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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Symphony No 40 in G minor, K550 [35:02]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) Das Lied von der Erde* [64:57]
*Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo)
Francisco Araiza (tenor)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini
Recorded live at the Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 2 August 1987
ORFEO C 654 052 B [35:02 + 64:57]

 

 

I was very surprised to read in the most interesting booklet essay that Carlo Maria Giulini made only a handful of appearances at the Salzburg Festival during his long and distinguished career. However, this was not because he was frozen out during the Karajan years as some other artists were. Rather it appears that it was more the result of Giulini making himself something of a loner. So the complete concert offered here apparently represents only his third appearance at the Festival.

The set is precious for another reason. Giulini’s repertoire was famously selective and it included little of Mahler’s music. He made commercial recordings of only three works so far as I know. There’s a much underrated version of the First Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which EMI reissued in a four-disc set last year in celebration of the maestro’s 90th birthday. He made recordings of two other works, setting down the Ninth Symphony, also in Chicago, and recording Das Lied von der Erde with the Berlin Philharmonic and the same soloists as here. And that’s it. As far as I’m aware he didn’t conduct any more of Mahler’s music, much less record it. And I can understand that for, with the possible exception of the other song cycles and the Fourth Symphony, the remainder of Mahler’s œuvre would not have suited the temperament of this most fastidious of conductors. He was wise not to have attempted them. But as the surviving recordings, this one included, demonstrate those Mahler works that he did conduct he did well.

The Mozart symphony opens the programme and it’s something of a disappointment. It’s refined and loving but most of it is just too slow and too smoothly sculpted. It’s hard to believe that this is the same conductor who so memorably recorded, for example, a vital Don Giovanni for EMI under the Walter Legge regime. The first movement is marked Allegro molto but you’d never know from just listening. In fact Giulini gives us a rather melancholic reading of the movement. Though the phrasing is affectionate there’s no drive. I’d estimate the speed at crotchet=78. By contrast the lithe interpretation by Sir Charles Mackerras and the Prague Chamber Orchestra (Telarc) nips along at crotchet=112. No wonder Mackerras takes 6’53" for this movement whereas Giulini, with his completely different conception of the music, requires 9’09". Both conductors observe the exposition repeat, by the way.

The slow movement is just that – slow! In fact it’s almost lugubrious. My understanding of an andante is that the pace should be close to walking speed. Not here it isn’t. It’s beautifully played but really it’s all just too earnest. There are no repeats, which is probably just as well since even played straight through the movement occupies 8’43" here. Mackerras makes both repeats and still clocks in at just 13’27".

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Menuetto is rather too stately – it just lacks the necessary forward impetus. The finale, though more allegro than the marked allegro assai is somewhat more vital than what has gone before And tellingly Giulini achieves this extra vitality with no loss of grace. Both repeats are taken. Though the VPO plays devotedly for Giulini this isn’t a performance that I can see myself returning to very often.

The performance of Das Lied von der Erde is an entirely different affair. Where much of the Mozart was sleepy and smooth to the point of blandness this performance is vital and acute. Giulini’s Berlin recording was made a few years earlier, in 1983, I believe. I haven’t heard that recording for many years, and I don’t believe it’s currently available, but I recall it as a finely observed and very humane account. Those characteristics are evident here too but the electricity of a live performance brings out a frisson and an added urgency that may not have been quite so present under studio conditions – though it’s dangerous to rely on memory.

Giulini is blessed with two fine soloists, The Mexican tenor, Francisco Araiza has a splendid ring in his voice yet in the first song, ‘Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde’, every time he sings the line ‘Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod’ there’s also a most welcome sweetness in the voice. This is a cruelly demanding song, encompassing a wide vocal range (and a wide range of emotion) and the tessitura is punishing at times. Araiza seems undaunted by it all and produces an heroic top B flat on the word ‘Lebens’ near the end of the song. Just before that I don’t think he quite conveys the horror of the episode when an ape is glimpsed by the poet but overall I think his performance of this song is very successful even if he doesn’t quite efface memories of Patzak or Wunderlich – though both of these were recorded under studio conditions.

Araiza does his other two songs very well too. I much enjoyed his light, easy tenor in ‘Von der Jungend’ where there’s some lovely phrasing to admire. And ’Der Trunkene im Frühling’ is equally commendable.

