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Anton Bruckner
Symphony No. 2 in C Minor
(1877 version)
Carlo Maria Giulini Conducting
The Vienna Symphony Orchestra


Symphony No. 7 In E Major
(With de Falla: Two Excerpts From
The Three-Cornered Hat Suite
Mussorgsky: Prelude To Khovanshcina)
Carlo Maria Giulini Conducting
The Philharmonia Orchestra

 

Review by Max Westler
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

CD Number: Testament SBT 1210

BBC Legends BBCL 4123-2

 

  Carlo Maria Giulini had already been Principal Guest Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for two seasons by the time I got to the Windy City, but it wasn't long before his biannual visits became the central occasions of my musical life there. In fact all it took was a Brahms First Symphony that made me hear this familiar music as if for the first time. That performance -- urgent yet unforced, muscular but expressive -- was my conversion experience. I became a Giulini groupie right there and then. Just so you know where I'm coming from.

 

Concerning Carlo Maria Giulini

When in 1978 the conductor was appointed music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, many of us had mixed feelings. It was hard to begrudge Giulini an orchestra of his own; but the contract he had signed was exclusive: he wouldn't be appearing with the Chicago Symphony anytime soon. We did at least get occasional visits suggesting that Giulini and his new orchestra were in the process of creating a storied partnership, an impression confirmed by a distinguished series of recordings. The feeling that these would all have sounded better had they been done in Chicago was of course extremely biased and entirely predictable.

Then in 1984, on the verge of what might well have been a triumphant European tour, Giulini withdrew at the last minute and was replaced by Zubin Mehta. By year's end he had resigned the post altogether, and returned to his home outside Milan. Thereafter he would adopt a greatly reduced schedule, exclusively in Europe; we would never see him in America again. It was only later I discovered the reason for those sudden changes: tragically, Giulini's wife had suffered a stroke, and he was determined to limit his appearances to cities where he would never be more than a few hours from her side.

Giulini would continue to perform and record for more than another decade before he retired; but it became increasingly evident from his work in the studio-now all we had to judge him by--that he was not the same artist he had been before. Over that period his tempos slowed, then slackened; the sense of drama that had characterized his best work gave way to cautiousness and sentimentality. By Y2K, Giulini had retired for good.

It is regrettable that Giulini did not enjoy the Indian Summer experienced by octogenarians like Bruno Walter and Toscanini; but it seems to me altogether unjust that a distinguished career is now being seen through the narrow lens of that long autumn. Lately I've begun to fear that a decade of bad reviews, many of which I would certainly agree with, have come to permanently cloud Giulini's reputation. Too many recent reviews have, for example, mischaracterized him as a stolid and unexciting conductor who favored extremely and uniformly slow tempos.

 

Standing In The Shadow Of Toscanini

It's important to remember that Giulini began his career as a fire-breathing disciple of Toscanini. The Testament booklet includes a wonderful photo of the two conductors engaged in animated discussion, the younger man clearly delighted to have the full attention of his mentor. If you listen to some of Guilini's early recordings with the Philharmonia (I'm thinking here of the Tchaikovsky Little Russian and Pathetique Symphonies, as well as a recently reissued Rossini/Verdi Overtures collection on EMI's "Great Recordings of the Century"), you'll hear the bristling energy, lean sonorities, and singing line that were long associated with Toscanini.

As Giulini matured and his interpretations became more emotionally probing, tempos grew more varied and supple; his sound, now centered in the lower strings, darkened. But in the sum and all, the foundations of his art continued to reflect the influence of Toscanini: first and foremost, an almost sacramental reverence for the score as written. Giulini's goal was not to literally or mechanically reproduce the composer's intentions, but to recreate the inner life of the score. This was less a task of intellect than of imagination: Giulini had to be completely inside a score before he would add it to his repertory.

Sometimes performances would be preceded by years of study and reflection. For this reason his repertory was small in relation to most of his contemporaries. It's probably best that admirers not dwell on the anguishing question of what scores or composers they would have most liked to hear him conduct. For better or worse, a select constellation of crucial works would become Giulini's life's work, but those works so favored would never want for a more committed or passionate advocate.

Also from Toscanini came an almost moral concern for structure, for weaving the parts into a coherent, expressive and dramatic whole. "He proceeded as if he had the entire score spread open before him," said George Bernard Shaw of a famous conductor of his day. The same can be said of Giulini, whose best performances have a completely organic sense of ebb and flow. When, rather late in his career, Giulini turned to the music of Bruckner, many critics surmised that it was the devotional aspect of the composer that had first drawn his attention. Maybe so, but I'm guessing he was also engaged by the formidable challenge of Bruckner's architecture: massive structures that, like Gaudi's cathedrals, manage to reimagine the past and the present in altogether unexpected ways.

 

Bruckner's Difficult Second

For far too long, Bruckner was considered an inspired bumpkin and ridiculed for what were thought to be his compositional lapses and clumsiness. Yes, he could roll out a big tune when he needed to, whip up a lot of animal excitement at the drop of a mountain climber's feathered cap. But he was incapable of building those episodes, howsoever head-turning, into a coherent design. As Robert Simpson has demonstrated in painstaking detail, such criticism is unjust. No composer worked harder to achieve structural unity. For Bruckner the challenge was finding a way to balance the classical restraint of sonata form with his desire to express a revolutionary, if not Wagnerian, range of emotional shadings.

