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Carlo Maria Giulini
The Chicago Recordings

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A; Berlioz: Romeo and Juliet (orchestral music); Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor; Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 in D minor; Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D; Stravinsky: Firebird Suite, Petrushka Suite

Carlo Maria Giulini conducting
the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Review By Max Westler
Click here to e-mail reviewer

Carlo Maria Giulini: The Chicago Recordings

CD Number: EMI 7243 5 85974 2 4 (4 CDs) 

 

  During his long association with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Carlo Maria Giulini didn't have the advantages of a Charles Munch in Boston, or a George Szell in Cleveland, or a Leonard Bernstein in New York. Which is to say, he never had what Fritz Reiner -- and subsequently, Georg Solti in Chicago -- could take for granted: a lengthy tenure as the orchestra's music director at a time when both conductor and orchestra were signed to an exclusive contract with the same label. The instantaneous spiritual rapport Giulini established with the orchestra when he first conducted it in 1955 would deepen and intensify over the next twenty-three years, but he would never serve as its music director, never be more than a welcome guest. Given his own exclusive contract with EMI, Giulini had to wait fourteen years to make his first record with these musicians, whom he had come to so love and respect. In fact, the seven performances collected here and the five he later recorded for DG (the Dvorak Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, the Schubert and Mahler Ninth Symphonies) comprise his entire recorded oeuvre with the orchestra. 

Given the evidence of the dim sounding 78's and bleached-out early mono recordings the orchestra made for RCA and Columbia, it's impossible to gauge the state of their art in the 1930's and 40's. Certainly the orchestra we hear in the 1950's under the baton of Rafael Kubelik (superbly recorded by Wilma Cozart Fine for Mercury) is a major ensemble -- delicate and supple, with ample reserves of power when required. But it was the autocratic and exacting Fritz Reiner who built the orchestra into the world-class virtuoso instrument it became in the 1960's and remains to this day.

 

Solti And Giulini

It is more than passing strange to consider that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that recorded for London under Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that made these recordings for EMI/Angel are one and the same. In fact, Solti became the orchestra's music director in 1969, at exactly the same time Giulini was named its "Principal Guest Conductor," a post he was to hold officially until 1973, then unofficially until 1978 perhaps. No doubt there was mutual respect, if not a genuine warmth between the two men, and they even toured together with the orchestra, taking turns on the podium on alternate nights. Still, one can hardly think of two more radically different approaches to how an orchestra should sound.

Solti's Chicago Symphony was a muscular, hard-driving, and brilliant instrument with a sound that prominently displayed a brass section second to none. Solti was all about shock and awe; no conductor could do a better job of carpet-bombing an audience into submission. Though I suspect that time will not serve those DeccaLondon recordings (or Solti) particularly well, she Pthere was something visceral and thrilling about being taken out for a spin in a machine built for maximum power and speed. It speaks volumes about the art of orchestral playing that Giulini's Chicago Symphony sounds like a completely different ensemble. For one thing, Giulini began his career as a violist, and his sound is firmly centered in the warmth and richness of the lower strings. Whereas Solti favored a hard-edged, streamlined precision, Giulini drew from a varied palette that was at once transparent and expressive.

Which is not to say that Giulini's orchestra couldn't loose thunder and lightning when the music called for it. "The Ball of the Capulets" from Romeo and Juliet, the "Infernal Dance" from The Firebird, the scherzo of Bruckner's Ninth, and the climax of the Mahler First, to cite only a few of the more telling examples, are appropriately knee-buckling. But here, the delicate, quieter, and more subtle moments are, if anything, even more dazzling: the lilting gossamer of the "Queen Mab Scherzo" (taken at a breezy and effortless pianissimo), the deft and surprising turns of the "Firebird's Dance," the solemn coda of the Bruckner ,so full of melancholy and mystery, and the alert, vivid hush that opens the Mahler are all rendered with an inwardness and poetry that Solti, for all his obvious strengths, was utterly incapable of delivering. I have no doubt the orchestra gave Solti everything he asked for; but they gave Giulini everything they had.

