> Schubert Symphony 9 Gielen [CF]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No.9 in C major D.944
Johann STRAUSS (1825-1899)

Voices of Spring Op.410
SWR Symphony Orchestra/Michael Gielen
Recorded at the Royal Festival Hall, London on 27 April 1996 (Schubert) and at the Konzerthaus, Freiburg on 4 September 1998 (Strauss)
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 93. 057 [59. 07]


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This is a tribute disc to mark the 75th birthday of the conductor Michael Gielen. German-born, he spent formative years in Buenos Aires, which was no bad place to be for a young budding conductor (despite the tragic circumstances of being a member of a Jewish family fleeing from Nazi persecution). Both Fritz Busch and Erich Kleiber were resident in the city.

Gielen has made his name as a conductor of contemporary works, and having played Schoenberg’s complete piano works to the composer on his 75th birthday he certainly had a thorough schooling. He has spent years as GMD (General Music Director) of various top rank opera houses (Frankfurt, Stockholm, Amsterdam) and has led orchestras in Europe and America, as well as becoming a pedagogue of conducting at various European centres. His association with the SWF Radio Orchestra goes back to 1986, and since 1999 it is described as ‘Permanent Guest Conductor’.

Before getting to the interpretations of both works on this CD, mention must be made of the appalling incoherence of the booklet. Record companies really do have to get their act together and ensure such travesties as this do not find their way into their booklets. It does them no credit, nor I imagine would Gielen or his English agent approve. Here are a couple of extracts of this gobbledegook:

His years in Baden-Baden began in 1986 to lead (and are still leading) all around to that which had long been Michael Gielen’s wish - archived (and commercially available) tapes and CD’s which are able extensively to document his view of the works of music history from Johann Sebastian Bach to George Lopez - and which a symphony orchestra such as that of the Südwest(rund)funk could but wish for - which record concerts at home and on tour whose "publica" often announce with their unremitting applause at the outset what they do not expect, namely, any trace of the boring or the commonplace.

…It would appear that even the uninitiated now know what Gielen stands for, what he does, who he is: an "outsider" (honored with the "Cannes Classical Lifetime Achievement Award 2002", following the Adorno Prize, the Great Federal Service Cross, honorary doctorate …) who has allied himself with the outsider quality of the art works in order steadfastly to help them win the recognition which is their due.

More coherent and pertinent are Gielen’s own comments on Schubert in general and the ‘Great’ C major symphony in particular, so maybe he should have written his own curriculum vitae for the booklet. He was brought up on Furtwängler’s (slow) interpretation but was taken to task by his teacher Josef Polnauer, a Viennese, who pointed out that the opening theme is a ‘walking theme’ (Andante) and Schubert’s original marking has turned out to be 2/2 rather than 4/4, in other words twice the ‘traditional’ speed (Norrington has recorded it thus). It makes perfect sense, for it also explains why it has always been traditional and necessary for this ‘problematic’ introduction to accelerate into the Allegro. However by taking it from the outset at double the speed we are used to hearing it proves unnecessary to make any change of tempo, the result a wonderfully seamless progression. Gielen, in his own words, points out that the ‘walking theme’ must be seen as ‘relatively young people in Vienna at the time, so keen on marching from wine garden to wine garden, tasting the new vintage wine’, a wonderful image.

Strauss’s waltz for full orchestra makes an enjoyable and joyous filler and Gielen’s clearly Viennese origins explore a freedom of tempo and rubato to achieve a warm-blooded performance. Throughout the disc the orchestra plays well for him despite some hard-edged timbres in its full sound, for instance at the opening of the finale of the symphony. All in all it did not quite bring tears to my ears (Gielen confesses as much in his essay on Schubert’s music) but he does make some interesting musical points.

Christopher Fifield

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