Click here to e-mail reviewer
Even those of us who admired Carlo Maria Giulini sometimes found ourselves inwardly grumbling about his narrowly circumscribed repertory: a select constellation of sympathetic works that sustained him throughout a long career. He left us with no fewer than four recordings of the Brahms First Symphony, but not one of the Symphonie Fantastique, Iberia, Schumann's Second Symphony, the Shostakovitch Fifth or Tenth, or Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. I'm sure every Giuilin fan has his or her own list of works that never made the cut.
So it was a pleasant surprise to find Schumann's rarely heard secular oratorio, Das Paradies Und Die Peri, on the Chicago Symphony schedule for 1974. It was a work I didn't even know existed up to that point.
Though enormously popular in their day, Schumann's compositions for chorus and orchestra — the list also includes Scenes from Goethe's Faust, the incidental music to Byron's Manfred, the oratorio The Rose's Pilgrimage, and a Requiem — have fared less well since. At ninety minutes, Das Paradies is easily the most ambitious of these works, and also, it seems to me, the most successful. No less an authority than his own wife Clara thought it the best thing he ever did.
The story of Das Paradies comes from Persian mythology (the libretto Schumann used was based on a translation by his friend Emil Flechsig). It recounts the struggles of a fallen angel (the Peri) to "render heaven's dearest gift," and thereby achieve redemption. While the libretto is not without its problems, the music is quite simply gorgeous, and those fond of Schumann's great song cycles Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (both written at about the same time) will find the same gift for plangent melody here.
But what makes Das Paradies truly unique is the imaginativeness of its sound world, which somehow unites the exoticism of its Persian source with the magical atmosphere appropriate to a fairy tale. Though Das Paradies was not written for children, it often suggests the dreamlike wonder of a child's point of view. I'm not sure there is any other work quite like it.
Arts has now given us the definitive performance of the score. Giulini respects the delicacy of the music, and his patient, richly detailed rendering of individual numbers is balanced by a dramatic sense of forward movement, a cumulative intensity that blossoms fully in the final choruses. Which is to say, his approach is both intimate and operatic. His love for the work can be felt in every phrase.
It has been my experience that Italian orchestras are only as good as the conductor who happens to be on the podium that night. For Giulini, the RAI musicians give everything they have; their playing is both exact and passionately committed. I've always regretted the fact that Giulini's Chicago performances of this score were never documented. But now, thanks to Arts, we have this one from the same year, just as superbly conducted and (with all due respect to the great Chicago Symphony Orchestra) just as richly played. The chorus sings magnificently throughout, and there isn't a weak link among the soloists. In brief, this will be the version to own for a long time to come.
The highlight of the BBC Legends disc is, of course, the Dvorak Seventh Symphony. Giulini made two commercial recordings of the work — with this same orchestra in 1976, and with the Concertgebouw in 1993 — and neither comes close to matching the blazing intensity of this live performance from 1969. Certainly no conductor has ever taken to such an extreme the tragic implications of the score. Giulini's tempos generally became more spacious over time. His tempos here are not unconventionally slow, but they sometimes seem so because of the added weight and gravity of the interpretation. The performance seethes and bristles with tension, but there's also a sense of inevitability, of a drama steadily unfolding. Giulini's long experience in opera taught him how to shape an orchestral work in a dramatically cogent way; and consequently the climaxes are almost unbearably intense.
There are, of course, other ways to approach this most popular score. George Szell, Colin Davis, and Pierre Monteux are all more classically proportioned, and in his early stereo version with the Vienna Philharmonic Rafael Kubelik stresses the rhapsodic, folkloric nature of the music. But for those of us who believe that Brahms was the inspiration for this work, Giulini's performance will reign supreme. It is the most Brahms-like Dvorak Seventh you'll ever hear.
Given that every conductor performs the Hindemith Concert Music in more or less the same way, surely there's room for Giulini's alternate take on the music. Still, it's startling to hear the opening played so grandly, dramatically, and without any sense of brassy swagger. For Giulini, this is a serious piece, not virtuosic display, and (typically) he builds the music to a huge, symphonic climax. The London Philharmonic brass and strings are with him every step of the way. This Egmont Overture also appeared on an earlier BBC Legends disc that featured Schubert's Ninth Symphony and Berlioz' Les nuits d'ete with Dame Janet Baker. I feel about it now much as I felt then: it's a slow-developing performance, impressive and well played in its way, but fatally underpowered.
The BBC Legends sound is acceptable, and the power of Giulini's interpretation certainly comes through. But as with other entries in this series, compressed sonics rob the performance of intimacy and vividness. Though the Arts disc also reviewed this month must also be from a radio transcription, its sound is exceptionally detailed and clear, with a spacious soundstage that precisely and comfortably deploys the chorus and the soloists. There is also a convincingly realistic bass, something not to be found on the BBC disc.
The conductor's many admirers will need no urging from me to purchase these discs. Those who love Schumann's music will want to hear Das Pardies, especially in this telling and emotional performance. The Dvorak/Hindemith disc is strong whisky indeed, but that's exactly why I'm recommending it so enthusiastically.