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Michael Gielen Edition Vol. 7
rec. 1961-2006. Mono/stereo; ADD/DDD
Reviewed as a 16-bit press download
Pdf booklet includes sung texts and translations
SWR MUSIC SWR19061CD [8 CDs: 9 hours 45 minutes]

I discovered Michael Gielen quite by accident. About twenty years ago I was browsing in a high-street record shop – remember those? – when I spied a reasonably priced Sony CD of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, recorded live at the Alte Oper, Frankfurt, in 1981. The soloists looked promising, but the conductor, one Michael Gielen, was new to me. Intrigued, I bought the disc, and after just a few minutes in the player I knew he was the genuine article. I’m still very fond of that performance, and would recommend it to anyone who wants to explore this great work.

Happily, there was more to discover: between 1988 and 2014 Gielen and Hänssler recorded all the Mahler symphonies, including Deryck Cooke’s performing version of the Tenth, plus Das Lied von der Erde. Those have now been repackaged as Volume 6 of SWR Music’s Michael Gielen Edition. Also in the box are the songs, including previously unreleased live accounts of the Rückert-Lieder and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, and, on DVD, a live Ninth. I collected the individual releases, all of them highly desirable. Indeed, I’d pack them in my steamer trunk, as they’d be essential listening on my desert island.

So, who is Michael Gielen? Born in Dresden in 1927, he started as a pianist in Buenos Aires, before moving into opera. He held conducting posts in Vienna from 1950 to 1960, Stockholm over the next five years and in Amsterdam after that. In 1977 he became director of the Frankfurt Opera, a prestigious and influential position he was to hold for the next decade. But, as Gielen’s discography confirms, he was also busy in the concert hall and recording studio, primarily with the Sinfonieorchester des Südwestrundfunks, also known as the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg. He was their chief conductor from 1986 to 1999, and their conductor laureate until he retired in 2014. Alas, that very fine ensemble has since merged with its counterpart in Stuttgart.

Before we start, here’s a breakdown of earlier instalments, with links to those already reviewed on these pages:

Volume 1 – Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert (SWR19007CD)
Volume 2 – Bruckner (SWR19014CD)
Volume 3 – Brahms (SWR19022CD)
Volume 4 – Weber, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Rachmaninov and Johann Strauss (SWR19028CD)
Volume 5 – Bartók and Stravinsky (SWR19023CD)
Volume 6 – Mahler (SWR19042CD)
Volume 7, largely devoted to the 20th century, contains previously issued recordings and first releases, the latter of particular interest to Gielen fans. Interestingly, this conductor – like Hans Rosbaud before him – was a great champion of modern music. Indeed, he premiered works by György Ligeti and Karlheinz Stockhausen among them. I imagine some of that repertoire will feature in the rest of this ten-part tribute.

CD 1 contains previously released recordings of Janáček and Zemlinsky, all of which I seem to have missed; the Glagolitic Mass looks especially enticing. The auguries are good, the brass and timps bracing in the Introduction. Even at this early stage, I was reminded of the welcome clarity that characterises Gielen’s Mahler. He has a real instinct for drama, too, and that’s a bonus. The Slovak Philharmonic Choir Bratislava are excellent, and the soloists rise, quite literally, to the challenge of Janáček's high-lying vocals.

My goodness, this is music-making red in tooth and claw, exhilarating in its rasping timbres – so vital in this work – and deeply moving in its more inward moments. The latter brought to mind a rather fine Mass with Czech forces under Leoš Svárovský, one of my very favourite recordings of this mighty masterpiece (ArcoDiva). True, the organ in Gielen’s version isn’t as powerful as some, but then everything about this performance is proportionate, and that’s a good thing. What a terrific, annunciatory tam-tam in the Credo, which ends with a veritable cloudburst of ‘Amens’. But the orchestra are the real stars here, responding with alacrity to Gielen’s firm but revealing direction.

I’ve heard more performances of the Glagolitic Mass than I can shake a stick at, so I might be forgiven for feeling a little jaded about the piece. That the very opposite is true in this instance just conforms what a fine reading this is. Not in the same league as Karel Ančerl or Sir Charles Mackerras, both on Supraphon, but very impressive nonetheless. And don’t overlook the Svárovský. All credit to the SWR engineers, who’ve captured a marvellous sense of space and amplitude. It all sounds so natural, the great climaxes so effortless. In short, a great start.

