that Evgeny Svetlanov left us. Of his Wagner excerpts, the most successful to my ears was the Meistersinger Prelude, albeit a bit stodgy in tempo. The other pieces are beautifully sculpted but not conducted from “inside” the music.

To some extent, I got the feeling that the sound quality of some of these recordings was a factor in my emotional reaction to them…not many, but some. By and large, SWR seems to go for a soft-grained orchestral sound, and this is not the way Gielen sounded in person. Quite the contrary: as I’ve said in my reviews of previous Gielen releases, he tended to favor what I would call a somewhat “scrappy” orchestral sound, lean and transparent, the very opposite of that. Indeed, this was one of the things that the older, more conservative Cincinnati audiences disliked about him, that he didn’t project a warm orchestral ambience. The Bartered Bride overture is close to what I heard in person, but many of the other recordings are just a trifle too warm and a bit muffled. As one goes through the set, however, certain performances grabbed my attention more than others, and in some cases Gielen’s emotionally cooler approach really isn’t bad at all. In fact, some of these performances really are quite good, but one must skip around to find the gems. The interesting thing, considering the wide range of years of these performances (1968-2014), is that the earliest performances are not necessarily the most engaged and the late ones not always the least. You just have to pick and choose. Here are my choices:

  • The Bartered Bride overture is surprisingly jolly and sparkling for Gielen, even livelier than Rudolf Kempe’s famous recording.
  • Schumann: Scenes from Goethe’s “Faust.” This is music that is right up Gielen’s alley, dramatic and innovative, and he brings out the underlying structure very well, being both swifter in tempo and more brooding than Claudio Abbado’s famous version with Bryn Terfel and Karita Mattila. Of the various soloists, only baritone Günter Reich as Faust is a bit rough-sounding and disappointing; everyone else is superb (particularly the little-known Judith Beckmann as Gretchen), and the music is extremely interesting if a bit uneven. Gielen’s interpretation is perhaps a bit less explosive than one might expect, but his tempos, phasing and long view of the score compensate for this. The Schumann overtures are also very good, particularly Die Braut von Messina. Gustav Mahler’s reorchestration of the First Symphony is very effective dramatically, but for my taste somewhat heavy in weight and texture when compared to the original (though the original is less colorful).
  • Weber’s Piano Concerto No. 2 receives a rousing performance, crisp and thrilling in its accents and flow, with a good account of the solo part by Ludwig Hoffmann (for all you Historically-Informed nuts, he plays a very modern-sounding piano with heft and weight, and though the strings use a very light, rapid vibrato, they do not play with straight tone).
  • The Dvořák Violin Concerto is his best performance of this composer’s works, surprisingly lively and effective, due in large part to the superbly idiomatic playing of Josef Suk. The Cello Concerto is absolutely gripping from the orchestral standpoint, but although Heinrich Schiff is a fair cellist he doesn’t have the drive or stature of a Feuermann, Piatigorsky or Leonard Rose to pull the music off.
  • Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead may be his greatest achievement on this set. Gielen takes a maudlin, echt-Romantic piece of bathos and gives it backbone and drama. Part of his secret is the way he emphasizes the numerous chromatic changes in the second half, punching the music home rhythmically at the same time. He also brings out numerous inner voices we seldom hear or notice; in short, similar to what Toscanini did for Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung. Without question, this is the best recording of this piece.
  • I had never heard Josef Suk, Sr’s A Summer’s Tale prior to this performance, and although I found the music somewhat formulaic in spots I was deeply impressed by Gielen’s granitic approach and dramatic sweep. Since I have no other frame of reference for this music, I can’t say how it compares to other versions, but taken on its own merits I found it held my attention and conveyed great drama.

What I recommend, then, is that you acquire the better selections from this set via downloads, paying for the good stuff and bypassing the ones you probably won’t listen to twice. This is always the risk a record company takes when they issue a massive set like this. The label and the artist have a vested interest in selling you everything they have by that artist, but no conductor’s oeuvre is perfect from start to finish, not even Toscanini who has, to my ears, the highest percentage of great performances, about 80%. And here, in this interesting but uneven collection, we just hit a wall. Gielen was undoubtedly one of the great conductors of our time, far more interesting and consistent than Pierre Boulez, but despite the treasures described above this is a mixed bag.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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