> Gielen 75th Birthday edition [PQ]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Symphony no.8 in F op.93
Recorded 21 and 22 January 2000, Konzerthaus, Freiburg
Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor op.37
Stefan Litwin (piano)
Recorded 20 April 1994, Hans-Rosbaud Studio, Baden-Baden
Grosse Fuge in B flat op.133 (arr. Gielen)
Recorded September and October 1993, Hans-Rosbaud Studio, Baden-Baden
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Symphony no.9 in C D944, ‘Great
Recorded live, 27 April 1996, Royal Festival Hall, London
Johann STRAUSS the younger (1825-1899)

Voices of Spring, waltz op.410
Recorded 4 September 1998, Konzerthaus, Freiburg
Anton BRUCKNER (1894-1896)

Symphony no.6 in A
Recorded 29 March, 2001, Konzerthaus, Freiburg
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
orch Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)

Prelude and Fugue in E flat BWV552, ‘St Anne
Recorded 22 August 1996, Konzerthaus, Freiburg
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)

Symphony no.3 op.43, ‘Le divin Poéme
Recorded 22 and 23 May 1975, Hans Rosbaud Studio, Baden-Baden
Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)

Berceuse Elégiaque op.42
Recorded 3 February 1995, Hans Rosbaud Studio, Baden-Baden
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Une Barque sur l’océan

Recorded 9 January 1997, Konzerthaus, Freiburg
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)

Scherzo à la Russe

Recorded 17 April 1998, Konzerthaus, Freiburg
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)

Die Gluckliche Hand op.18
John Brocheler (baritone)
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Alban BERG (1885-1935)

Der Wein

Melanie Diener (soprano)
Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)

Five pieces for Orchestra op.10
Cantata no.1 op.29
Christiane Oelze (soprano)
Anton Webern-Choir, Freiburg
Eduard STEUERMANN (1892-1964)

Variations for orchestra
Michael GIELEN (born 1927)

Pflicht und Neigung

SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Michael Gielen
Recorded 1990-2001 in Freiburg and Baden-Baden


These discs are available separately, but unless you have very exclusive musical tastes, the price advantage of the box makes a strong case for acquiring all five. So, as I hope to indicate below, do the performances. Hänssler provide exemplary packaging, with detailed and original notes by Paul Fiebig on each work as well as Gielen’s own pithy and invaluable insights.


Gielen’s view of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony as ‘full of wrath and repressed violence and without a hint of merriment’ is not one many listeners will share, especially if they are used to performances by Beecham and others which bubble over with Rossinian froth, but it’s one I find completely convincing. The symphony appears to me to belong to the world of the late quartets, and I have long thought patronising the nostrum which regards it as an intermezzo between the grander schemes of the Seventh and Ninth - so, evidently, does Gielen. The tempi are faster than Klemperer or Furtwängler (though never controversially so), but all three interpreters invoke complete seriousness of purpose in their articulations of the obsessive rhythmic cells which dominate each movement. Maelzel’s metronome (or Beethoven’s parody of it) ticks along mercilessly in the second movement; Gielen shows that variety of colour and contrast between legato and staccato phrasings (even a whiff of portamento on occasion) are enough to characterise the movement within a completely strict tempo. Those who bought the conductor’s iconoclastic set of the complete symphonies on EMI will be pleased to find that this is a different performance - conceived within the same expressive parameters but better played and recorded. If there’s a finer modern Eighth on disc, I’d like to hear it.

Though Gielen is given generous credit to Stefan Litwin in the notes, it’s difficult to believe he himself had not conceived of the C minor Piano Concerto in this tense and often abrupt way before the pianist came along. Their ideas about the piece mesh well judging from the sympathy with which soloist and orchestra accompany each other in turn. Sometimes Litwin could have allowed himself more time in the outer movements to avoid blurring figurations, but his clear-sighted sense of the direction of each note, phrase and movement is more than ample compensation. Typically of Gielen and Hänssler’s combined efforts, far more wind detail is audible than usual, more so even than in the period-instrument performances with which this performance has more in common than the Romantic musings of Kempff or Barenboim. Litwin recreates in Beethoven’s standard cadenzas the bizarre juxtapositions between romance and violence which had its first audiences so puzzled.

