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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphonies 1-9
Mass in C major
rec. 1967-2007
Michael Gielen Edition Vol. 9
SWR MUSIC SWR19090CD [9 CDs: 608:11 & DVD: 47 mins]

I was somewhat daunted when I received this tightly-packed box set. You see, I have a confession; though I’m an abject worshipper of Beethoven, I’m not inordinately fond of the ‘Eroica’ – there, I’ve said it! It may be that I played it too many times when I was earning a crust as a performer, but I don’t think it’s that. I believe it’s more to do with the relentless character of the music itself. Whatever it is, you’ll understand that I was less than thrilled to find that this set of ten discs contained no less than four performances of Symphony no.3. Admittedly, they were recorded at widely different times between 1970 and 2000, and one of them is a DVD. But still … nothing daunted, I girt my loins and dipped in.

Michael Gielen died in March last year, at the age of ninety-one, having retired from conducting for health reasons in 2014. Though Austrian by birth, he grew up in Argentina, and went on to conduct many of the world’s great orchestras. Those included the five that play on these discs, two of which - the Cincinnati Symphony and Southwest Germany (SWR) Radio Symphony Orchestra - appointed him as principal conductor for periods of time.

To understand Gielen’s musicianship, it’s important to realise that composing was at least as important for him as conducting. He was an unapologetic champion of modern music, including some of the thorniest repertoire, such as the 2nd Vienna School composers. He was a fine pianist too, and made his debut in his early 20s with a series of recitals which included Schönberg’s complete piano works – not most young pianists’ chosen way of announcing themselves! But it was a sign of his deep commitment to contemporary music, with post-war Germany hardly the easiest environment to work in.

These discs contain, firstly, the nine Beethoven symphonies, recorded in Freiburg during his tenure as principal conductor of the SWR Symphony orchestra; then four more CDs of assorted performances of symphonies, overtures and the Mass in C, recorded with various orchestras and performers; and finally a DVD of an ‘Eroica’ performance with the SWR SO from 1987.

The complete set on CDs 1-5 is no ordinary one, and there are some remarkable performances. Beware, because Gielen was never a ‘comfortable’ interpreter, his creative personality compelling him to seek new perspectives every time he tackled a work. He sometimes seems reluctant to let the music settle, always pressing forward, and this urgent, explosive character is clearly how he saw Beethoven, thus making many of the tracks a thrilling ride. Yet in the more lyrical moments, he often draws the most beautiful responses from his players; under him, the SWR SO was unquestionably a world-class ensemble.

CD1 contains Symphonies no.1 and no.3, both of which illustrate clearly the features described above. He captures the ‘gemütlich’ side of the First Symphony beautifully, especially in the Andante cantabile, for which he finds an ideal speed, allowing the music space to breathe, yet not treating it as a slow movement, which it certainly is not. The Menuetto (in truth a scherzo) has a delightful rhythmic tautness, with special credit to the orchestra’s timpanist, who is superb in all the symphonies. And I love the way Gielen starts the finale’s Allegro after the slow introduction. The strings play the main theme really softly, so that the music can explode at the first tutti, and the movement grows organically from there.

Gielen is also meticulous about doing all repeats as indicated by the composer (there is one exception, mentioned below); conductors can be cavalier about this. Moving on to the Eroica, the huge first movement is a perfect example of another characteristic of Gielen’s approach to Beethoven – his generally quick, sometimes very quick, tempi. His speed for the opening Allegro con brio (‘quick, vigorous’) is as close as any recording I know to Beethoven’s own metronome mark of

dotted minim = 60, i.e. one bar per second. In other words, those two famous opening chords, and the ‘cello theme that follows, should each be one second apart (within a nanosecond or two!).