 

The State Of His Art

At the time these recordings were made, Giulini was at the height of his powers, in the full blossom of his maturity. Though in his earlier recordings one can discern the influence of Toscanini, and later one hears, for better or worse, a profound reticence, in these performances Giulini is at once deeply personal and completely unmannered, controlled and flexible; his interpretations richly imagined and carefully balanced. Given that Giulini's approach is as much of the intellect as it is of the heart, that his instincts are as intensely Classical as they are Romantic, it is difficult if not impossible to discuss his art without resorting to contradictions. Berlioz once defined the diverse impulses that Beethoven welded together in his Seventh Symphony as "technical ability, taste, fantasy, knowledge, and inspiration." I think these same words apply equally well to Giulini's art. 

Giulini's early experience in the opera house can be felt throughout; above all, he knows how to shape the drama of each individual work in an entirely organic way. There is always a sense of urgency, but never of haste: every moment, no matter how fleeting, is permitted its full expressive weight. In general, Giulini does not push the music at us; he prefers to let it breathe. And there is something else here: a heightened sensitivity to the lyricism of the music, to its ebb and flow, its tonal splendor. Listen to the heartbreakingly beautiful andante of the Brahms Fourth, and you'll hear what I mean.

 

And What Of The Performances?

Though it may lack the earthy good humor and grotesquerie of the Kubelik/Bavarian Symphony "live" recording I reviewed a few issues back, this Giulini Mahler First has its own considerable virtues: a perfectly judged opening, a heavenly trio in the scherzo, and a final movement that builds at slower-than-usual tempos to a truly overwhelming climax. The Bruckner is less craggy and spacious, and maybe less fierce, than his later recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, but it is a powerful performance nevertheless: intense, unhurried, and beautifully shaped. 

The Beethoven and Brahms performances are both more individual and controversial. In Giulini's hands, the Seventh becomes a set of variations on themes of joy and grace. It is not particularly hard-driving or roughhewn, and that seems to have counted against it with several critics. But for those with ears to listen, Giulini combines a purposeful but varied stride and a nobility of gesture to give us a Seventh that is Apollonian and Dionysian in equal measure. Highlights include a refined and explosive opening movement that fully explores the implications of its opening chord, an allegretto (taken at a faster-than-normal and very steady tempo) that gives us "an inexorable rhythm under a rainbow of melody," a witty and playful scherzo, and a finale that is all the more virtuosic and forceful for not being rushed. The playing throughout is sensational. 

As for the Brahms, it is, quite simply, one of the finest things Giulini has ever done. That he did it in a single take and without a rehearsal testifies to the chemistry between conductor and orchestra. For Giulini, the Brahms Fourth is the greatest tragic symphony ever written, and he plays it as such. I've never heard the opening theme rendered with such longing or restlessness, or a third movement more full of
tension and struggle. The finale is rock-steady and suspenseful, and only at the very end does Giulini finally unleash the raw power of the brass. The effect is devastating. 

As if these weren't treasures enough, we also have the more narrative and color-saturated scores of Berlioz and Stravinsky. Giulini's approach to Romeo and Juliet is operatic and ever mindful of the text that Berlioz illustrates in an unashamedly pictorial way. The Firebird is more expressive, detailed, and atmospheric than his earlier recording with the Philharmonia. For once the music is presented without a trace of exaggeration or familiarity; it sounds pristine, newly minted. Short on irony, but long on drama, this Petrushka might not be to all tastes. Still, each tableau is vividly characterized, and the quirky originality of the scoring comes through loud and clear.

 

Sound: Then And Now

The sound on the original Angels was, frankly, execrable: a hazy blur with a muddled mid-range and absolutely no bass. I've always suspected that some of the negative reviews that greeted these performances when they were first released had more to do with the disappointing sound than with the playing or the interpretations. Fortunately, I soon discovered that the British EMI pressings of these same performances were superior in every way to the domestic product. If I still prefer those records, the sound here is worlds better than both the original releases and various reissues on EMI's budget labels -- a seat in the upper balcony, distant but detailed and very clear. And the good news is that I've seen this four CD set in some stores for less than fifteen dollars.

 

In Conclusion

In short, this set is essential listening. In a recent interview, Giulini said, "This marvelous orchestra--I prefer not to say I conducted them, but rather that I made music with these marvelous musicians and human beings. It was a deep love and friendship, something that belongs to my body, my soul, and my blood."

That "deep love and friendship" are exactly what you hear in every note of these wonderful performances. This selfless merging of conductor and musicians is the stuff of legend.

 

 

Performances:


Beethoven
Berlioz
Brahms
Bruckner
Mahler

 


Stravinsky:

Firebird

Petrushka

 

Sound:

Enjoyment:

Historical Interest:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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