The whole disc seems to recreate Beethoven both in his own time and through very 21st-century eyes - in the process bypassing the Romantic tradition of performances first immortalised by Wagner. Nowhere is this more forcefully communicated than in Gielen’s own arrangement of the Grosse Fuge. Klemperer and Furtwängler again come to mind as the two most successful previous arrangers of this masterpiece of dislocation, but, as might be expected, Gielen’s treatment is very different. He distributes the melodic material between several smaller ensembles and soloists not just phrase by phrase but sometimes note by note, recalling Webern’s treatment of the Royal theme of Bach’s Musical Offering in his arrangement of the Ricercar a 6. Liberal use of sul ponticello and ‘snap’ pizzicatos heighten what are already confrontationally modern harmonies and phrase structures; the perky second theme is given an air of entirely false and even menacing jauntiness. Klemperer’s contrapuntal monolith has broken into shards of instrumental mutterings and exclamations - reflecting rather more closely the way most quartets perform the work.


Furtwängler gets a mention from his one-time pupil Gielen in the latter’s reflections on Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major symphony, but only in a passing excoriation of the traditional habit of making the first movement’s Andante introduction a ponderous preface to an overexcited allegro - or so Gielen’s later teacher, Josef Polnauer, thought. Those of us who treasure Furtwängler in this work don’t have to agree to find Gielen’s alternative almost as compelling. If you think the Introduction will take some getting used to at Gielen’s breezy two-in-a-bar, wait until the coda to the movement, taken entirely a tempo - not even Norrington blows such a startling raspberry at the work’s performance history.

In other respects, the tight sound and flowing feel to the whole symphony reminded me very positively of a recent performance conducted by Sir Roger Norrington, also in London (at the 2001 Proms), with another German radio orchestra, from SWR Stuttgart. Their tempos for the second movement are almost identical (with more emphasis on the con moto than the andante), except when Gielen cranks up the tension towards the apocalypse (from 7’30" onwards) in a thrilling and entirely unmarked accelerando. Neither conductor trivialises the music; indeed at 5’ there is a moment of genuine pathos as the horn calls, and only the lower strings answer. In all four movements, the tempo is only so fast as that which allows the moving line to ‘speak’ properly; nothing is gabbled or rushed.

Given his continually fascinating way with the many tricky corners of this work, I wish that Gielen had allowed us to hear them more than once: he is very parsimonious in the matter of repeats. Here too reside my only objection to the recorded sound in this series. The trombones ascending arpeggios at the climax of the first movement are disappointingly recessed and the brusque final statement of the theme is hardly any louder, indicating some serious dynamic compression. None of the other recordings in this series suffers from the same fault, and I am inclined to believe that Hänssler acquired the tape from BBC Radio 3 (though I don’t know if Radio 3 broadcast the concert) given that station’s distressing and ever-increasing propensity for interventionist miking and engineering for the dubious benefit of those listening on car stereos.

Rant over; if you can live with FM broadcast sound (and those of us who listen to Furtwängler and Kna in this work put up with worse) this Great C major is one to both challenge and enjoy. The Strauss encore is utterly captivating without recourse to sentimentality; Gielen remarks that one can pull them around a bit in concert, and he proceeds to do so, though the famous Viennese delay on the second beat is never exaggerated, and he creates the illusion of stretched time most successfully by turning a careful ear to dynamics - the strings and flutes die away note by note at the end of the first theme, a piccolo adds a carefully balanced counterpoint to the second. If Boulez ever deigned to pay homage to the ‘Waltz King’, this is what it would probably sound like.