I certainly don’t want to get into the old debate about whether Beethoven’s metronome was broken or not; but there has for many years been a growing feeling that his markings may not be as eccentric as was once thought. It’s interesting, then, that Gielen takes just 15:36 to play this movement. Two comparisons, more or less at random: in his early 1990s set with the Staatskapelle Dresden, Colin Davis takes 18:45; in his 1960s recording with the Berlin PO, Herbert von Karajan takes just 14:44. But, unlike Davis and Gielen, Karajan does not observe the repeat of the first movement exposition, around 3 minutes of music. Gielen is also quicker in this movement than recordings by other conductors noted for quick tempi, primarily Norrington and Harnoncourt.

I admit to have been genuinely taken aback, though, by the briskness of the opening of the Pastoral Symphony. This is track 5 of CD4, with Beethoven’s descriptive heading ‘Pleasant, cheerful feelings on arriving in the countryside’, and a tempo marking of Allegro ma non troppo (‘quick, but not too much so’). Again, the speed is completely consistent with Beethoven’s metronome mark, but does undoubtedly take a bit of getting used to if you are accustomed to a more leisurely appreciation of the countryside. Gielen and his players did nearly convince me by the end, so committed are they to this tempo, even if some of the quicker notes in the coda are a bit rushed.

But the slow movement – ‘By the brook’ - is simply heavenly, with exquisite playing from all the woodwind soloists. In passages like this, having a conductor with Gielen’s determination to keep things moving is invaluable. The ‘Peasants’ Merrymaking’ of the scherzo is great fun, and the storm is, as it should be, truly alarming, after which the ‘Hymn of thanksgiving’ has the right note of simplicity and sincerity.

Before the Pastoral on CD 4 comes Symphony no.5, and the force of the attack of the four opening notes is simply stunning. This is what I love about Gielen’s conducting; he has an idea about a piece, then he goes for broke in putting it into practice, and the first movement is thrilling. But his imaginative response carries him well beyond the opening bars, with a wonderful Andante, and powerfully contrasted scherzo and finale.

I’ll get back in order now, moving to CD2, which contains the second and seventh symphonies. These, and the fourth symphony on CD3, are where I find Gielen at his absolute best. They represent Beethoven often at his most unbuttoned and positive, which, in the 7th Symphony in particular, takes him to the heights of human creativity. And I confess I’ve always found it difficult to understand why a work like the 2nd Symphony isn’t programmed more often than it is. It has a really powerful first movement, rising to a resplendent climax in its coda; a broadly expressive Larghetto; the first explicit scherzo of his symphonies; and a finale with some excellent musical jokes.

But it is the stunning performance of the 7th that is for me the high point of all these discs. Gielen drives on relentlessly – and yes, there is something relentless about the music, an elemental energy. Wagner was exactly right when he called it the “apotheosis of the Dance”, and this performance lives up to that description completely. Gielen also finds solemnity in the Allegretto, and grandeur in the trio of the third movement.

Sharply characterised performances of the 4th and 8th symphonies occupy CD3, though some may find, like me, the first movement of the 8th too rushed and hectic. And even Gielen can’t solve the balance problem at the point of recapitulation, where the lower instruments have the main theme, but are almost always drowned out by the noisy orchestration – yes, Beethoven’s fault! But, you might ask, why not ask the upper instruments to play more softly so that the theme can come through? A valid point; but I suspect Gielen would counter by pointing to Beethoven’s dynamic marking, which is triple forte - fff! He used that marking very sparingly, so it seems crazy to ask players to play anything other than as loudly as they can.

In the great 9th Symphony, the first three movements are given performances that are lacking in self-indulgence, yet projected with great imaginative force. I have never heard the huge opening Allegro more daunting in its power. Moments of lyrical expression and intimacy are swept away in the flood of tyranny, with a final brutal statement of the main theme that seems to brook no dissent.

Except that Beethoven was a natural dissident; the next three movements can thus be seen as responses to that expression of tyranny. The scherzo expounds entertainingly, but is basically chasing its tail, while the beautiful Adagio contains the seeds of defiance, yet sinks back in regret. So the finale provides the answer – love of and co-operation with our fellow humans. The 9th Symphony expands upon the democratic ideas first expressed in the Eroica (and physically demonstrated by Beethoven’s famous and furious defacement of the dedication to Bonaparte).

