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Carlo Maria Giulini (1914 – 2005)


Carlo Maria Giulini was an aristocrat among conductors, a man who might just as easily have chosen a religious vocation rather than a musical one. Perhaps the most spiritual of all conductors, his music often seemed borne of a deeper personal awareness than that of his contemporaries. This did not always work, in either the recording studio or the concert hall, but a Giulini performance was always an event. His death, just a month after his 91st birthday, closes a chapter in Italian music that stretched throughout the twentieth century and juxtaposed a school of conducting that contrasted with its central European, Germanic antithesis. From Toscanini, through to Cantelli and de Sabata and finally Giulini, Italian conducting had a unique aesthetic to which each of these defining musical figures made a significant, and lasting, contribution. Giulini was almost alone amongst this Italianate quartet in that his style of conducting owed something to that Germanic tradition: the dynamism and purity of his sound recalled Toscanini, but the later spaciousness and more Romantic edge to his performances in Berlin and Vienna nodded instinctively towards the tradition of Furtwängler.

Unlike some of his great predecessors (Wand, Toscanini, Stokowski and most notably Monteux ) Carlo Maria Giulini did not have an Indian Summer of recordings to strengthen his legacy. He all but stopped conducting concerts at the end of the 1980s, having already abandoned opera for a second time in 1985. Yet, despite a long and fruitful career that spanned over half a century his repertoire was perhaps the smallest of any of the great conductors. Apart from Bruckner’s second symphony (which he recorded with the Wiener Symphoniker in 1974, and remains unique because it is one of the only recorded performances to follow the Nowak edition in its entirety) he concentrated in the latter stages of his career on Bruckner’s final three symphonies, this time with the Wiener Philharmoniker. They are often beautifully paced performances, not overly monumental in conception, and with an astute sense of dynamics to them. Of Mahler’s symphonies, he only conducted the First, Fourth and Ninth symphonies, in recordings which are not really part of any distinct Mahlerian tradition. His recording of Das Lied von der Erde, on the other hand, is one of the very greatest ever made. In Tchaikovsky he made outstanding recordings with the Philharmonia of the "Little Russian" (1956) and the Sixth (1959); Walter Legge asked Giulini to conduct the Fifth, but he initially refused. Believing in Legge’s incorruptible musical judgment, however, Giulini was eventually persuaded to undertake a recording of the work. After fifteen minutes he put down his baton and refused to go on. Giulini was vindicated in his view that he had no sympathy for the work; it was a typically musical gesture from a conductor who knew what his musical limitations were. With Dvorak’s Ninth, a work Giulini had not conducted in the concert hall before he made his celebrated recording of the symphony in 1961, Legge’s instincts proved correct.

When Legge first hired Giulini those limitations were gaping: Giulini came to both Mozart and Beethoven quite late in his career, principally because he would only tackle a score once he had absorbed every detail. Haydn was a paradise the Italian had yet to embrace. He would not even begin to tackle Bach until the 1960s. Operatically, he seemed to shy away from Verdi, except for the Requiem and Falstaff (which, ironically, became the opera with which Giulini broke his near fifteen year absence from the opera pit), and Puccini was a composer who left the conductor distanced. The dividends were often handsomely rewarded, however: his Don Giovanni, with the Philharmonia Orchestra, is epic, the detail and clarity unsurpassed. His Verdi, from La Traviata in 1955 with Callas, a performance phrased with such naturalness and intelligence, through to an unusually powerful, though often persuasive live Rigoletto with a young Pavarotti, and Falstaff, languidly, and beautifully conducted in 1982, all testify to an opera conductor of unusual sensitivity and gifts. Yet, paradoxically, those final two Verdi operas (Rigoletto and Falstaff) reveal opposing Giulini traits: the former is almost wilful in its abuses of Verdian manners and direction; the latter, is amongst the closest recordings to exist which pertain to Verdi’s own detailed markings. Giulini may well have been the most gifted Italian conductor of Italian opera in the twentieth century, but given the clarity of time it is arguable that the greatest conductor of Italian opera was an Austrian, Herbert von Karajan.

Where Giulini remained unsurpassed was in his recordings of Verdi’s Requiem. Opening every subscription season with the Philharmonia Orchestra for some years with performances of the work, they became legendary events. Until recently, his magnificent studio recording with an almost impossibly distinguished line-up of soloists, seemed unassailable. But over the past couple of years, a number of BBC performances have been issued which reveal even greater authority and distinction. They remain probably his greatest recorded legacy, amongst the most vital performances to have ever been committed to disc.

Giulini the man was a beguiling figure. He once told a member of the Philharmonia that he was not a saint (a comment provoked by persistent critical comments that his performances of the Requiem were ‘Heavenly’); the response from the player was that Giulini was the nearest to a saint he had ever met. This kind of affection was universal. It was frequently said that Giulini had no enemies and perhaps because he had trained as a viola player (and played under conductors such as Strauss, Toscanini, Klemperer and Walter) his empathy with orchestral players was almost unanimously positive and instructive. If he had one problem as a conductor it was that his downbeat was almost unrecognizable; and yet, orchestras followed him preternaturally. His gentleness – almost meekness – quite probably hid a demanding musical interior, yet he was not prone to outrages or fiery podium antics as some of his contemporaries were. In return, orchestras gave their best to him. A notable exception to this was a short recording period with the London Symphony Orchestra (the performance being Beethoven’s Ninth) where he was treated so badly by the players that he refused to work with the orchestra ever again (an LSO syndrome at that time, which also saw conductors such as Jochum and Rattle also refusing to work with the orchestra). And in an age when conductors are paid massive fees, for often second-rate performances, Giulini was almost embarrassed to accept payment. For him, music was something that he loved making; it was up to his astute wife to ensure that Giulini received what he deserved, especially in Los Angeles, which he left only when his wife fell ill.

The simplicity of his life, an almost cloistered one, which involved extended breaks during his musical year to indulge in his passions of walking, reading and travel, recalls that of another great conductor, Carlos Kleiber. Musically, they have much in common: they shared a limited repertoire, and an almost religious devotion to music making. They also shared a reluctance to make music. But there the similarity ends. Kleiber was such a naturally gifted conductor that his rise to greatness was inevitable. With Giulini it was entirely different. He had to be coaxed into making great music, and it no longer seems coincidental that his most fruitful period was with Walter Legge and the Philharmonia. Yet, even that relationship was founded on an event which may well have seen Giulini sidelined for a much longer period of time. The death of Cantelli in 1956 left Legge with no Italian conductor to undertake that section of the repertoire he wanted recorded; Giulini filled the gap.

Giulini’s death closes a chapter in Italian conducting (one, thankfully, still being written under the batons of Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Muti and Riccardo Chailly). His legacy, however, will probably not be as extensive as with some other conductors who have died in recent years. His performances lacked the insight of a Sinopoli, they missed the sheer electricity and fire of a Kleiber. He leaves behind no distinctive ‘Giulini style’. Yet, listen to any of the great records he made in the late 1950s and the 1960s, or even his last Bruckner performances, and what shines through is a heartfelt, almost beatific, quality for the music he is conducting. He was above all a supreme communicator and that alone will ensure that his recordings never become redundant.


Marc Bridle




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