Gielen around the time of his Cincinnati Symphony tenure
When growing up in the early-to-mid 1960s and beginning to get into classical music—on my own, since my father detested it—I would buy whatever recordings were the least expensive, which meant several small off-brand labels and RCA’s Victrola series (Columbia’s Odyssey series started a few years later, as did EMI’s Seraphim label). This meant a lot of recordings by conductors who weren’t terribly well known in America, such as Peter Maag and Odd Grüner-Hegge, at least until RCA started reissuing Toscanini and Charles Munch on Victrola. When I entered college in 1968, the student bookstore had a discount rack of classical LPs and these were mostly on the Vox label (I think a lot of East-coast colleges had some kind of sweetheart deal with Vox at the time), and this is where I first encountered Michael Gielen. I found his performances of that era to be quite solid if not the most exciting I had heard. Within a few years of graduation, I had forgotten about him.
Fast-forward to 1980. By now I was living in Cincinnati, where the local symphony had been having trouble trying to find a good, solid replacement as music director since the untimely death of Thomas Schippers in December 1977. Their short-term solution was to hire the veteran conductor Walter Susskind. Susskind had been a vital and interesting conductor in the 1940s and ‘50s, but by the time he came to Cincinnati he was old, tired, and—as it turned out—very ill. His performances were often lackluster and uninteresting. When he died in 1980, a wide search went out for his replacement, and Gielen was chosen.
By that time I was reviewing local classical performances for a local weekly, and so was present at Gielen’s first press conference. I had no idea at that time of his slow but steady rise to stardom at the Royal Swedish and Frankfurt Opera houses, his startling premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s supposedly “unplayable” opera Die Soldaten in 1968 or his tenure as music director of the Belgian National Orchestra. I also hadn’t known that he fought a terrible battle with German critics from the late 1950s onward for daring to conduct Beethoven’s symphonies at or near the written score tempi, which was still considered “brutal” despite the groundbreaking work of Felix Weingartner, Arturo Toscanini, Charles Munch and Hermann Scherchen. Nor did I know that he was a composer, or that he had been raised in Buenos Aires, but the latter fact was given to us at the press conference prior to his speaking.
Gielen was not a warm presence. He spoke English with a somewhat heavy and rather clipped German accent. Although he was Jewish, he had strong Teutonic features and a brusque manner. A friend of mine who was also present at that press conference joked that he was the only Jewish musician she had ever seen who came across like a German field marshal.
As it turned out, he was also brusque, clipped and stern in rehearsals. The Cincinnati Symphony musicians, used to Schippers’ relaxed manner and Susskind’s old-world schmoozing, absolutely hated him. They thought he was a dictator and a cold fish, but from his very first concert—the Mahler Third Symphony, a work that hadn’t been played by the orchestra in decades if at all—he absolutely floored me with his command of the orchestra as well as the music. Everything flowed in an organic and cohesive whole, imbued with both elegance in the slow passages and fire in the fast, loud moments. I could immediately tell that he was a master conductor, and I was hooked. But the audience at that debut concert—a Friday afternoon—was comprised of a great many of the symphony’s older, more staid patrons, and they didn’t take kindly to it. At one point in the middle of the symphony, an old man was heard yelling out, “It’s ten after two!”
Gielen’s programming irked the staid Cincinnati crowd and also didn’t endear him to the orchestra. My most vivid memory of his unusual programming was to juxtapose movements from Schubert’s Rosamunde with Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra as a contrast between the first and second Viennese schools of music. Not only did he conduct the Schubert with passion and energy, but he also conducted the Webern with elegance. Naturally, the rest of the audience loved the Schubert but hated the Webern. I found it utterly fascinating.
The one and only time I disagreed with him was in his performance of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, not because he took the tempi very fast, like the Toscanini and Munch recordings, but because, in the third movement, he introduced a luftpause in the music just before the horns entered to play the trio theme. This luftpause is not in the score, yet he conducted it that way not only at that concert but also in his recording of the work for Vox and, as it turned out, in other recorded performances he made except one, the mid-1990s RCA/BMG recording with his beloved SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg. I suppose that if he had seemed a more approachable person, I would have gone backstage and asked him why he did this, but as I say, he was a somewhat cold and forbidding personality and I didn’t want to confront him.
