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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Tragic Overture Op.81* (1880) [13:16]
Variations on a theme by Haydn Op.56a (1873) [18:51]
Symphony No.4 in E minor Op.98 (1885) [43:00]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra*/Carlo Maria Giulini
rec. 12 November 1962, Kingsway Hall, London (Overture); 25-27 January 1961, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (Variations); 13-15 May 1969, Medinah Temple, Chicago (Symphony).
Bonus CD – Carlo Maria Giulini – A Profile
EMI CLASSICS GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 5628822 [75:15 + 76:38]
 


This is something of a feast for Giulini fans. The package offers the first general release of this recording of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, some choice fillers, and a bonus CD which covers Giulini’s entire life and career.
 
The Tragic Overture has all of the eloquent passion of the great conductor – the musical message is potent and clear, but the recorded performance betrays its age a little: those thin-sounding oboes are as much a giveaway as black and white film, and the wind intonation is fairly appalling in one or two sections, loath as I am to criticise a band which contains one of my old flute teachers, Gareth Morris.
 
Thin oboes carry on in the Variations on a Theme by Haydn, but while the stereo separation in the strings is a little artificial the Abbey Road recording is good enough. I’ve always had a soft spot for this piece, and it’s nice to hear how easygoing and urbane Giulini could be where the music required – of course with no let up in detail with phrasing and attention to all those important inner voices. The Vivace variations V and VI are pretty spectacular, with plenty of bounce and wit in the latter. The beautiful seventh variation is elegantly restrained, and this entire performance is attractive in its direct, unmannered unpretentiousness.
 
The meatiest chunk on this issue is of course the Fourth Symphony, which was made in 1969 at the time of Giulini’s inauguration as Principal Guest Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Richard Osborne suggests the possibility that, with Giulini being “neither traditionally Italian nor characteristically German” in his approach as being at least in part responsible for the recording’s neglect after its initial appearance. It was never re-released on LP, and this being its first true CD release will be essential listening for many collectors. Osborne also mentions the “occasionally problematic” Medinah Temple acoustic, and indeed the orchestral sound is rather generalised, at times seeming a little distant, as though one is listening from an upper balcony. The ear adjusts to such things however, and Giulini’s reading is immediately inspired and involving.
 
I had to get out a few comparisons, and turned first to my 1983 cassette box of the complete Brahms Symphonies conducted by Leonard Bernstein, bought at a time when we thought tapes were wonderful because you didn’t have to change sides so often or worry about grit and scratches. Bernstein’s live recording has a drive and energy all its own, with more immediate impact and certainly greater dynamic range. His narrative is however more overtly romantic. Giulini seems better able to hold onto the longer line, while at the same time losing nothing in the more intimate passages. Bernstein is on top of every note, wringing all of the expression from soloists and sections, but as a result occasionally ending up a little leaden-footed in the transitions and overly perfumed in the solos.
 
It is almost impossible not to have a look across at one of Deutsche Grammophon’s comparable mid-price reissues, Carlos Kleiber in 1980 with the Wiener Philharmoniker on ‘The Originals’ – so original that there is no filler whatsoever, giving us under 40 minutes of just the Symphony. This is a grand performance however, and there will be schools of thought and opinions on all sides. Sir Simon Rattle argues the case for Giulini, “He has brought something to the recording of that piece which one only normally feels in the communion of a live concert. It is one of those performances in which you feel the musicians are playing not the notes but the story of their lives.” Richard Osborne (him again) bats for Kleiber’s performance: “… a thing apart… at one fierce, noble and austere…” In comparison one does have the feeling that Kleiber has the better orchestra, certainly one for whom Brahms lived and breathed – one which only needed a conductor like Kleiber to come along and lift the lid on all that Austrian glory. This is not to take away from Giulini however. His is a slightly different magic – humanist and earthy, even almost operatic at times. Where Kleiber is the mystic magician you sense Giulini somehow has the bigger heart.          
 
There is a little tape damage on this recording, with funny gargling horns 1:33 into the first movement and some little distortions here and there. There are one or two bumpy edits as well, but on the whole the sound is very good, and collectors need fear no hair-shirt experience coming over their speakers.      
 
The bonus disc is a documentary on Giulini’s life and career adapted from ‘Giulini at 90’, a tribute made by the WFMT Radio Network in collaboration with EMI Classics. Giulini himself contributes, with extracts from an interview made in his own studio in 2003. There are some fascinating musical illustrations, tributes from musicians who worked with him, and interesting insights into how Giulini’s career developed, and on conducting technique and interpretation.
 
This has to be seen as a valuable addition to the catalogue. Time has shown that Giulini’s Brahms interpretations have every bit as much to tell us today as when they first appeared. Referring to the close of the finale, but equally relevant to the entire recording Richard Osborne sums it up very well and saves me the effort of trying: “…an enchanted homecoming, as joyous as it is unaffected.” 
 
Dominy Clements
 
EMI Great Recordings of the Century

 



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