The SWR SO are joined in the finale by the superb Rundfunkchor Berlin, and a more than acceptable group of soloists. The bass, Hanno Müller-Brachmann, very young when this recording was made, declares his recitative with thrilling confidence, while the soprano Renate Behle copes well with the cruelly high tessitura of her part (though her top B in the final solo quartet is none too beautiful). The mezzo Yvonne Naef has a less prominent part than the other soloists but does an excellent job, while the Australian tenor Glenn Winslade has an heroic swagger (though, as with Behle’s high B, he won’t have been pleased with his rather desperate sounding B flats at the end of his march solo). But the choir is simply beyond reproach; it’s hard to imagine the choral parts of this movement done with a greater sense of total commitment and confidence. Incidentally, a DVD was made of this performance, (or possibly a live performance by the same ensemble made at the same time) which is well worth watching, not only to see how brilliant is Gielen’s control of the large ensemble, but also to see the choir singing the finale from memory, a tremendous challenge, but something that I’m sure contributes greatly to the qualities I’ve mentioned.

There are so many penetrating insights – and some surprises – in this finale. One example will have to suffice; at the climax of the first section with the voices, the sung words are ‘Und der Cherub steht vor Gott’ (‘And the Cherub stands before God’), with the words ‘vor Gott’ – ‘before God’ – repeated over and over, the last time to a shattering chord-change, A major to F major. Here, Gielen has the orchestra fade away, while the choir sustains fortissimo. This is no mere fancy on the conductor’s part (as if!). In his extensive research into this symphony, culminating in last year’s recording with the Philharmonia, the conductor and academic Benjamin Zander explained that Beethoven’s indication at this point is far from clear; but he appears to have added a diminuendo to the score at some time. This is Gielen’s interpretation of that possibility, and it is very striking.

The problem for performers in this vast movement is to maintain cohesion, to pace the whole thing so that momentum is never lost. Gielen manages this superbly, making the whole thing uplifting and very exciting. Yet he also manages to do full justice to the moments of spiritual inwardness; I have yet to hear a more beautiful rendition of that moment of awe at ‘Über Sternen muss Er wohnen’ – ‘Beyond the stars He must dwell’.

This exceptional Ninth completes this fine set of recordings of the nine symphonies. But what about the remaining CDs? Perhaps the most interesting of these is CD8, containing rousing versions of the overtures ‘Consecration of the House’ and Fidelio, and Gielen’s own orchestration for strings of the Grosse Fuge op.133. This last is a colossal challenge for even the finest string quartets, and playing it in an orchestral version is even more so, requiring double basses to enter the fray, and to have to deal with Beethoven’s extraordinarily angular material. There have been many adaptations of the work, including those by Felix Weingartner and Gustav Mahler. Gielen’s is closer in concept to Anton Webern’s transcription of J.S.Bach’s 6-part fugue from The Musical Offering. In other words, viewing the work of a classical composer through the prism of a modern aesthetic. Gielen uses techniques such as sul ponticello (making a ‘glassy’ sound by placing the bow on the bridge), and making the strings snap against the fingerboard (an effect beloved of Bartók). These are most prominent in the early section, and the writing normalises somewhat as the fugue progresses. It is an impressive piece of work, but the jury (my personal one, that is!) is still out on how well it really works. Good to have it in this collection, however.

The Mass in C of 1807, which completes CD8, is inevitably somewhat overshadowed by the great Missa Solemnis, but is nevertheless a masterpiece in its own right, and a rightful heir to the great Haydn Masses. Once again, there is a clear sense of purpose and direction all the way through. The choir and soloists are good, and Gielen is alert to many wonderful details lurking in the score, rising to the big moments thrillingly. The fugue that closes the Credo, ‘Et vitam venturi’, is sung with tremendous energy, while another fugal passage, ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ in the Sanctus, is started really quietly then built up to its conclusion, a detail often missing in less thoughtful versions. This isn’t the very best recording available – my recommendation would be Richard Hickox on Chandos – but it is more than worth your while to hear it.

