Top Ear

Giulini in Chicago

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Jeremy Lee writes

Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had a long-lasting relationship.  Giulini debuted with the orchestra in 1955, became its principal guest conductor from 1969 to 1972, and regularly conducted there until around 1978.  During his time with the orchestra, Giulini recorded quite a number of recordings:  the first batch for EMI, mainly during the time he was the guest conductor of the orchestra (with one exception), and then for DG, during 1976 to 1978.  In 2004 EMI released their Giulini/CSO recordings in a 4CD box; this was followed by DG who released their counterpart in 2011.  Now that Warner has taken over EMI, Warner has seen it fit to re-release the EMI Giulini/CSO recordings in a budget-priced box for their Giulini edition.  So here we have these two box sets documenting not only the history of the partnership between this great conductor and this great orchestra, but also two important artistic developments:  one, a change in Giulini’s conducting style; two, a change in the orchestra’s timbre. Giulini’s tenure as the CSO’s principal guest conductor has been described at the back of the Warner box as “full of mutual respect and affection”, and from the recordings featured in that box, it’s hard not to think likewise.  Though the repertoire featured is stylistically quite distinct, all of these interpretations are full of inner warmth and deep feeling and understanding.  Even the two Stravinsky suites–repertoire uncharacteristic of Giulini (Firebird and Petrushka suites)–have been affected by Giulini’s Midas touch of warmth and humanity.  But of course, there was much more to Giulini’s artistry.  There was his nobility, not least evident in the highly-acclaimed Brahms 4, which has to be counted as one of his most moving musical statements (Leonard’s review here).  Brimmed with pathos and depth, there is nevertheless an unforgettable aura of dignity and modesty that contributes to this recording’s bittersweet aftertaste, a quality that makes it sound markedly more inspired than his monochrome first recording with the Philharmonia in the 1960s.  There was his sense of balance, manifest in all the climaxes, in which the orchestra’s huge sound gushes in front of your ears as a heavy, granite-like block without any instrument or section stealing the show.  And there was also his sense of drama, notably in Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet, the inexorable canon at the end of the first movement of Brahms 4, as well as the astonishingly ferocious Infernal Dance of Kastchei from the Firebird Suite featuring a really explosive tuba. Obviously, none of this would be to any avail hadn’t it been for the orchestra that he had at his disposal.  It was Solti who invited Giulini to serve the post concurrently when the former was elected general music director, and seemingly during these few years the distinctive Solti sound (most characteristically the overbearing brass section) still hadn’t taken firm root in the orchestra.  This observation can be endorsed by referring to Solti’s earlier recordings with the CSO on Decca, for example his Mahler 5-8, in which the brass section in toto never drowned out the other sections.  Of course, the CSO brass was and has always been powerful, and there’s no problem hearing them, but unlike the recordings from the late 70s, they only rose to prominence if need be (though I would still wish for a bit more in the Beethoven and Brahms).  Brass section aside, the strings sounded less disciplined and lustrous than its later self (though this may be due to the recording), and the slight ensemble problems and occasional mistakes suggest that the orchestra lacked the polish and technical ability later renewed by Solti.  However there is no denying the great chemistry between Giulini and the CSO developed in merely three years, and the fact that Giulini could dispel Solti’s influence (however small at this early stage) over the orchestra–that is, transforming Solti’s orchestral powerhouse into a warm-sounding and deeply-felt ensemble–remains to this day one of the wonders of the musical world. After he left the CSO in the capacity of principal guest conductor, Giulini returned four years later to record the Bruckner 9 in the Warner box, and the items in the DG set.  The short space of four years, however, was enough for Giulini to rethink his approach to music-making.  Giulini seemed to have opted for even greater weight, lyricism and spirituality, and most of the results, I have to say, are astonishing.  The Schubert symphonies (4, 8, 9) are some of the most celebrated, featuring gorgeous phrasing, relentless melodiousness, and a wonderful sense of control and poise (refer to the extraordinarily calm and stately second movement of the 8th).  The Dvorák 8 and 9, as well as the Mussorgsky Pictures, are sculpted in a similar manner; Giulini displays a veritable gift for shaping a memorable tune in the long line, making it appear unusually stirring, especially those distinctly Dvorákian/Mussorgskian melodies (c.f. “Goin’ Home” or “Bydlo”).  The same kind of lyric gift characterizes the finale of the centerpiece of the DG collection, Mahler 9, and Giulini also patiently unravels the long and sometimes knotty melodies in the first movement, which all culminates in the most brutal climax on record.  