Michael Gielen Tears Up Bartók & Stravinsky

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MICHAEL GIELEN EDITION Vol. 5 / BARTÓK: The Wooden Prince – Suite.1 Concerto for Orchestra.1 4 Pieces for Orchestra.1 Violin Concerto No. 1.1,4 Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta.1 Dance Suite for Orchestra.3 Piano Concerto No. 2.3,5 The Miraculous Mandarin.1,7 STRAVINSKY: Symphony in Three Movements.1 Symphony in C.1 Symphony of Psalms.1,6 The King of the Stars.2,8 Canticum Sacrum for Tenor, Baritone, Chorus & Orchestra.1,8,9,10 Agon (Ballet).1 Requiem Canticles for Contralto, Bass, Chorus & Orchestra.1,8,10,11 Variations for Orchestra.1 Pulcinella.2,12 Apollon Musagète.2 Scherzo à la Russe1 / 4Christian Ostertag, violinist; 5Robert Leonardy, pianist; 12Edda Moser, soprano; 11Stella Doufexis, mezzo-soprano; 9Christian Elsner, 12Werner Hollweg, tenors; 10Rudolf Rosen, 12Barry McDaniel, baritones; 6WDR Rundfunkchor Köln; 7Anton Webern Chor Freiburg; 8SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart; 1SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg; 2Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR; 3Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken; Michael Gielen, conductor / SWR Music 19023CD

The Michael Gielen Edition continues apace from SWR Music, this time with performances of two composers who were red meat and potatoes to the great conductor, Bela Bartók and Igor Stravinsky. If my reaction to Vol. 4 was a bit mixed, I have absolutely no qualms about Vol. 5. These performances are so good, from start to finish, that they will absolutely blow you away and make you wonder what you liked in the earlier recordings of these works by Fritz Reiner, Hans Rosbaud, Claudio Abbado, Georg Solti or even Stravinsky himself.

And mind you, it’s not that Reiner, Rosbaud etc. were mediocre or uninteresting conductors. On the contrary, they were deeply dedicated professionals for whom this music was also their life’s blood. It’s just that for Gielen, at least in these specific recordings, the intensity was turned up from red hot to incandescent white titanium. There is just so much more you hear in these thrice-familiar works, such as the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. Miraculous Mandarin and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, or in Stravinsky’s Symphonies, Canticles and ballets, that they absolutely take your breath away. And in the works that aren’t performed very often, such as the 4 Pieces for Orchestra, The Wooden Prince Suite, and Stravinsky’s King of the Stars and Scherzo à la Russe, Gielen’s performances are virtually peerless. No one else even comes close.

Some reviewers have found Gielen’s performances of the Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings etc. wanting due to what they perceive as a lack of menace, but menace isn’t what Gielen was after here. He brings out more melos in the music, just as Wilhelm Furtwängler did with Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with Menuhin. It all depends on your perspective. Furtwängler was a big-name, internationally-known conductor whose performances, no matter how quirky and off the score, were inevitably hailed as works of genius. Gielen, who spent most of his career in Germany, is thought of as an isolated European hot-house flower. If you think of his Music for Strings etc. as a modern digital version of Guido Cantelli’s old performance with the NBC Symphony, you’ll have an idea how this goes.

Of course, some of the extra pizazz in these recordings comes from the fact that although those earlier conductors had good sonics for their time (Reiner especially, in the old RCA Living Stereo days, or Solti for Decca), the almost 3D impact of these recordings (most of them dating from 2004 to 2014) is due to the greater improvements in sound over the decades, but a great performance is a great performance and no amount of sonic enhancement can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Plus, unlike the sober-sided Reiner, Gielen actually has a ball with the more outré sections of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. The way he conducts this—and most of the other works in this set—makes it sound easy, and professional conductors will assure you it is anything BUT easy.

I’m sorry now that I never attended any of Gielen’s rehearsals with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra back in the 1980s, but like so many great conductors he preferred a closed-door policy in such matters. I would hear stories from the musicians in the orchestra how much they hated him because he really made them work and sweat, not coast through their work, but the proof is always in the pudding and Gielen’s performances were almost always of a high intensity. In that respect he was remarkably similar to Arturo Toscanini, and though the two conductors’ tastes were often vastly different I think they would have been a mutual admiration society if they had the chance to hear each other.

It’s particularly interesting to hear Gielen conduct the unusual works here. In the Bartók portion of the program, the largest of the lesser-known pieces is the Violin Concerto No. 1, composed for his then-girlfriend-violinist who threw him over once he discovered Magyar folk music and radically changed his style. Gielen conducts this music, and violinist Christian Ostertag plays it, with a great deal of sentiment, drawing out the inherent sadness of the first movement like a man on the brink of tears who cannot cry. The second movement, albeit less spiky than his later works, does indeed contain some angular harmonic movement, certainly more than was probably acceptable to his beau.

