Music by Bach/Schoenberg, Beethoven, Beethoven/Gielen, Berg, Bruckner, Busoni, Gielen, Ravel, Schoenberg, Schubert, Scriabin, Steuermann, Johann Strauss II, Stravinsky & Webern
Various soloists including Melanie Diener (soprano) & Stefan Litwin (piano)

SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Michael Gielen

Recorded between 1975-2001
CD No: HÄNSSLER 93.080 (5 CDs, also available separately)
Duration: 5 hours 49 minutes
Reviewed: February 2003
There is, I suggest, a gulf between those that appreciate the finer points of music and, to recall Beecham, the noise it makes. To those who listen to music for what it is in terms of construction, subtlety of expression, and life- and opinion-changing qualities (learning), Michael Gielen is a giant. We live in a noise-ridden society where superficial TV and radio production has banished silence and which assumes that viewers and listeners have an attention span of a nanosecond and can only respond to bright lights and bombast. Bringing this back to the world of classical music, there is a danger that ’celebrity’ musicians will be prized to the detriment of altogether worthier practitioners.
Michael Berkeley’s wholly admirable Royal Philharmonic Society Lecture last year, published on this site, is a welcome statement for those of us concerned that the balance has tilted disturbingly to banality and a lowering of critical standards. Michael Gielen, recently turned 75, a “corrective to the industry” – as he termed himself to Rob Cowan for an interview in The Independent a few years ago – is for and about music. Enshrined in this set, and thankfully on other CDs too, are performances that are exacting, penetrating and revealing; there is no glitz or effects, no abuse, no need to pander to excess. The musical rewards are considerable.
This set, with all its CDs available individually, includes a wonderful Schubert 9 (’Great’ C major) that is fleet and buoyant, a classical reading that is not boorishly ’authentic’; the Scherzo (with all repeats) really dances. Time and again, one hears details freshly minted and things not heard before; all Gielen’s observations are pertinent. His subtlety of pacing allows the lyric expanse of the ’Andante con moto’ to be both integrated and self-sufficient. Beautifully recorded in London’s Royal Festival Hall (1996, a concert I attended), this vigorous and malleable reading is rather special. To complete this disc (93.057) there’s a joyous account of Johann Strauss II’s Voices of Spring waltz.
Yes, Michael Gielen, a staunch advocate of ’modern music’ and the composer of it too, conducts a piece of Viennese elegance, with real affection, and no incongruity to the Second Viennese School – Webern’s so precisely notated Op.10 pieces and Cantata No.1 (Op.29). The message is, don’t categorise. Schoenberg’s Die glückliche Hand (The Blessed Hand in the booklet; Hans Keller translated it brilliantly as ’The Knack’) bristles with theatricality. Berg’s Der Wein (Melanie Diener) begins with saxophone-sleaze; the world of Lulu is not far away, nakedly emotional music tacitly structured. Also on 93.060 is Eduard Steuermann’s tightly organised Variations (1958), Steuermann (1892-1964), pianist, and within Schoenberg’s circle, writes an engagingly rigorous piece that melds structure and expression with fluidity of purpose. Gielen’s own Pflicht und Neigung (Obligation and Inclination) proves a significant discovery. Other Gielen pieces that I’ve heard are somewhat ideological, stuck in the ’fifties; this one, intriguingly coloured, configured if non-conformist, leaps off the page with imaginative freedom and more than sustains its 25 minutes through jagged, playful and peripheral sounds.
There’s little I can say about Bruckner Sixth Symphony except it’s one of the most glorious accounts I know; superbly recorded, perfectly paced and sounded, wonder and logic memorably espoused. A rapt account, instrumental lines contrapuntally revealed, that enjoys antiphonal violins to open up the soundstage – as indeed does everything else here. The first movement’s third subject (with the clarinet arabesques, and in the recap, violas, which seem to have disappeared in some editions) glows and is shaped to perfection, ravishingly balanced, not least between those antiphonal fiddles. The slow movement is intense, the ’funeral march’ radiantly moving. The Scherzo for some will hang fire in tempo – not me (and Colin Davis, LSO Live, goes a stage further!) – while the Finale avoids textural thickness or expressive heaviness. It’s a great performance. Also on CD 93.058 is another cathedral of sound, Bach’s E flat Prelude and Fugue in Schoenberg’s quirky orchestration – did he mean to raise a smile? Gielen’s timing, comic or otherwise, is typically spot-on.
Given with all the perspicaciousness you’d expect, Gielen’s Beethoven CD (93.056), begins with Symphony No.8, different from the one in EMI’s box (this one’s from 2000), is spick and span – an impersonation of a ’period’ performance, lessons not so much learnt as taken on board. It’s convincing, crisply played and sparklingly detailed; springy and expressive within a measured frame. Piano Concerto No.3, with Stefan Litwin, is beautifully recorded in terms of balance and focus. It’s a dramatic reading, the long orchestral exposition forceful and alive. Litwin’s entry is slightly disconcerting given the piano’s tonal dryness. He is, presumably, equating to an earlier type of piano but with something in reserve. Just occasionally haste gets in the way of gesture, robustness replaces eloquence, although articulation never suffers. Something of a hairshirt interpretation, although there’s nothing wrong with a good scratch, Litwin’s exact balance between hands brings conversational excellence. That said, there is some clumsy and too staccato detailing in the slow movement’s opening solo, and his use of the sustaining pedal to suspend into the Finale is contrived. Amends are made with the closing bars; the wit effusive rather than flurried to the finishing post.
Controversial indeed is the Grosse Fuge (aka the Finale of Beethoven’s B flat quartet, Op.130), the opening bars weighty and trenchant until “/Michael Gielen” makes its full impact. Heroic the music remains, and the performance too, yet Gielen adds various effects as a twentieth-century overlay of playing devices – he really stresses Beethoven’s modernism. Perplexing and fascinating if not entirely convincing, this is one to live with and muse on.
A marvellous set then, and there’s more out there (not least from Hänssler) – Michael Gielen really makes a difference.

 

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