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Carlo Maria Giulini: The Chicago Years
Music by Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Berlioz, and Stravinsky
Carlo Maria Giulini conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Giulini in America: Chicago
Music by Schubert, Mahler, Dvorak, Mussorgsky/Ravel, and Prokofiev
Carlo Maria Giulini conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Review By Max Westler

 

   

  As every lover of classical music probably already knows, the record companies (how quaint and old-fashioned of me to refer to them as such) have lately taken to releasing massive collections, typically featuring the work of a single artist. Several months back, I reviewed a fourteen-disc set that collected all the EMI recordings of conductor Constantin Silvestri. More recently, my colleague Joe Milicia surveyed a thirty-disc set of all the RCA recordings by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I guess a cynic could argue that this recent tsunami of big boxes is only the latest way these companies have found to mine their back catalogues for gold, to make us buy for a second or third time recordings we already own. But in fact I'm not complaining. For the most part, what you're getting is significant and sometimes hard to find recordings by major artists in superb remastered sound—most of them offered at bargain basement prices. Yes, I already had several of the recordings included in that Silvestri package, but there were many more I was happy to be hearing for the first time. And those more familiar performances sounded newly minted in their remastered sound. Now, also thanks to big boxes, you can own just about the entire recorded career of Carlo Maria Guilini, one of the 20th Century's greatest conductors.

For those who don't already know, Giulini began his career as a violist in the Academia Orchestra, and played under such lights as Furtwangler, Walter, and Klemperer. Soon after the Second World War (which he'd spent as a deserter eluding the fascists he detested), he made his debut with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Rome. Like most Italian conductors, he served a long apprenticeship in the provinces conducting operas, but soon came to the attention of Toscanini and Victor De Sabata. In 1953, largely thanks to their advocacy, he became the principal conductor at La Scala, and it was there he collaborated on a legendary production of La Traviata directed by LuchinoViscounti and starring a young Maria Callas. A Convent Garden Don Carlo established his reputation in London. When Walter Legge, then head of EMI, heard Guilini in rehearsal, he said, "Now there's a conductor," and immediately signed him to a contract. Guilini made his first (and many subsequent) recordings with Legge's Philharmonia Orchestra.

Over the coming years, many orchestras tried unsuccessfully to woo him into becoming their Music Director, but Giulini was no glad-hander, hated dealing with administrative matters, and insisted on several months of seclusion and study every year. Instead he became a welcome guest in many cities: Chicago, Vienna, Amsterdam, and Berlin. But nowhere was he more loved and admired than in Chicago, where he made his America debut in 1955, returned every season through 1978, and in 1965 was appointed Principal Guest Conductor, a position created especially for him. In 1978 he finally took the plunge, became Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a post he kept until 1981 when his wife suffered an incapacitating stroke. He resigned without a moment's hesitation and moved his family back to their home in Milan to care for her. Thereafter he guest conducted with many European orchestras, but was never more than a day's travel from Milan. He was never to conduct in America again.

Giulini's virtues as a conductor are easily enumerated. After long experience in the opera house, he had a firm grasp of architecture, of the dramatic arc of a composition. Sir Adrian Boult once said of Arthur Nikisch: "He conducted as if he had the entire score open before him." This was equally true of Giulini. Every work was presented as a unified organic whole. In addition, his performances were utterly transparent and expressive: every note could be heard, and every note counted. In rehearsals, he insisted on finding exactly the right sound world for each composer. For those of us who had the great good fortune to hear him live, Giulini's performances were revelatory. No matter how familiar the work, you had the sense that you were experiencing it re-imagined from the inside out, as if for the first time. The Irish poet Yeats once said that an ideal man should be both "wise and passionate." And that best describes Giulini, whose performances managed to be both deeply affectionate and profound.

Giulini was not above criticism. For one thing, he only conducted works that he believed in absolutely. Compared to other conductors of his generation (Karajan, Bernstein), he had a narrowly circumscribed repertory. He added new works only after long and careful deliberation; he did not even begin to record Mozart or Beethoven symphonies until late in his career. As a result, his recorded legacy includes a lot of duplication: two sets of the Brahms Symphonies, two Bruckner Ninths, two Beethoven Fifths, and so on. Every fan of Giulini kept a list of works he/she would have liked to see him perform. He only conducted the Mahler First and Ninth Symphonies. For heaven's sake, why not the Second, Third, or Fourth? And there were also those who complained that Giulini sometimes loved the music he conducted too much. Indeed, over time his once supple tempos slowed dramatically. This marred some of his late recordings, but certainly not all. His Concertgebouw Pictures and Berlin Firebird Suite are just as exciting as earlier versions with the Chicago.

