Michael Gielen – Gustav Mahler

0 of 5 stars

Symphonies 1-9
Adagio from Symphony No.10

Various vocal soloists [Symphonies 2, 3, 4 and 8]

Various choirs [Symphonies 2, 3 and 8]

SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Michael Gielen

Recorded between February 1988 and December 2003 in the Konzerthaus Freiburg, Hans-Rosbaud-Studio Baden-Baden, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, and Brahms-Saal Karlsruhe

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: October 2004
(13 CDs)
Duration: 12 hours

Michael Gielen enthusiasts and Mahler aficionados will, I’m 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 can’t 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; Hänssler’s 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 shouldn’t 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 Hänssler’s 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. Gielen’s perceptive analysis of Mahler’s music isn’t about pedantry; it is about trust. Gielen’s 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 one’s 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 symphony’s 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 child’s view of heaven.

Symphonies 5-7 are given exceptional interpretations. The new Fifth, scrupulously prepared, glints with focus and emotional volubility. It’s 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 Mahler’s 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 12’54” and 13’10”, 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 there’s 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 Gielen’s previous recording (issued by Sony), is a little underwhelming, although not in terms of each movement’s 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 Gielen’s 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 Gielen’s 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 14’02”) 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, Gielen’s is a modernist view of Mahler, a composer’s appreciation of Mahler’s 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. It’s 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.

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