Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005) conducts Beethoven in the style most-evident in central Europe during the last century. Musicians such as Eugen Jochum, Rudolf Kempe and Wolfgang Sawallisch come to mind, but of all the great Beethoven conductors Giulini has most in common with Otto Klemperer; one characteristic is a firm control of tempo – once a speed has been set it is adhered to firmly.
There is a tendency nowadays for conductors to respect Beethoven’s metronome markings which are sometimes surprisingly fast; in particular David Zinman and Riccardo Chailly obey them very precisely. Otto Klemperer, in his later years, often adopted very majestic tempos and in these present accounts Giulini is also considerably broad.
Symphony No.1 typifies Giulini’s approach – the work is scored similarly as four of Haydn’s last six Symphonies and shares with them a slow introduction and Beethoven still includes a Minuet as third movement. At first appearance these characteristics suggest that he has composed a work in late-18th-century style but with Giulini the integrated orchestral sound moves it firmly into the next one. Despite his time-taken tempos the music is driven firmly forward and the important dynamic changes in development sections are stressed dramatically. My only complaint would be the slightly underpowered timpani.
The drums are more in evidence in No.2, though not ideal. The remaining Symphonies were recorded later and the timpani sound there is more satisfactory. Giulini’s view of Symphony 2 by no means convinces, the stumbling block being the Larghetto in which his tempo equals the most-spacious I have encountered. Moments like the wind instruments skipping delightfully up and down the scale are transformed into lumbering over-carefulness. This is unfortunate because a measured tempo can often enhance music and this is so in the first movement which is made very striking. The Scherzo and Trio is powerful and playful and the unhurried Finale retains tension.
The ‘Eroica’ is given with grandeur, a few seconds under an hour and convincing. The 21-minute opening Allegro (including exposition repeat) is on a huge scale, Giulini impels it powerfully; he will have none of the usual relaxation to beautify the second subject, nor does he slacken for effect when approaching the recapitulation. The same consistency informs the ‘Funeral March’ and the Scherzo incorporates a surging Trio with notably fine horns; when the quiet threatening timpani herald the final chords they are clearly audible. The Finale enters attacca – ideal. Only in the Presto coda does Giulini’s tempo fail to convince. This is probably because the Symphony is recorded in such a way that the forte sections, though clear, lack impact. This is a notable interpretation but sometimes it does not hit hard enough.
The weighty performance of No.4 avoids understatement; the striding gait of the first and third movements shows the serious intent of a work noted for its melodiousness. The unhurried Adagio is given with elegance and displays the sensitivity of this orchestra’s woodwind section. In the deftly-performed Finale, Beethoven’s non troppo qualification to the Allegro indication justifies the speed and gives the bassoonist the opportunity to play the demanding solo perfectly.
Beethoven’s Fifth is successful in a way I had not anticipated. A furious pace for the opening movement can be very effective and Erich Kleiber and Hermann Scherchen first demonstrated that breathless fierceness could have a remarkable impact, yet Giulini, a minute longer than either, holds the music firmly, avoiding all those well-worn emphases beloved of romantically-inclined conductors and he successfully brings out the positive elements of power and dignity. The Andante is broad but never sentimental and there is a suitably threatening Scherzo linked by an ominous stretch of tension before menacingly quiet timpani herald an exceptionally noble Finale, enhanced by the clarity and weight of the recording.
It is surprising that Giulini makes no repeat in the opening movement of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony (although he had previously not done so with the LA Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon); the omission makes it much shorter than the leisurely ‘Scene by the Brook’ that follows, although there is lovely phrasing from the woodwind here. The peasant-dance Scherzo is suitably bucolic although the ‘Storm’ is a disappointment; too polite with timpani providing little more than added weight. A languid rendering of the ‘Shepherd’s Song’ follows, a little sluggish; gentility is represented more successfully by Furtwängler who took two minutes fewer to achieve it. The two Overtures are found on this disc. Coriolan benefits from Giulini’s broad tempo and evokes a great sense of tragedy, whereas Egmont is sturdy if not gripping; a deliberate speed for the triumphant coda is fitting but far more effective if timpani, trumpets and piccolo are featured more positively.
Symphony 7 fails to convince. The similarity to Klemperer again comes to mind but not in a favourable way. Neither conductor respects the outer-movement repeats and in the Scherzo Giulini observes an odd selection. It is not essential to obey Beethoven’s dotted minim=80 for the Trio but a mere 55 is extraordinary. There is a mournful grey trudge through the Allegretto and in the Finale Giulini takes the same lethargic pace as did Klemperer and to the same unsatisfactory effect.
After such disappointment No.8 is refreshing. It is a lyrical reading, unhurried and with eloquent shaping of themes. The opening Allegro vivace sounds ideally optimistic. Much attention is given to detail and the great central statement of the main theme on lower strings is made an impressive highlight. The required steady cheerfulness is afforded the Allegretto, the leisurely Minuet is rather grand and in the Trio the horn-players again distinguish themselves. As for the Finale there are many views concerning the appropriate speed and most of them successfully represent Beethoven’s combination of drama and humour. Giulini chooses a medium pace and it gives room for expressive phrasing while also moving forward. In the closing pages the music is enhanced by excellent detail from timpani.
Giulini obtains from Filarmonica della Scala a full-bodied timbre. Sadly, the presentation does not provide the usual accompanying booklet, which seems typical for this particular Sony series; also missing is Giulini conducting Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, with Salvatore Accardo, and no recording of the ‘Choral’ Symphony was made at this time (Giulini had previously documented it in Berlin, for DG, and for EMI with the LSO). For Sony, the overall recorded sound is realistic although upper strings occasionally are underpowered, and there is less detail in Symphonies 1 and 2.
These are thought-provoking interpretations but I cannot come to grips with Giulini’s conducting of the Seventh Symphony, otherwise the performances are all the stronger for their objective nature. Giulini has a very clear view of Beethoven’s music, and many other conductors, some of them equally famous, fall far short of his degree of insight, which is particularly striking in Symphonies 5 and 8.