As it happens, Mackerras’s Vienna recording of Taras Bulba is one of my preferred versions of that piece (Decca). True, Gielen’s performance may seem less febrile at the outset – his bells aren’t quite so thrilling – but the organ is very effective. I really like the way colours and rhythms are so distinctive – the detailed presentation certainly helps – not to mention the feel of a slow-burning, but implacable narrative. There’s genuine nobility in the first movement, all of which adds up to a flesh-and-blood performance, not just brilliant spectacle. That said, Gielen’s broad, intensely dramatic finale – clear bells and muscular timps – is simply glorious.

The disc ends with the lovely cadences of Zemlinsky’s Psalm 23, sung here with great finesse and feeling by the same Bratislava choir that did so well in the Glagolitic Mass. I wouldn’t recommend listening to the Psalm straight after the Janáček, though. Still, it’s a pleasing work in its own right, and that from someone who doesn’t usually seek out Zemlinsky’s’s work. The Mass and Psalm were recorded in Münster in 1988, Taras Bulba in the Hans Rosbaud Studio, Baden-Baden, two years earlier. Excellent engineering throughout.

CD 2, made up almost entirely of previously unreleased Americana, looks rather interesting. Gielen’s account of Carl Ruggles’ Sun-Treader, for large orchestra, has plenty of muscle and sinew. Articulation is pin-sharp and textures tellingly transparent, yet the sound is never hard or fatiguing. As ever, the conductor seems very much at home in this rep, as do his Stuttgart players. That said, this Sun-Treader doesn’t efface memories of Michael Tilson Thomas’s Boston one from 1970, coupled with Charles Ives’s Three Places in New England and Walter Piston’s Symphony No. 2 (Deutsche Grammophon); that’s a bona fide classic.

Competition is much fiercer in Ives’s The Unanswered Question and Central Park in the Dark. Alas, I find Gielen much too dry in both; after all, these aren’t European avant-garde pieces from the 1960s. For more rewarding and idiomatic readings one must look to MTT (RCA-Sony), Leonard Bernstein (CBS-Sony, DG), and, more recently, Sir Andrew Davis (Chandos) and Ludovic Morlot (SSM). The affectionately parodic General William Booth Enters into Heaven, usually good for a smile or two, doesn’t work, either. In fairness, it’s a surprisingly difficult work to calibrate; even the otherwise admirable Andrew Litton doesn’t quite pull it off (Hyperion).

The Canadian Colin McPhee’s Eastern-influenced Tabuh-Tabuhan (‘collection of percussion instruments’) starts well but soon outstays its welcome. It doesn’t help that the sound of this 1975 concert – which included William Booth and Central Park – is so rough and shallow, the pianos lost in a messy mix. At least the Austrian-American Eduard Steuermann’s Schoenbergian Variations for Orchestrq, recorded in the studio fifteen years later, is rather more accomplished and appealing. Most important, the playing is commendably crisp, the soundstage has plenty of depth, and there’s lots or air around the notes. This was originally released as part of a Second Viennese album.

All is not lost, for Gielen’s 1995 recording of Edgard Varèse’s Arcana is a knockout. It has terrifying weight and energy, the timps and bass drum are outstanding, and the upper strings are apt in their astringency. The plosive percussion is very well caught, as are the small, precise rhythmic cells that pepper the piece. Also, I sense a drive and commitment here that I just don’t get anywhere else on this disc. Definitely one for downloaders to cherry-pick and file alongside Riccardo Chailly’s indispensable set of the complete works (Decca).

CD 3 offers just two works, Claude Debussy’s play/ballet/oratorio Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien and his Nocturnes. These previously unreleased Stuttgart concerts were recorded in 1972 and 1975 respectively. Originally, Debussy’s musical contributions to Saint Sébastien were interspersed with dances and copious prose by Gabriel D’Annunzio; these days, it’s usually performed sans texts, as here, or as a purely instrumental suite, the Fragments symphoniques. Gielen certainly welds these disparate elements into a coherent and keenly dramatic whole. And while the soloists are a tad unsteady, the orchestra and choirs are firm, focused and unfailingly idiomatic.