Grandeur also features prominently in Giulini’s later interpretative palette:  rarely have the ending of the first movement of Schubert 9 or the Gates of Kiev of Mussorgsky’s Pictures sounded as majestic, sonorous and splendorous as they appear here. The orchestra’s sound, too, evolved.  From the later CSO’s playing, it’s plain that Solti transformed the orchestra to technically world-class standards during the few years Giulini was away, while finally imposing his brand of impetuosity in the brass section that can only be a Solti trademark (I’ve always commented that whatever orchestra Solti conducts, it’s going to turn out sounding more or less like the CSO).  Straight to the point:  the orchestra plays absolutely ravishingly for Giulini.  Gone are the imprecisions and flubs that marred the orchestra’s old self; here we have an orchestra that combines Clevelandesque exactitude with Berlinesque polish.  Noticeably, the brass sound has become more robust and solid (and prominent), while the strings have put on a jacket of opalescent gloss and malleability.  For example, hear the outer movements of Bruckner 9th:  the deeply supportive lower brass, brilliant trumpets and upholstered strings all point to an authentic Bruckner sound. So, the later Giulini/CSO recordings bear the mark of both musical entities in their most recognizable form.  But does it mean that all these transformations are for the good?  That all amounts to a matter of personal taste.  Let’s get one small quibble out of the way first:  the brass is sometimes unsuitably prominent.  The climax of the andante of Schubert 9, for example, is nothing but blaring brass, which makes it sound inappropriately vulgar.  But this is a really tiny problem that I suppose lovers of the CSO would be accustomed too (many of Solti’s CSO recordings are blast-fests). I suppose the major thing that bothers me in these newer recordings (and it is a very personal peeve) is the lack of the humanity that Giulini imbued in his interpretations of the older ones, and for all the orchestra’s technical limitations in the past, it’s hard to fault their collective enthusiasm; after all, the players are still human.  With the new recordings, somehow a barrier of impenetrability has been erected between the performer and the listener.  The playing is perfect to the point that it draws attention to itself, and thus the sheer communicativeness of the older recordings are gone, and with it, their warmth and vulnerability.  It’s like living a palace made out of 24-karat gold; yes, it’s an extremely beautiful place to dwell in, but it’s hard to develop a real emotional attachment.  Where is the modesty?  Where is the humaneness? That’s not all.  Regrettably Giulini in these later recordings often lost touch with the freshness, vivacity and thrills of the music, making it sound unnecessarily bulky and torpid.  This is evident in the labored dance-like sections of the Dvorák symphonies, the unnecessarily heavy-handed Prokofiev “Classical”, or the rather stiff middle movements of Mahler 9th.  (In fact most of his performances during this “late period” tended to be slower than the norm.)  Thankfully there is one notable exception:  the scherzo of Bruckner 9, which manages to be massive and nimble at the same time.  It’s like a sprinting mammoth:  every dissonant chord is hammered to the ground with astonishing vehement force and speed.  The effect is exceptionally crushing, and it’s a feat that Giulini didn’t manage in his later DG remake with the Vienna Philharmonic. However, the strong points of both these sets, which are substantial, are not to be taken for granted.  There are, of course, a few less distinctive items, such as the Beethoven 7th and the Mahler 1st in the EMI box and the Britten Serenade (what?) in the DG one, but they are safe and well-played renditions all the same.  Sonically, there’s a world of difference between EMI’s congested, hissy sound for the pre-1972 recordings and DG’s clear, impactful canvas for the later ones (the EMI Bruckner 9 sounds very fine).  Despite my reservations about the DG set being too inhumanly flawless and so on, I actually have a slight preference for it as the repertoire is more attractive to me, the playing is as mentioned superb, and I’ve always liked the prominence of the CSO brass.  But as always, your mileage may vary.  The bottom line is this:  as a comprehensive document of the artistry of both Giulini and the CSO, I wouldn’t hesitate one bit in recommending both sets for your perusal.


Warner set

  • Album name:  Carlo Maria Giulini:  The Chicago Years
  • Performers:  Carlo Maria Giulini (conductor);  Chicago Symphony Orchestra
  • Works included:
    • Mahler:  Symphony No. 1
    • Berlioz:  Romeo and Juliet
    • Beethoven:  Symphony No. 7
    • Bruckner:  Symphony No. 9
    • Brahms:  Symphony No. 4
    • Stravinsky:  Firebird Suite;  Petrushka Suite
  • Label:  Warner 50999 4 31752 2
  • No. of discs:  4
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD

DG set

  • Album name:  Giulini in America:  Chicago Symphony Orchestra
  • Performers:  Robert Tear (tenor) [Britten];  Carlo Maria Giulini (conductor);  Chicago Symphony Orchestra
  • Works included:
    • Schubert:  Symphonies 4, 8, 9
    • Dvorák:  Symphonies 8, 9
    • Prokofiev:  Symphony No. 1
    • Mahler:  Symphony No. 9
    • Mussorgsky/Ravel:  Pictures at an Exhibition
    • Britten:  Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
  • Label:  DG 477 9628
  • No. of discs:  5
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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