Just as late, dance-inflected Schubert and Johann Strauss strike interesting sparks off each other, so too do Bruckner (in his least well-known mature symphony) and Bach, in the finest arrangement of any of his works for orchestra. Only Robert Craft is faster, in the earlier of his two recordings of Bach’s most expansive organ work, but Gielen makes the fugue’s counterpoint tell at least as well as most of his rivals on disc: the clarinet phrases the first statement with especial love. He is, however, rather flat-footed in the double-dotted French Overture of the Prelude, where Salonen, Rozhdestvensky and Scherchen all swing the rhythms with terrific verve. Gielen opens out to a glorious rallentando at the very end of each movement, but there are plenty of moments he refuses to take his time over the easing from one section into another and denied himself the chance to explore the poetry and fantasy of Schoenberg’s arrangement. That said, he is never less than scrupulous in allowing all the many voices to be heard at whatever speed they move (where Slatkin for one fails conspicuously). This is at the least an honest performance, which will serve its purpose if it introduces listeners to what is a colourful and very moving meeting of minds.

The Bruckner is rather more than that. Like Haitink, Gielen steers a sane middle course between the Romantically relaxed readings by Karajan and Celibidache and a constant momentum engineered by Wand and Skrowaczewski. Gielen doesn’t have the richly blended sound of the Concertgebouw to call upon, unlike Haitink, but the SWR orchestra play with greater rhythmic steadiness and give a superbly coherent account of the slow movement. Bruckner’s wonderful marcia funebre third theme (at 5’) has an even heavier tread than usual when the preceding themes are presented less indulgently, as here. The first clarinettist continues to excel him or herself with eloquent solos; the underpinning of the return of that third theme is magical.

Not even Gielen’s lucid sense of musical structure can resolve ‘the finale problem’ in this work which plagued Bruckner perhaps more than any other great symphonist. Even Robert Simpson in an otherwise staunch defence of the work implies that the composer’s bold juxtapositions of material tend to sap tension rather than build it. Gielen pretty much plays it straight, using three tempos that largely interlock harmoniously (save for a very sudden return to Tempo I at 8’38"). Wand and Klemperer effect more subtle solutions: but I am still waiting for a definitive Sixth. Having attended one of the concerts from which Sir Colin Davis’s forthcoming recording on LSO Live is taken, I have high hopes that it is not long in coming.


Those who do know Gielen’s work will already be familiar with his personal but idiomatic and exciting takes on the central Classical and Romantic repertoire which the first three albums in the series demonstrate. But Scriabin? It’s hard to suppress a chuckle when you read that he regards the Poem of Ecstasy, ‘a favorite (sic) of kapellmeisters… as primitive as popular music’, considering that his contemporary and musical confrere Pierre Boulez, who has himself engaged very selectively with Scriabin, will present that work with the LSO in November 2002. I’ve always thought the two men shared many musical sympathies and standpoints, and sure enough, Gielen conducts an entirely unhysterical performance of the Third with much the same clear-headedness that I imagine will distinguish Boulez’s Poem. All the same, Gielen clearly doesn’t have that much time for Scriabin’s overheated language; this recording derives from only his seventh appearance with the SWR orchestra, in 1975, and one imagines that had there been a more recent performance to call upon, Hänssler would have done so.

Don’t look here for the nervous intensity engendered by Golovanov and Kondrashin (a stunning Concertgebouw live performance which I last saw on Etcetera). Scriabin’s lush harmonies and apparently improvisatory manipulation of the tiny cells that generate whole movements give off far more light and heat under these two than Gielen allows. That said, the steadier tempo for the second movement, Voluptes, reveals interesting kinships with late Wagner; Kundry and her flower maidens are just around the corner. This 27-year-old recording is marginally more recessed than the more recent SWR engineering, but it still boasts impressive dynamic variety and allows Gielen’s keen-eared balancing of forces to speak for itself.