In his Second Symphony, for example, the composer is constantly shifting back and forth between polar opposites: themes that project a fierce, swaggering energy are set in startling juxtaposition to themes that are gracious, circumspect, or childishly sweet. In this music we're either swept up into a whirlwind or strolling at leisure on a bright summer's day. Faced with the challenge of organizing these highly contrasting materials, some conductors have chosen to ignore sonata form altogether, exaggerating the mood swings for dramatic effect. Other conductors have tried a more even-tempered, formal approach that -- like prozac -- constrains or relaxes the tension.

For reasons I still cannot fathom, this l975 performance was never released in America. That was doubly unfortunate. For one thing, this is the first Bruckner symphony Giulini ever conducted, an occasion that one would have thought worth commemorating. But also, and more to the point, this is the first performance of the work to express both sides of this symphony's divided nature without resorting either to exaggeration or compromise. Giulini's tempos are faster and his mood more intense than we're used to hearing in this symphony. The more lyric themes are given their full emotional weight, but the conductor does not further indulge their charm or beauty. I suspect that if Toscanini had ever taken on a Bruckner symphony, it might well have sounded something like this. But I doubt that even Toscanini would have been able to build the Andante to such a rapturous climax, or to sound its bittersweet melancholy quite so eloquently.

It is clear that for Giulini the Second is not an apprentice work, a promise that Bruckner would keep in his last three symphonies, but a great symphony in its own right. Though Giulini makes use of the Nowak edition (which involves a number of small cuts), I would hate to think that's going to stop any true Brucknerite from acquiring this disc. As no less an authority than Deryck Cooke has said, "For once I'm inclined to ignore the question of versions -- it's still Bruckner's Second Symphony, and sounding more maturely Bruckner than ever before."

 

On To The Seventh

This new BBC Live recording comes from a 1982 "Proms" concert, and was only the second time that Giulini had performed the work. In 1987 there would also be a studio recording for DG with the Vienna Philharmonic. I've never been one to put too great an emphasis on timings; but in this case the difference is telling: the 1982 performance clocks in at 61'49", the 1987 at 67'36". As good as it is, the later performance moves rather too self-consciously through the first two movements, the conductor pausing too often by the wayside to admire the view.

Simpson has cautioned that "the Seventh benefits greatly from steadily maintained tempi," and that's exactly what Giulini gives us in the 1982 performance. Overall, he's a shade faster than the more leisurely gait traditional recordings have led us to expect, but he is ever responsive to the constantly shifting emotional terrain of a work that is as much about loss as it is about exaltation. Here the big moments are all the more powerful for being presented without any undue emphasis or caressing. In the great Adagio, arguably Bruckner's most sustained and beautiful creation, the entrance of the heavenly theme in F sharp major and the huge crescendo make their full effect because they've been so purposefully and expressively prepared for. But even in that movement's lingering coda, where many a lesser performance can sound anticlimactic, Guilini sustains and develops the tension, thus preparing us for the festive scherzo that follows. Giulini's concentration never flags. When in the final pages the C major of the last movement gradually modulates with unhurried breadth to the E major that began the symphony an hour before, something deeper than intellect tells us that here is the spiritual destination, the flash of ecstasy we've been moving toward all along.

Spontaneity is not a word often associated with Guilini, but it was the very essence of his art. He could be very exacting and deliberate in preparing and rehearsing a score, but it was his willingness to trust everything to the emotional heat of the moment that made his performances such unforgettable events for those of us who were fortunate enough to have heard them. For those who haven't, this recording gives as realistic and intimate a sense of what it was actually like to be graced by this conductor's presence as I've ever heard. Carlo Maria Giulini will never "play our favorites," but the fillers here, though strange traveling companions for Bruckner, are scores that he truly loved and found many excuses to program. The Three-Cornered Hat excerpts and the Khovanshcina prelude are from 1963 and 1961 respectively, and both are brilliantly performed.

 

In Conclusion

Though Giulini had only two relatively short-lived appointments as a music director, he was a welcome guest the world over. Unlike Toscanini, he never presented himself to musicians as dictator or demigod, but as a man no more or less divinely sanctioned than they. He summoned them not to duty, but to adventure and the possibility of transcendence that only the most profound engagement with the score could provide.

This Bruckner Second was recorded while Giulini was still thinking about becoming music director of the Vienna Symphony (a position he would soon accept and hold for three years), and here the orchestra plays with a fervor and commitment that are clearly intended to influence his decision in their favor. Along with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia was one of the first non-Italian orchestras Giulini conducted with any regularity, and it is with them, under Walter Legge's supervision, that he made his first recordings. Performances like this Bruckner Seventh are the fruit of that long association. Even given the other great conductors who appeared before them -- Karajan and Klemperer, to name only two -- these players always summoned their expressive best for Giulini, as they certainly do here (in spite of a few unfortunate horn flubs).

Testament has done a commendable job in remastering the original sound of the Second, which was a bit too close and bright for my taste. They've tamed the sometimes strident upper register and achieved a transparency that well serves this vivid and detailed performance.

You would never mistake this BBC Live transcription of the Seventh for a studio recording; it lacks a certain immediacy and warmth. But the image is spacious and finely honed; in fact I prefer it to the DG studio recording, which has an unpleasant edge that diminishes the pleasures of the big climaxes.

Giulini did not avail himself of the advantages other conductors of his generation enjoyed. Unlike Bernstein or Karajan, he did not have a long association with a great orchestra or build an extensive catalogue of recordings. And he somehow managed to do without a high-powered publicity machine. But as long as there continue to be releases that serve his memory as well as these do, his future reputation is assured.

 

 

Bruckner Second

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Bruckner Seventh

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