But, with due respect to the tenor fraternity any performance of Das Lied von der Erde stands or falls by the performance of the mezzo-soprano soloist. In Brigitte Fassbaender Giulini has the services of one of the most vividly communicative singers of her generation. So often when one hears her one appreciates that for her every phrase, every word means something. And so it is here. In her opening song, ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ her entry is superbly prepared by Giulini, who balances the chamber-like textures of the orchestra luminously. He inspires some lustrous playing from the VPO, especially the distinguished and eloquent principal oboist. Fassbaender sings from the start with commitment and compelling intensity. Hear her at ‘Der Herbst in meinem Herzen wärht zu lange’ and marvel at the artistry on display in a phrase a mere four and a half bars long!

‘Von der Schönheit’ is an astonishing song, often unfairly, if understandably overshadowed by ‘Der Abschied’. It begins innocently enough but in the central section, beginning at ‘O sieh, was tummeln sich für schöne Knaben’ (track 4, 3’13") Mahler really screws up the tension and the pace. Here Fassbaender responds with some tremendously vital and involved singing. As the tempo and the emotion gets wilder she produces some almost visceral singing at ‘Das Ros des einem wiehert fröhlich auf’ (4’02"). So intensely does she project the words that one is reminded of Fischer-Dieskau.

But she reserves her greatest efforts, as she should, for ‘Der Abschied’. From the very start her singing and communication reach new levels of commitment and intuition. This is penetrating music-making in which Giulini supports her to the hilt. Just once or twice early on I detected instances where, in her desire to communicate her vision of the song, the pitch of a sustained note wavers. However, these are momentary and minor technical blemishes which are as nothing when set against the spirit of her performance. Every note is invested with meaning and the changing moods of the setting are all vividly conveyed. Thus she sounds suitably withdrawn at ‘Es wehet kühl im Schatten meiner Fichten’ but a few moments later there’s searing intensity at ‘O Schönheit! O ewigen Liebens’.

As I’ve indicated Giulini and the orchestra play their full part in the drama. The great orchestral interlude from figure 38 in the score (track 6, 14’38") is penetratingly conducted by Giulini who builds it powerfully and purposefully. The playing of the VPO has a haunting intensity. When Fassbaender enters again, at ‘Er stieg vom Pferd und reichte ihm’ (20’16") she doesn’t opt for a withdrawn tone, as do some but instead is vivid in her vocalisation. Then ‘Die liebe Erde allüberall’ is the heartfelt, ecstatic outpouring that it should be, the singer supported by an ardent VPO. The work dies away into the nothingness of ‘Ewig’ and there is nothing more to say. Mercifully the audience grants a few seconds of silence before giving richly deserved applause.

This is a superb rendition of Das Lied von der Erde. I should say at once that the sheer animal intensity of Fassbaender’s singing won’t be to all tastes. For myself I don’t find it a comfortable interpretation. But should Das Lied be "comfortable"? Surely not. No, Fassbaender gives us a disturbing and challenging interpretation, one to set beside the truly great interpreters of this role: Ludwig (for Klemperer), Baker (for Haitink and, even more, for Kubelik) and Ferrier (with Walter).

Giulini’s is a perceptive, considered and deeply musical vision of this score. He doesn’t displace such giants as Horenstein, Haitink, Klemperer or Walter but, like them, he brings his own deep insights to this score and, on this performance, I’d rank him in such exalted company as an interpreter of this many-faceted masterpiece. And I mustn’t overlook Araiza, who makes a not inconsiderable contribution to the success of this enterprise. So do the Vienna Philharmonic, who play marvellously for Giulini.

The recorded sound is excellent and there are good notes in German and English though no texts are supplied.

The Mozart performance is not, I suggest, one that will enhance the reputation of Carlo Maria Giulini but this Das Lied von der Erde, which he approved for release only a few months before his death, is another very welcome and treasurable example of his superb, inspiring and perceptive musicianship. All his admirers and, even more so, all those who love this wondrous score should hasten to hear it. We should be profoundly grateful to Orfeo for making it available. Recommended with all possible enthusiasm.

John Quinn

 

 

 



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