The Ravel and Busoni fillers bring that strength to the fore as the series moves into the repertoire for which he has always been acclaimed: Une barque in particular rocks with captivating menace and an unprecedented level of detail.


The value of this disc resides principally in bringing together three vocal works - one each from the ‘members’ of the Second Viennese School - which are central to their respective composers’ outputs, yet are more often talked about than heard. All three are predictably and ferociously difficult to perform, though Gielen interestingly insists that the musical language of the first of them, Schoenberg’s Die Gluckliche Hand (The blessed hand) is if anything regressive compared to the freer style of the monodrama Erwartung. I’m not sure that the score’s marked lack of points of repose or consolidation will strike most listeners that way and if anything, Gielen’s fluid account eschews the moments of lyricism that Pierre Boulez brought to the piece in his CBS recording. This twenty-minute, four-scene ‘drama with music’ deals with the acts of creation and rejection in a symbolical fashion, but the autobiographical element (the artist struggles to make something new and beautiful from the past and is rejected for his pains) is only barely veiled. Without the composer’s painstaking directions for lighting and movement (which make Wagner’s instructions look positively laconic) the music is the main thing, and it’s no less confidently played and sung here than under Boulez.

Der Wein is rather easier to place within its composer’s output. Berg wrote this concert aria after three poems of Baudelaire while in the middle of writing Lulu, and boy, does it show. The soprano’s first line comes straight out of the opera, saxophone, horn and strings weave long, aching melodies that could only have sprung from the pen of Lulu’s creator. Melanie Diener’s diction and feel for the jazz-meets-Wagner rhythms is unimpeachable. Wishing that Gielen might occasionally relax his tight rein over the accompaniment, is, you will have gathered by now, rather pointless; it’s not his style.

Christiane Oelze leaps and bounds with even easier agility over Webern’s setting of texts by Hildegard Jone: Gielen notes that ‘The music is as beautiful as that of Debussy… Although the First Cantata lasts only eight minutes, you have the feeling you are listening to a grand piece, for which others would need 35 minutes … in a perfectly chiselled jewel-cutting setting.’ All I can add to that is that the facets of that jewel are all the more various and bright for Hänssler’s spacious recording, which places individual instruments within their own sound space and greatly increases clarity of listening and understanding. Should you wish to follow the text for any of these (I’d call it a necessity), you’ll have to visit Hänssler’s website, http://www.haenssler-classic.de or write to them at kerstin.haenssler@haenssler.de

Steuermann is probably the least familiar name on these discs. He was a pianist for and acolyte of Schoenberg; Gielen (his nephew) describes his style as having ‘Webern’s brevity and compactness and Schoenberg’s expressive mood’. These Variations for Orchestra date from 1958, and I think later developments in atonality must also have influenced Steuermann, for although their instrumentation bears an Austro-German character, something of the rhythmic freedom of Boulez also pervades them, to their advantage.

Gielen’s own 25-minute Pflicht und Neigung is a harder nut to crack, though I have greatly enjoyed trying so far. The title means ‘Obligation and inclination’, but Gielen, so concisely helpful elsewhere, declines to discuss why. Like so many composers, he evidently finds it easier to conduct expositions of others’ music than his own, but I wish Hänssler had paid someone else to try. The instrumental groupings (including one of electronic organ, tuba, contrabass clarinet and percussion) and emphasis on non-repetitive rhythms are evidently influenced by 1950s and 60s Darmstadt, the alma parens of avant-garde German music. I think there’s an individual language here, but as with other conductor-composers (Klemperer and Furtwängler again), it’s difficult to tell due to the range and quantity of others’ music they have absorbed.

These discs range so widely in scope, a summary can hardly do them justice. Most importantly, however, there isn’t a single ill-thought-out or badly played performance among them. If that implies that they command more respect than enthusiasm, I’ll make myself clearer: I found them a joy to listen to from beginning to end.

Peter Quantrill

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