The six big boxes released almost simultaneously by Warner Classics and Deutsche Grammophon cover Giulini's entire recorded career (with the notable exception of his opera recordings). Carlo Maria Giulini: The London Years (17 discs) includes both early and late performances for EMI: the former with the Philharmonia, the latter with the London Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra. Carlo Maria Giulini: The Concerto Recordings (9 discs) supplements The London Years with concerto recordings mostly made in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra (though it also includes a Rostropovitch Dvorak Cello Concerto with the London Philharmonic). Giulini in America: The Los Angeles Years (5 discs) includes all of his DG recordings with that orchestra. The DG set Giulini in Vienna (15 discs) and the Sony Giulini: The Complete Sony Recordings (22 discs) deals with the later stages of his career, and documents his work with the major European orchestras he worked with after leaving America: the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, and the Concertgebouw.

Though each of these sets contains riches beyond measure, for those who aren't inclined to go the whole hog, I'm going to recommend you start with the two boxes that comprise the recordings he made in Chicago for EMI (in the 60's) and DG (in the 70's), for these find the conductor at the very height of his considerable powers working with the orchestra he loved above all others. Talking about his relationship with that orchestra, Giulini once said, "I prefer not to say I conducted them, rather that I made music with these marvelous musicians and human beings." And indeed, what music they made! The Brahms Fourth, for example, was done in a single take without any prior rehearsal. It's a searing, tragic vision of the work quite unlike any you may have heard before. The music unfolds with a heart-rending eloquence and intensity that leads—as irrevocably as a drama by Sophocles---to its terrifying conclusion. The orchestral music from Berlioz' Romeo and Juliet is the only recording he ever made of that composer's music, and it's magnificent. Here Giulini knits the fragments into a coherent narrative that mirrors the romance and pathos of Shakespeare's play. Berlioz' lush orchestrations have never sounded so finely-etched or ravishing.

There are many different approaches to the Schubert's symphonies, but when was the last time you were shocked by this music? For Giulini, Schubert was a revolutionary composer, the bridge connecting Beethoven to the late Romantics; in his hands, Schubert has never sounded so dissonant, so modern. The Beethoven Seventh is, I think, Giulini's greatest Beethoven recording: a study in power, grace, and (in the concluding allegro) fire-breathing virtuosity. The Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures is perhaps Giulini's most celebrated recording: a remarkable balance of interpretation, performance, and sound that made it an essential demonstration record at many audio shops at the time. Another complaint about Giulini was that he didn't delve very deeply into the modern repertory, and this is all too true. Certainly his atmospheric, dynamic readings of Stravinsky's familiar Firebird Suite and Petrushka will make you sorry he didn't choose to record more of that composer's music. The longer works here profit from the conductor's sense of narrative. The Mahler First is drawn on an epic canvas, and has some of the most gorgeous, detailed playing this symphony has ever received. The Ninth is its polar opposite: an anguished, existential vision of the work that cuts to the bone. I know several Chicago musicians who consider this to be Giulini's greatest recording with the orchestra. I'm not about to argue with them.

Do I have any caveats? Just a few. Robert Tear's nasally voice in an otherwise perfectly judged performance of Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Orchestra makes me regret that Peter Pears wasn't available for the recording session. The two Dvorak symphonies (Eight and Nine) are the least Bohemian performances I've ever heard; the polar opposites of Ivan Fischer's idiomatic versions with his Budapest Festival Orchestra. Still, Giulini's readings are vibrant, stirring, and brilliantly played. The Bruckner Ninth came early in the conductor's experience of the work, and his coruscating performance with the Vienna Philharmonic is even better. Even so, there's a sense of risk and adventure in the Chicago performance. And it does feature the Chicago Symphony brass at the top of their form.

The Warner Classics set is a reissue of Carlo Maria Giulini: The Chicago Recordings, formerly an EMI release. The sound on that set was a huge improvement on the domestic Angel LPs where most of these recordings first appeared. The Angel sound was pretty shameful and seriously compromised the performances. We all saved our pennies and bought the imports wherever we could find them. The Warner Classics remastering preserves the pristine sound of that EMI set: a first balcony perspective that lets us hear everything. The DG Chicago recordings were closer up, more detailed, but also sometimes a little too bright at the top. The current set has smoothed out some of the harshness. In other words, the sound here shouldn't be a sticking point. Both current sets are excellent.

It is no small thing to have the life work of a great musical personality readily available, but it's a lot to take in. I strongly recommend that you make Chicago your first stop. I am absolutely positive that you will enjoy your stay there.

As I've conflated the contents of both sets, I list the separate programs after the ratings.

 

 

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