SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Recorded between February 1988 and December 2003 in the Konzerthaus Freiburg, Hans-Rosbaud-Studio Baden-Baden, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, and Brahms-Saal Karlsruhe
CD No: HÄNSSLER CD 93.130 (13 CDs) Duration: 12 hours Reviewed: October 2004
Michael Gielen Gustav Mahler
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
Michael Gielen enthusiasts and Mahler aficionados will, Im sure, need little encouragement to acquire this special offer set. Problems of duplication arise though. Most of these performances are already available as separate issues; but one cant dispense with them because of the extra music there included by Ives, Kurtág, Berg, Schreker, and others. Also this set does not include Das Lied von der Erde, a surprising omission and one that, hopefully, Gielen will record. These thirteen CDs are, then, contain the nine symphonies that Mahler completed plus the first movement Adagio of the unfinished Tenth Symphony; Hänsslers decision to excise the fillers by other composers for this box set does seem peculiar, though. The Fifth and Ninth Symphonies are newly issued (both were recorded in 2003); one hopes that they will be issued separately to keep faith with collectors who have already bought the rest; and what, I wonder, will also be included on the 2-CD No.9, a recording that shouldnt be confused with the Mahler 9 that Gielen recorded for Intercord some years ago. (Numerous Gielen recordings now on Hänssler originated on Intercord.)
Whatever reservations one has with Hänsslers marketing of this set, there can be no doubt as to the riveting quality of the music-making here. Michael Gielen is one of those rare musicians who has the ability to inhabit a score without hijacking it and to read a score with X-ray eyes and see more there than many a colleague. Gielens perceptive analysis of Mahlers music isnt about pedantry; it is about trust. Gielens as involved and as passionate about this music as anyone is, but he lets the music do the talking without effecting anything.
Fuller reviews of the First and Sixth Symphonies are linked to below, and while one might note some disappointments with the Second (Resurrection) and Third in the sense that Gielen is maybe too plain-spoken at times, there are also many wonderful moments that add to ones appreciation of the music for example, the edge that Gielen imparts to the long Spring marches in first movement of the Third or the solemn beauty of the same symphonys adagio finale.
No.4 is given with pliancy and clarity, inner detail often lost is not only made audible but also pertinent; in the vocal finale, Christine Whittlesey has an attractive boyish timbre for the childs view of heaven.
Symphonies 5-7 are given exceptional interpretations. The new Fifth, scrupulously prepared, glints with focus and emotional volubility. Its those little things that can make a difference; and this Fifth teems with such observations, and is up-to-date with textural niceties, not least the sullen rather than plucked end to the first movement (an editorial change recently circulated amongst Mahlerians). The scherzo is lithe and lilting, deft and witty, with plenty of power when required. The Adagietto is flowing and tender at a tempo close to Mahlers intentions (if one trusts Walter and Mengelberg as being definitive) and the finale, deliberately paced, is full of the most subtle and telling observations; not least, between 1254 and 1310, an oboe melody, rich in baroque counterpoint, that is rarely if ever this lucid and with this degree of meaning.
The Sixth I reviewed in full on its first issue, please use the link below, and theres a glorious account of the Seventh Symphony, which is adroitly paced and sounded, and deeply satisfying.
The so-called Symphony of a Thousand (No.8), as in Gielens previous recording (issued by Sony), is a little underwhelming, although not in terms of each movements cumulative grandeur. The opening organ flourish from an instrument conspicuously lacking the full timbre we might think necessary for such a dense work, and with choruses appearing to be not quite enough in numbers, does suggest something rather small-scale for this lavish work. Invariably, though, and with the caveat that the solo singers are too closely balanced, with a conductor of Gielens grasp and perception, there are numerous things to admire and be gratified by.
The new No.9 establishes immediately the march-like tread of the long first movement and Gielens transparent elucidation of textures, propounded with no lack of heart, coupled with a superb sense of timing and inner logic, makes this account one of the finest available; the remaining movements are of similar distinction.
So, a deeply impressive and enlightening cycle by one of the great conductors; his orchestra gives everything and is thoroughly versed in what it is doing. This is the result of long experience and very detailed rehearsals. These days a Mahler symphony can be tossed off with alacrity: Gielen is old school in his planning and virtues, and such values show themselves distinctly here, for example in the depersonalised account of the Rondo-Burleske of No.9 that gathers in strength and indomitability with a Klemperer-like stoicism. Like Klemperer, Gielen appreciates the importance of having antiphonal violins in this music (most music in fact) and ensures that points of orchestration are not muffed; the side drum in this Rondo (here at 1402) is given full status for its one appearance. Gielen can tug at the heartstrings too; the slow finale is most movingly done, and how carefully gauged is the use of portamento.
Overall, Gielens is a modernist view of Mahler, a composers appreciation of Mahlers invention, which combines a similar elucidation of the text as Boulez as well as appreciating historic touches, such as portamento (ingenuously expressed here) with no lack of emotion. Its simply that everything is achieved from within the score; nothing is applied. And, so often, what Gielen does is convincingly right; his conducting of Mahler gets to the heart of the matter and very often with revelatory results.