But fluidity of movement is a constant, and not a variable, in these amazing performances. Part of this, particularly in the recordings with the SWR Symphony of Baden-Baden and Freiburg—Gielen’s “personal” orchestra for several decades—where he had so sensitized the musicians that they could almost breathe along with him. Even so, it’s astounfing to hear how well they play, particularly when you think of other modern maestri and their penchant for conducting “objectively,” just “letting the music speak for itself,” which in the end says nothing more that notes following notes and phrases following each other. What the music “says” under such circumstances is usually nothing, because without a specific point of view the notes do not “leap off the page,” as Toscanini liked to describe it. One example among many of Gielen’s approach is the clarity and sheer ferocity of the “Allegro molto” from Bartók’s Dance Suite, one of the earliest performances in the set (1967). No one conducts it like this…but they should.

Gielen’s conception of Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto is radically different from any other version you have heard, or are likely to hear. From the very start, the staccato phrasing of both the orchestra and soloist place it more in line with Stravinsky’s neoclassical works than Bartók’s first piano concerto. Compare this to the equally excellent performance by pianist Peter Donohoe with Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Orchestra, or Stefan Kocsis’ recording with Adam Fischer, and you’ll hear what I mean. Donohoe-Rattle come closer than Kocsis-Fischer to what Christian Ostertag and Gielen achieve here, but this is still a much more dynamic reading. The slow movement is almost incredibly eerie-sounding, hushed with expectation, the notes played by both orchestra and pianist coming forth almost involuntarily, as if they were loath to make a sound but had to anyway. The hushed, muted quality of the string playing is extraordinary. This is the first release of this great performance. Other debut recordings included in this set are The Miraculous Mandarin and Stravinsky’s King of the Stars, Variations for Orchestra, Pulcinella and Apollon Musagete.

Needless to say, The Miraculous Mandarin is also hyper-intense, fully into the spirit of the composer’s concept of almost mad-sounding music conveying the brutal murder of the mandarin: “Hellish noise, clashing, clanging and honking.” It’s as if you are hearing this music for the first time in your life; each scene is as sharply-etched as if it were ripped from a window with a glass cutter. This is as good, if not greater, a performance than the famed Adam Fischer recording, and I also greatly admire Fischer as a conductor.

With scarcely a break for breath, we then plunge headlong into the neoclassic world of Stravinsky. Has there ever been a more intense performance of the Symphony in 3 Movements? If so, I’ve never heard it. The music slashes and burns its way across one’s consciousness, almost duplicating the “hellish noise” of Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin opening. The on-the-edge bowing of the strings, even in soft passages, makes the music sound ominous and gripping. And something I don’t think I ever noticed before: there’s a wind theme in the second movement that was lifted almost note-for-note by Prokofiev for his ballet Romeo and Juliet. Check it out and see if you don’t agree!

By and large, Stravinsky’s unusual scoring—which always seemed to favor the winds, and specifically the flutes, oboes and clarinets—is right up Gielen’s alley. He is very much at home in this kind of music, which makes it a pity that he never seems to have recorded Oedipus Rex, Perséphone, L’Histoire du Soldat or Les Noces. But what we have is surely extraordinary, and although I noticed numerous little touches in these performances that were clearer or more intense than in others I’ve heard, I will simply generalize so that this review doesn’t run a dozen or more pages. The somewhat thin-sounding chorus in the Symphony of Psalms, for instance, works superbly because the voices do not overwhelm the instruments or vice-versa.

In Canticum Sacrum we are presented with two vocalists. Tenor Christian Elsner has the technique to sing the music but is slightly unsteady on every sustained tone whereas baritone Rudolf Rosen sounds surprisingly like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in places.. It is, nevertheless, a fine reading of one of Stravinsky’s most-neglected scores. One of the more interesting aspects of the tenor part is that it calls for just those sort of “divisions” that Peter Pears, who had sung Oedipus Rex under the composer’s direction six years before the premiere of Canticum Sacrum, could do so very well, yet the original soloists in the premiere were Richard Lewis and Gérard Souzay. Those of us familiar with Hans Rosbaud’s recording of Agon will find Gielen’s reading surprisingly brisk yet fluid, moving easily through those gnarly passages that were the bane of Rosbaud’s orchestra, ironically that of the Südwestfunk de Baden-Baden. But the level of orchestral playing has improved dramatically throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, so this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.

Gielen’s superb performance of the Requiem Canticles rivals the great recording left us by Robert Craft with the Gregg Smith Singers, and his performance of the Variations for Orchestra are preceded by a brief spoken introduction by Gielen himself. Since I don’t speak German, I don’t know what he’s saying, but his tone of voice is light and the audience cracks up laughing in two places. I was absolutely delighted by this sterling performance of Pulcinella, played as it was written, as 18th-century Italian song and dance music. How often do we hear it “Germanized” or “Russianized,” forgetting that the music was based on Pergolesi and his contemporaries? In this 1973 recording he was fortunate to have three of the finest singers available, soprano Edda Moser, tenor Werner Hollweg and Canadian-American Barry McDaniel, who spent 90% of his career in Europe. All are in fine voice, singing with sensitivity and excellent style, although for some reason only Moser was an international superstar. This is now my favorite recording of this score, surpassing the Gerard Schwarz recording on Naxos. On a final note, the uncredited violin soloist in Apollon musagète is simply wonderful.

If you enjoy most of any of the music on this set, you absolutely cannot afford to pass it up. Gielen will have you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. Sonics and performance both get six fish!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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