Even though the piece is something of a curiosity, it contains ravishing, extraordinarily evanescent music that deserves to be better known. Gielen is aided and abetted in this captivating enterprise by a very fine analogue-era recording, with good detail, depth and a satisfying stereo spread. Do the Nocturnes impress, too? Very much so. Indeed, the seemingly intuitive feel for shape that informs Gielen’s approach to the main work is very much in evidence here. Fêtes is both nimble abd spirited – what a strong, steady pulse – and the women of the SWR Vokalensemble are very incisive in in Sirènes. Firmer outlines than usual, perhaps, but none the worse for that.

CD 4, subtitled ‘Music of transition’, has pieces by Ferruccio Busoni and Max Reger, recorded with the Stuttgart and Baden-Baden orchestras in the 1980s. Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque, a memorial to his late mother, can so easily be pulled under by its grieving undertow; fortunately, Gielen keeps it all above water – just – his home band warm and eloquent throughout. Regrettably, though, a close, overstuffed recording – not ideal in this repertoire – means the ensuing Nocturne symphonique struggles to stay afloat. The sound and playing in the Doktor Faust studies is rather more lively, but, with the exception of his splendid piano concerto, I find Busoni hard work at the best of times.

Ditto Reger, although his piano concerto is usually worth the effort. And yes, Steven de Groote’s bright, upfront performance certainly has its moments. The quieter ones in the outer movements are nicely done, and the involved middle suggests a decent rapport between podium and pianist. The sound is a little one-dimensional, and detail – not the concerto’s strongest suit – is that much harder to discern. Ultimately, though, this is second-rate stuff, and not even Gielen’s advocacy can persuade me otherwise.

Into the second half, and Gielen’s looking to raise the score with CD 5 (Franz Schreker, Paul Hindemith and Goffredo Petrassi). While at the Frankfurt Opera, he revived Schreker's Die Gezeichneten, the start of which I got to know via a sumptuous recording from the Royal Swedish Orchestra under Lawrence Renes (BIS). Gielen’s account of the Vorspiel zu einem Drama (Prelude to a Drama), initially coupled with his Mahler Fourth, gets a wonderfully Wagnerian outing. Rhythms and phrases feel entirely natural, too. The studio recording, made in 1995, is a well-judged blend of heft and detail, the sweep and surge of this score superbly rendered. A musical and sonic treat.

Once again, I was struck by Gielen’s assiduous musicianship, the care and commitment he shows in everything he does. True, he sometimes misses the mark, but that matters less when you consider his successes elsewhere. His ‘new’ recording of Hindemith’s Symphony ‘Mathis der Maler’, which dates from 1968, is no exception; broader than some, and more colourful than most, it left me marvelling at the sheer vigour and vitality of the writing. Gielen’s grip on the music is unwavering, and his Saarbrücken band are at the top of their game. Now noble, now trenchant, this is a performance of real stature, and, as a first release, it’s a valuable addition to the catalogue.

My allegiance to Herbert Blomstedt’s monumental Decca version, recorded with the San Francisco SO in 1987, is unshaken, but my admiration for Gielen has risen even more. Remarkably, he reveals aspects of this much-loved piece that I’ve not heard before, and that’s a real pleasure. The Saarbrücken recording, although remarkable for its age, can’t compete with the no-holds-barred Decca one for Blomstedt. That said, Gielen’s magisterial climaxes are very exciting indeed. The Italian composer Goffredo Petrassi’s Concerto per orchestra No. 1 – a first for me – is a delightful and very engaging filler. Excellent, unfatiguing mono sound, too.

Given that Gielen spent much if his career working with voices, CD 6, made up of arias/duets and sundry Lieder, should be a good ‘un. We kick off with Octavian’s presentation of the rose to Sophie, from Act 2 of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. It’s luminously sung by the soprano Christiane Boesiger and mezzo Cornelia Kallisch, the full, nicely aerated accompaniment a special delight. As for soprano Elizabeth Whitehouse, her account of ‘Un bel di, vedremo’, from Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is too steely for my taste. She’s more yielding in ‘Scuoti quella fronda’, with the mezzo Margit Neubauer a very expressive Suzuki. As for the ‘Humming Chorus’, it could do with some warmth and a lot more body. Ultimately, though, these verismo chunks just aren’t terribly engaging or idiomatic.

