Gielen Conducts Beethoven


MICHAEL GIELEN EDITION, Vol. 9 / BEETHOVEN Symphonies: Nos. 1–9 (1997-2000).1 Symphonies Nos. 1 (1967),2 3 (2 vers, 19703 &1980),4 55 & 7 (1969).2 Overtures: Consecration of the House; Fidelio; Egmont. Groβe Fuge in Bb (orch. Gielen). Mass in C 6 / SWR Baden-Baden & Freiburg Symphony Orch.; 1Renate Behle (sop), Yvonne Naef (alt), Glenn Winslade (ten), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bs), Berlin Radio Chorus; 2Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken; 3Radio-Sinfonie Orchester Frankfurt; 4Cincinnati Symphony Orch.; 6Nicola Bella Carbone (sop), Stella Doufexis (mezzo), Christian Elsner (ten), Rudolf Rosen (bass), SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart; Michael Gielen, cond / SWR Music 19090 (also includes a DVD of Beethoven Symphony No. 3 w/SWR Baden-Baden & Freiburg Orch.)

This is both an easy and a difficult set for me to review: easy because I wrote the review for the 1997-2000 Beethoven symphony performances when they were first released as a boxed set by SWR Music in 2012, and I am also very familiar with Gielen’s Cincinnati Symphony recording of the “Eroica,” originally issued on a Vox LP, but difficult because there are other alternate performances to consider not included in this set, a 1959 recording of the Seventh Symphony issued by Audio Fidelity in 1959 and another complete set of the Symphonies with the SWR Baden-Baden & Freiburg orchestra made in 1993, issued only in Germany on EMI-Electrola, which has never been reissued.

For the latter, I have an ex-German pen pal to thank, Hans-Georg Müllander, who worked for BASF for many years. We first came in contact with each other when I criticized a Gielen set of some other music on which he was listed as the engineer, around 2008. He emailed me and explained that he had not been the engineer, only the provider of the tapes, and criticized the remastering himself. That struck up a friendship that lasted until SWR Music issued the 1997-2000 performances of the Beethoven Symphonies which make up the heart of this set in 2012. I sent him my review and he said that I had to hear the other recordings as well. I told him that I appreciated his wanting to send them all to me, but that really, he needn’t bother with the expense, but he sent them anyway. After listening to them all, I found only marginal differences in the various performances, certainly not as many as in the widely varied legacy left by Toscanini between his 1931 Beethoven Fifth and his 1953 “Eroica,” although I did have a slight preference for the 1993 recordings of the first three movements of the Fourth and the first two movements of the Eighth from the 1993 set. Whether this information annoyed him or he became ill and could no longer keep in touch, he never wrote to me again, though I wrote to him a few years later and asked what had happened. If he is indeed still alive (he was much older than me) and reads this review, I sincerely hope that he will consider it an apology. I really miss him.

But first, before getting into the alternate performances I haven’t heard and the other pieces here which performances are new to me, here are a few excerpts from my original review of the 1997-2000 set:

This set of live Beethoven symphonies conducted by Michael Gielen appears here complete on CD for the first time. All nine symphonies were issued on DVDs—Symphonies 1–3 on EuroArts 2050607, 4–6 on 2050637, and 7–9 on—but only Symphony 8 appeared previously on CD (Hänssler Classic 93056), coupled with the Piano Concerto No. 3 with Stefan Litwin.

Despite excellent reviews for the first DVD and the CD of Symphony 8/Concerto 3, Gielen’s Beethoven has pretty much flown under the radar—as, to a large and very sad extent, has Gielen himself. As a conductor who is also a 12-tone composer, Gielen is often put in the same category as Pierre Boulez, that of a highly literate intellectual who, in the view of many critics, sometimes gives dispassionate performances that are close to the score but lack feeling. Yet I vividly recall his tenure as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony and can attest that the only real criticism that many listeners (myself included) had of Gielen was that he was far less concerned with producing a plush, “lovely” orchestral sound than with pursuing artistic truth in music. He is not, and never was, a conductor to please the ear as were Kempe, Karajan, López-Cobos, or Rattle, but his musical interpretations are often much closer to what historically informed performers try to achieve and, in my view, often surpass them in real feeling and authentic musical style.

The symphonies are to be played relatively straightforwardly with subtle tempo modifications. Toscanini’s solution was to sometimes tighten up the tempo ever so slightly, then relax it for certain periods. With Gielen, the relaxation is less evident in some movements, yet because he doesn’t always use the same tension as Toscanini, many of the fast passages actually sound more relaxed when in fact they are not (at least not in tempo). A good example is the Eighth Symphony, where Gielen injects quite a bit of vigor and some humor, especially in the last movement, where he has fun contrasting the quirky tempo changes, but overall it lacks some of the sheer exuberance one hears in the fantastic performance by the Marlboro Festival Orchestra conducted by Pablo Casals many, many moons ago.