The remaining symphonic recordings do not, on the whole, add anything very much to our image of Gielen’s Beethoven, and the sound is often not as good as the complete set on the first five discs. However, the 1970 Eroica (CD6) is interesting, because the tempi of the three big movements are significantly slower than those of his 2000 performance. Also, the version of no. 5 on the same CD has a much more leisurely approach to the second movement, and there is no exposition repeat in the finale. You would expect a conductor’s view of works like these to develop over the years, but Gielen’s basic approach, which revels in the dynamism of Beethoven’s symphonic writing, remains remarkably consistent.

Since I began listening to the discs in this box, I have taken some ‘soundings’ from musicians whom I knew had played under Gielen on at least a few occasions. Without exception, they described him as one of the most interesting and compelling conductors they had worked with, always meticulously prepared, but also able to bring out something special for live performances. The final disc, the 1987 DVD, doesn’t add much to the other versions of the Eroica in the box; but it is of course fascinating to watch Gielen at work. His technique is so very precise and clear; he is at the opposite end of the spectrum from someone like Bernstein, and doesn’t throw himself about at all. Some may find him impassive, detached, but the music he and the orchestra produce together gives the lie to that. The concentration, the involvement with the music is total, to the exclusion of all else.

As to his personality, I would recommend having a look at a short talk by Rob Cowan about his personal meeting with Gielen, which you can find on You Tube. It’s entertaining, but also gives us a little more insight into the character of the man away from the podium.

This is a wonderful set, worth every penny and packed with top quality music-making. It has forced me to reassess this remarkable musician, and I can’t wait for Volume 10!

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Symphony no. 1 in C major, op. 21 [24:47]
Symphony no.3 in E flat major, op. 55 ‘Eroica’ [44:44]
Symphony no. 2 in D major, op. 36 [[31:52]
Symphony no. 7 in A major, op. 92 [40:35]
Symphony no.4 in B flat major, op.60 [32:25]
Symphony no.8 in F major, op.93 [24.33]
Symphony no.5 in C minor, op.67 [31:39]
Symphony no.6 in F major, op. 68, ‘Pastoral’ [42:44]
Symphony no.9 in D minor, op. 125 [64:32]
Renata Behele (soprano), Yvone Naef (alto), Glenn Winslade (tenor),Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass), Rundfunkchor Berlin (dir. Sigurd Brauns),
All SWR Symphony Orchestra/Gielen
Symphony no.3 in E flat major, op. 55 ‘Eroica’ ‘[47:45] *
Symphony no.5 in C minor, op. 67 [29:35] *
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra of SWR
Symphony no.3 in E flat major, op. 55 ‘Eroica’ [44:14]
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
Die Weihe des Hauses, op. 124 (The Consecration of the House) [11:04]
Overture in E major, op 72b (from Fidelio) [6:32]
Grosse Fuge in B flat major (arr. for string orchestra by Michael Gielen) [16:07]
Mass in C for soloists, chorus and orchestra, op. 86 [40:53] *
Nicola Beller Carbone (soprano), Stella Doufexis (Mezzo soprano), Christian Elsner (tenor), Rudolf Rosen (bass), SWR Vocal Ensemble Stuttgart, SWR Symphony Orchestra
Overture ‘Egmont’ [7:29] *
Symphony no. 7 in A major, op. 92 [40:25] *
Symphony no.1 in C major op. 21 [26:35] *
SWR Symphony Orchestra, Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra
Symphony no.3 in E flat major, op. 55, ‘Eroica’ [45:03] *
SWR Symphony Orchestra/Gielen
* First release
Rec. Freiburg 1997 – 2000 (CDs 1-5); Frankfurt 1970, Stuttgart 1970 (CD6); Cincinnati, 1980 (CD7); Baden-Baden, 1986-1993 (CD8, Overtures and Grosse Fuge), Freiburg 2007 (CD8, Mass); Baden-Baden 1993, Saarbrücken 1969, 1967 (CD9); Baden-Baden 1987 (DVD)

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