Much more successful is mezzo Waltraud Meier’s ‘Der Engel’ and ‘Träume’, from Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder. This is lovely singing, finely shaded and exquisitely controlled, and that goes for Gielen’s accompaniment as well. Meier is just as attractive in Strauss’s Wiegenlied, which, like most of the material on this disc, is taken from television productions taped in the 1990s. The exception is Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung, recorded live at the Konzerthaus, Freiburg, in 2006. I’ve always admired von Karajan’s first DG account of the piece, but Sergiu Celibidache’s newly released Munich one is well worth hearing. Gielen’s is a thorough and suitably intense performance, let down by overlarge, ill-focused tuttis. Quieter passages are less problematic, though.

After that rather mixed bag, we move on to CD 7, which contains a complete recording of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë. I first encountered this 1997 performance on Vol. 2 of Hänssler’s Les Ballets Russes series. At the time I thought it decent enough, and in fair sound, but then – as now – I longed for a sense of theatre. It just sounds so … efficient. No match for the classic Pierre Monteux version, superbly remastered by Praga Digitals, or, indeed, for the dash and danceability that makes the recent Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth version so special (Harmonia Mundi). Ravel’s orchestrations of Une barque sur l’océan and Alborada del gracioso, the latter a first release, are pleasing enough, but far from Gielen at his best.

Two very disappointing discs in a row, so there’s a lot riding on CD 8, which begins with a performance of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, set down in 1975. The soundstage may be a bit narrow, but the recording has point and polish. More important, there’s a spring to the playing – an affectionate lilt, if you like – that’s so refreshing after that dogged Daphnis. Then we have a newly released La valse, recorded at a Cologne concert 18 years later. Rhythms are fairly supple, and tension builds quite well, but, once again, it just sounds so … efficient. That said, the finale is splendid; the audience certainly liked it. (Incidentally this is the only occasion in the entire box where the applause has been retained.)

So, how does Gielen fare with the mystic Alexander Scriabin’s Symphony No. 3, ‘Le divin poème’? It’s the first time I’ve heard this particular recording, made in 1993. Gielen’s trademark clarity is everywhere – so vital in a piece that’s apt to clot and cloy – and he does keep it all moving. The playing is good, the lovely harp and febrile brass especially. The downside is that climaxes have a cutting edge that’s very unpleasant at times. Not a bad performance I suppose, but one need only turn to Riccardo Muti’s truly sumptuous Philadelphia version to realise what’s missing here (EMI-Warner and Brilliant Classics).

For me, the trouble with boxed sets – and the reason I rarely buy them – is that they invariably contain performances I don’t wish to revisit (Gielen’s Mahler is a notable exception). That rather defeats the purpose of these offerings, whose USP is their low price. Take this review set, for instance: eight CDs for around £36 works out at £4.50 per disc. However, I’d only want CDs 1, 3 and 5 in their entirety, so this box ain’t such a bargain after all. I could just download these three CDs and the best bits from the rest, but that adds up quite fast.

Now here’s the stinger. I’ve just discovered that the 16-bit files of this review set cost a lot more than the discs. And I mean a lot. Downloading this volume will cost you £63 at Qobuz and an eye-watering £75 at Presto. That’s simply extortionate, and downloaders should email offending labels and say so. It doesn’t have to be this way though, as BIS have demonstrated with their sensibly priced boxes and equivalent downloads. Gougers, please note.

Rant aside, there are some very desirable things here; alas, just not enough of them.

Dan Morgan

Contents (* denotes first release)

CD 1 – Prague [71:35]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Mša Glagolskaja (Glagolitic Mass (final version, 1928) [39:27]
Ellen Shade (soprano); Márta Szirmay (alto); Thomas Moser (tenor); Günter Reich (bass); Imrich Szabó (organ)
Slovak Philharmonic Choir Bratislava
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
rec. June 1988, Schwarzach, Münster
Taras Bulba (1915-1918) [22:05]
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
rec. November 1986, Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden
Alexander von ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Psalm 23, Op. 14, for chorus and orchestra (1900) [10:27]
Slovak Philharmonic Choir Bratislava
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
rec. June 1988, Schwarzach, Münster