These little differences manifest themselves continually throughout their cycles: Toscanini always a shade edgier with a touch more tragedy, Gielen mixing more warmth with energy. This makes for very interesting contrasts, and considering that most modern Beethoven sets have softer contours, lush orchestral sound, and smoother phrasing—unless they are HIP cycles, in which case they often lack feeling or are too choppy in phrasing—you can’t dismiss Gielen’s work here. As stated in the booklet, Gielen’s mission in regards to Beethoven has been “the finding and revealing of composed meaning, and thus also an emphatic clarification of violations and disruptions of norms.”

Prior to the issue of this set, the best of the post-Karajan cycles (I prefer mixing performances from Karajan’s 1974–75 and 1983–84 cycles) was that by David Zinman with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra (Arte Nova), but as I said when that set was issued, Zinman’s performances—though entirely accurate and beautifully articulated and phrased—sound to me more like a blueprint for a great Beethoven cycle than a real interpretation of the music. With Gielen’s set, we now have equally outstanding performances (although, to be fair, with a few tiny bobbles in the playing … remember, all of these were recorded in one take) but with more drama or humor or just plain warmth than Zinman. Two examples of the difference may be heard in the first movement of the Fourth Symphony and the entire performance of the Sixth. In the former, Zinman’s playing of the slow introduction, and the subsequent switch to allegro , sounds good but a bit prosaic, while Gielen’s performance has a real feeling of portent and mystery in the slow passage (to which he also adds a slight nudge forward) and a feeling of surprise when the tempo changes. Then, in the “Pastorale,” Zinman is closer to the conventional smooth phrasing heard on most sets while Gielen achieves the sort of jauntiness one hears in Toscanini’s classic 1939 BBC Symphony recording. Again, the change in phrasing makes all the difference in the world to one’s emotional reaction. In Karajan’s 1983–84 cycle, he too finally took the composer’s faster tempos in the “Pastorale,” but by employing more continuous phrasing Karajan actually made the music sound more tense and less relaxed than Toscanini or Gielen.

When Gielen conducted the composer’s “Eroica” Symphony with the Cincinnati Symphony (both in performance and on a Vox recording), he employed one strange effect that I disagreed with, and that was inserting an extra two-beat pause before the entrance of the horns in the third-movement trio. I’ve re-consulted the score and it simply does not support this. In this new recording, he shortens the pause to one extra beat, which I can live with but still do not find is ideal. That being said, listening to the rest of the symphony is as bracing an experience as one can imagine, the first movement in particular sounding even more aggressive than Toscanini’s 1949 recording. I’m sure that those who desperately seek poetry in Beethoven won’t like it, but I do. It’s correct. It feels right. And it confirms Gielen’s complaint from as far back as 1957 that “It’s not true that I forgot about Beethoven’s tempo specifications—on the contrary, I followed them.” Yet this is not consistently true. Gielen is sometimes slower than score tempo in the third-movement scherzos, especially in the Fourth Symphony. Here the score indicates an initial tempo of dotted half = 100, and the trio section at dotted half = 88, but Gielen’s tempos are actually 92 and 77. These tempo relationships are OK, but you can’t claim that they’re score.

Yet the rest of the Fourth is played at score tempo, and in the second movement Gielen is able to bring out the Spanish habanera rhythm very well. The Fifth Symphony is also played at score tempo, and the results are almost frightening, especially in the first movement. Those used to a very long fermata on the last note of the opening four-note motif will be shocked: Gielen moves along at a tremendous clip. The second movement has its share of lyricism, to be sure, but again is slightly faster than we’re used to. In the famous transition between the third and fourth movements, I don’t feel that the orchestra builds up the drama well enough in its change from piano to fortissimo ; it seems not only a bit rushed but opens up too quickly. The microphone balance, which favors the brass over the strings, has something to do with it.

Gielen’s interpretation of the Seventh Symphony is a bit surprising. In the first two movements, he is a bit more relaxed than score tempo and in fact his phrasing here is more legato than normal, the results sounding not too different from Guido Cantelli’s 1956 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra, but in the third and fourth movements he again resumes the brisk written tempos and more closely resembles Toscanini (and also Karajan in his 1975–76 cycle).