Gielen continued to give remarkable and mostly superb concerts with the Cincinnati Symphony until 1986, at which point he returned to Germany and the SWR Orchestra, which became his artistic home until his retirement in 2014 due to his deteriorating eyesight. Before that time, I was in contact with a very nice German man who became a pen-pal (he dropped out of my life around 2012 without explanation; perhaps he died), and he encouraged me to write Gielen a letter telling him how much I had loved and appreciated his work with the Cincinnati Symphony, but the image of this stern taskmaster was still in my head and I felt as if I didn’t dare intrude on him. By this time, however, I had learned through his friend that Gielen the Forbidding was something of a sex addict back in the 1980s and had several affairs while in Cincinnati (and, I presume, afterwards in Germany). I didn’t judge him on this; God knows I’ve had enough trouble trying to grapple with the nearly 60 years of illicit affairs that Toscanini had with women; but in Gielen’s case it really shocked me because he seemed about as romantic as George Patton.
And it was also during the 2000s that SWR Music began issuing new Gielen recordings, which I was lucky enough to obtain and review, which broadened my knowledge of his vast repertoire. Since his retirement the same label began issuing boxed sets under the title “Michael Gielen Edition,” much like the similar treatment given to Toscanini and, in recent years, Munch and Fritz Reiner by RCA (now a part of Sony Classical). I’ve reviewed most of them on this blog and will continue to do so if further sets are issued. I consider them to be even better performances and more important ones than the Reiner set, and in some ways even surpassing the Toscanini due to both the superior sound quality and the astonishing range of music he conducted.
Gielen’s style is hard to pin down because he took such a varied approach. He could conduct even more gently and relaxed than Toscanini in certain works, particularly French music, and partly because of the superior musicianship of today and partly due to his ability to communicate his wishes much more fluently in German than in English, his SWR Orchestra performances are sometimes superior musically, not to mention technically due to top-drawer digital sound. Yes, there are certain works here and there where I felt that Gielen was just a bit too relaxed, just as there are performances here and there where Toscanini was too tense, but no conductor is perfect, not even such major ones as those two. In my estimation, Michael Gielen was the greatest and most consistently excellent conductor of the latter 20th and early 21st centuries, and even though his career was nearly five years behind him when he died of pneumonia on March 8 of this year, I still think his recordings will hold up to future generations just as those of Weingartner, Toscanini and Munch still do. He was a truly great and original artist who had his own ideas about phrasing in the classical repertoire. No one’s Mahler cycle is quite like his, and in my estimation his late Beethoven cycle on SWR Music is the modern-day equivalent of Toscanini’s, a masterful set of performances with unorthodox yet vital phrasing that sheds new light on these well-worn works. I would also go so far as to say that his set of the Brahms Symphonies, with their no-nonsense, non-Romantic phrasing, are also right up there with Weingartner’s and Toscanini’s performances.
Gielen did not always conduct with the incredible white-hot intensity of Toscanini, but much of the time he came close, and he imbued works by modern composers with the same spirit. I would also recommend his Wergo recording of Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten as a prime example of how well he could conduct modern music. No other conductor of that time wanted anything to do with the opera, but Gielen took the attitude “It’s just music” and made it work. It’s a shame that, for whatever reason, the in-house recording that was issued on LP and, later, CD is in mono sound, despite its being from 1968.
Unlike the Cincinnati Symphony, the musicians of the SWR orchestra of Baden-Baden und Freiburg came to like Gielen as much as they respected him, thus his work with that orchestra represents a kind of lifetime achievement that many modern conductors, with their hectic international schedules, running and flying from venue to venue, will probably never achieve. We lost a giant in the conducting world, and his like may never be seen again.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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