CD 2 – America [78:47]
Carl RUGGLES (1876-1971)
Sun-Treader (1928-1931) [14:34] *
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR
rec. live, 21 June 1975, SDR, Funkstudio Berg, Sendesaal II, Stuttgart
Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Central Park in the Dark (1906) [10:08] *
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR
rec. live, 21 June 1975, SDR, Funkstudio Berg, Sendesaal II, Stuttgart
General William Booth Enters into Heaven (1913) [5:12] *
Richard Anlauf (baritone)
SWR Vokalensemble
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR
rec. live, 21 June 1975, SDR, Funkstudio Berg, Sendesaal II, Stuttgart
Colin McPHEE (1900-1964)
Tabuh-Tabuhan – Toccata for Orchestra (1936) [16:29] *
Claude Helffer, Peter Roggenkamp (pianos)
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR
rec. live, 21 June 1975, SDR, Funkstudio Berg, Sendesaal II, Stuttgart
Charles IVES
The Unanswered Question (1906) [5:21]
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
rec. February 1995, Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden
Edgard VARÈSE (1883-1965)
Arcana (1925-1927) [17:53] *
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
rec. February 1995, Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden
Eduard STEUERMANN (1892-1964)
Variations for Orchestra (1958) [8:20]
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
rec. February 1990, Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden

CD 3 – Debussy [78:01]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien (1911) [52:42] *
Cathérine Gayer (soprano); Hanna Aurbacher, Brigitte Messthaler (alto)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
SWR Vokalensemble
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR
rec. live, 14 April 1972, Liederhalle, Beethovensaal, Stuttgart
Nocturnes (1897-1899) [25:02] *
SWR Vokalensemble (women’s voices)
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR
rec. live, 30 October 1975, Liederhalle, Beethovensaal, Stuttgart

CD 4 – Music of transition [74:42]
Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Berceuse élégiaque, Op. 42 (1909) [7:22]
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
rec. February 1995, Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden
Nocturne symphonique, Op. 43 (1913) [6:52] *
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR
rec. live, 29 October 1980, Liederhalle, Beethovensaal, Stuttgart
2 Studien zu Doktor Faust, Op. 51 (1916-1924) [18:05]
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
rec. December 1987, Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Piano Concerto in F minor, Op. 114 (1910) [41:41]
Steven de Groote (piano)
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
rec. December 1987, Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden

CD 5 – On the way to consolidation [68:27]
Franz SCHREKER (1878-1934)
Vorspiel zu einem Drama (1913) [18:39]
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
rec. February 1995, Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Symphonie ‘Mathis der Maler’ (1934) [26:41] *
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken
rec. February 1968, Studio K (Großer Sendesaal des SR), Saarbrücken
Goffredo PETRASSI (1904-2003)
Concerto per orchestra No. 1 (1933/1934) [22:39] *
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
rec. January 1961, Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden

CD 6 – Kitsch or art on TV [64:17]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Der Rosenkavalier (1911) *
‘Mir ist die Ehre widerfahren’ [6:56]
Christiane Boesiger (soprano); Cornelia Kallisch (mezzo)
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
TV production, June 1997, Kurhaus, Bénazet-Saal, Baden-Baden
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Madama Butterfly (1904) *
‘Un bel dì, vedremo’ [4:21]
‘Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio’ [12:51]
Elizabeth Whitehouse (soprano); Margit Neubauer (mezzo)
Chor der Oper Frankfurt
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
TV production, June 1997, Kurhaus, Bénazet-Saal, Baden-Baden
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Wesendonck-Lieder – excerpts (1858) *
Der Engel [3:11]
Träume [4:40]
Waltraud Meier (mezzo)
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
TV production, November 1993, St. Peter, Klosterkirche
Wiegenlied, Op. 41/1 (1899) [3:42] *
Waltraud Meier (mezzo)
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
TV production, November 1993, St. Peter, Klosterkirche
Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24 (1888-1889) [27:50] *
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
rec. live, 4 May 2006, Konzerthaus, Freiburg

CD 7 – Ravel [73:27]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloë (complete) (1910-1912) [57:50]
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
rec. September 1997, Konzerthaus, Freiburg
Une barque sur l’océan, (1910) [7:47]
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
rec. January 1997, Konzerthaus, Freiburg
Alborada del gracioso (1918) [7:25] *
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
rec. January 1997, Konzerthaus, Freiburg

CD 8 – Ravel’s waltzes and Scriabin [76:25]
Maurice RAVEL
Valses nobles et sentimentales (1912) [17:36]
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR
rec. live, 10 October 1975, SDR, Funkstudio Berg, Sendesaal II, Stuttgart
Alexander SCRIABIN (1871-1915)
Symphony No. 3, ‘Le divin poème’, Op. 43 (1902-1904) [45:56]
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
rec. May 1975, Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden
Maurice RAVEL
La valse (1919-1920) [12:51] *
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
rec. live, 24 March 1993, Philharmonie, Köln