In the Ninth Symphony, his approach comes closest to Toscanini’s fastest performances (NBC, 1939 and 1948). Again, being consistent with the other symphonies, the scherzo is a shade slower than score while the Adagio molto is right on the mark. The singers are an interesting if mixed lot, the contralto and bass being lyric singers noted for Bach, Mozart, Rossini, and Bizet, while the soprano and tenor, after initially singing lyric roles, had by this stage in their career (1999) moved on to Wagnerian roles. Thus one hears a slight overpowering of the musical line in their singing (particularly the tenor solo, which is more exposed), yet in the quartet passages they do a good job of blending, with Renate Behle and Glenn Winslade cutting back their volume to some extent. Behle is especially commendable: She has one of those cutting soprano voices, like Gré Brouwenstijn or Eva Marton, and surprisingly good diction even in the upper register. Since Gielen’s tempos in the last movement are, on the whole, even faster than Toscanini, his reading of the coda is faster, too, but note that it is not rushed in a maniacal fashion, as Wilhelm Furtwängler was wont to do. (A Furtwängler fan once asked me why Toscanini didn’t “rip through” the coda of the Ninth. I had a hard time explaining to him that you had to measure it against the preceding passages and establish a proper tempo relationship.)

Of course, since this set came out I’ve discovered Philippe Jordan’s stunning set of the symphonies with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, which is now my favorite digital recording of these works, but I still own the Gielen set and will not relinquish it. Interestingly, in his 1993 recording of the “Eroica,” Gielen did not insert that odd pause before the Trio of the third movement; that was one of the real differences in that particular set. Now, on to the other pieces in this set.

The overtures are exceptionally well played and have good energy, thus they are on a part with the best of the symphony performances in this set. His performance of the Fidelio overture reminded me of Ferenc Fricsay’s recording, except that Gielen doesn’t use quite as lean of an orchestra. I questioned his orchestration of the Groβe Fuge—did it really need to be orchestrated?—and although it is a powerful performance, the sound is uncommonly thin and harsh.

Of the alternate versions of the symphonies, I was most curious to hear this 1969 recording of the Seventh to see if his phrasing in the opening section was tauter and less broad than in the 1998 SWR recording. It is; and, moreover, the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken appears to have been a leaner orchestra with a less plush-sounding string section, which I appreciated; but when he finally swings into the “Vivace” section, it is at a slightly more relaxed pace. Yet in so many ways, this is a preferable performance to the Baden-Baden & Freiburg orchestra one. The leaner sound allows one to hear the inner voices with startling clarity, and once past the first movement Gielen conducts the rest of the symphony at a brisker pace. The second movement here is 8:05 compared to 8:22 in the SWR Orchestra version (although I didn’t like his rather exaggerated accelerando in the trio, an effect he later dismissed), the third movement 8:32 compared to 8:52 and the last movement 8:46 compared to 8:57. This was, for me, the most valuable of the alternate performances in this set. The 1967 First Symphony is considerably slower than the February 2000 performance and, although Gielen does not allow the music to slacken too much, it sounds more like a leisurely jaunt through the music rather than the surprising break with the Mozart and Haydn tradition that it was intended to be. Just my personal opinion.

As for the Mass in C, I compared it to Leif Segerstam’s recording which was included in Naxos’ “big box o’ Beethoven” to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. As is his wont, Segerstam conducts it rather slower than Gielen, but in this case I felt that the Finnish conductor’s approach was better suited to the music. Unlike the symphonies, concerti and much else, Beethoven’s two masses really need to have a bit more breadth in their phrasing, as does Fidelio from the “Chorus of Prisoners” on until “O namenlöse Freude!” in Act II. Toscanini understood this in the Missa Solemnis until his ill-conceived 1953 studio recording (the live performance from a few days earlier was much more relaxed) but didn’t understand it in Fidelio. There’s a certain clinical coldness to the Gielen performance that just didn’t sit well with me although, to be honest, some of this may be due to the sound quality of the recording, which to my ears tends towards a somewhat hard, glassy sound. Interestingly, the soloists in both the Gielen and Segerstam performances are about the same: pretty good soprano, good mezzo, subpar tenor and pretty good bass.

Considering all the symphonies presented here, I was a bit surprised to not find the Piano Concerto No. 3 with Litwin as soloist. Why not, Hänssler? And of course, since I had to review this set via downloads, I had no chance to see or hear the DVD performance of the “Eroica,” which appears to be a shade slower than the Cincinnati Symphony recording.

Thus the choice is up to you. If you want to own all these alternate performances of the symphonies plus the Mass in C, the video of Gielen conducting the “Eroica” (I do have one DVD by Gielen, conducting the Missa  Solemnis, sent to me by Hans-Georg Müllander) and the Groβe Fuge, you need this set. For others, the less expensive 5-CD set of the complete Symphonies may suffice. But either way, I do urge you to acquire at least some of Gielen’s Beethoven. He had a special relationship with this composer going back to his earliest years as a conductor, and always tried, as Toscanini did, to get to the “truth” in his music.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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