Top Ear

Giulini in Vienna

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Jeremy Lee writes

This 15CD box contains all of Giulini’s DG recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna Symphony, including his concerto recordings.  A substantial proportion of the recordings featuring the Vienna Philharmonic would be considered “Late Giulini” (around mid-1980s), a style that was lush, relaxed, ponderous and often slow, while those featuring the Vienna Symphony were recorded at the very last years of the analog era that preceded his late style.

So if you like late Giulini, you’ll love this box set, and even if you don’t particularly warm to it, many of the performances here are worth your time.  The Vienna Philharmonic Brahms cycle is probably one of the most magisterial accounts there is, the orchestra bearing a monumental, burnished sonority and Giulini taking his sweet time to extract the most affecting sonorities and phrasing from the work.  Some may prefer the slightly more sprightly Los Angeles Philharmonic recordings of the 1st and 2nd symphony to these (the LAPO ones were recorded in the early digital years) but the commitment and concentration Giulini brings to these Vienna performances are, I daresay, even greater than the early ones.  Taking the finale of the 1st symphony as an example:  at almost 20 minutes, the VPO performance is one of the longest out there, but thanks to Giulini’s handling of the long-line architecture and laser-like focus, tension never sags and the performance never drags, and instead leaves the listener with a true sense of awe, something that I did not feel in the Los Angeles version.  Similarly, the finale of the 2nd symphony is the slowest ever (just over 11 minutes), and while it may lack the physicality of the Los Angeles version (which brings it home in a moderately slow 9 and a half minutes) it more than compensates for it with the Vienna orchestra’s tremendous sonority and Giulini’s steady but thrilling layering of the brass voices in the coda.  The Third is also a lovely performance, sporting an uncharacteristically visceral finale, but I must single out the recording of the Fourth symphony as being one of my favorite hitherto.  The impassioned, inevitable terribilità is brought to the fore in the first movement.  Giulini’s deliberate emphasis on the off-beat phrasing was breathtaking, so much so that I was left wondering why nobody paid so much loving attention to this unique characteristic of Brahms’ sweeping melody.  It all culminates into an unbelievably powerful canon coda, with strings and horns brilliant, prominent and pealing their hearts out.  The same goes for the finale where Giulini patiently and organically unravels the narrative and brings the work to its most affectingly tragic conclusion.  Listeners may well prefer the previous accounts for its swifter speeds and lack of “mannered” point-making (Chicago is the one to go to, don’t bother with the Philharmonia one) but I think Giulini’s heavy-handedness in the Fourth, while truly unprecedented, works to present a brand-new and musically gratifying picture of how Brahmsian tragedy in its ultimate apotheosis could sound like.

Giulini’s Brahms Requiem (his only one, incidentally) was recorded in 1987, a few years prior to the VPO symphony cycle.  Unlike his VPO symphony cycle the timings are not particularly slow–indeed, this is one of the faster modern versions–and yet it does not sacrifice the radiance and serenity of the Brahms symphony cycle.  A lush, profound and affecting performance it is, and the singing is second-to-none, be it by the two ravishing soloists (Barbara Bonney, Andreas Schmidt) or the Vienna State Opera Chorus.  It is, incidentally, interesting to compare this recording to Karajan’s with this very orchestra two years back in 1985;  Karajan’s tempi are more stately, with more emphasis on the surface beauty (and it is very, very beautiful indeed) but Giulini has the better chorus, an earthier sonority, and, in the climaxes, a slightly more dramatic edge.

I suppose most collectors would have bought this box set for Giulini’s tremendous performances of Bruckner’s last three symphonies, all of which have gone out print recently.  (I heard the 7th symphony before I obtained this box set through a Japanese-only reissue.)  Thank God they’re back:  they are some of the most breathtaking Bruckner performances I know.  The Seventh is a predominantly gentle and lyrical performance, but Giulini doesn’t stint on the tragedy in the second movement, providing us with a magical balance between the mournful Wagner tubas and the string backdrop in the very opening, building the tension masterfully, and releasing it in a magnificent, cymbal-heralded apotheosis.  The Ninth sports a monumental first movement (reminding one instantly of Beethoven’s), a fiery Scherzo (though the earlier version with the CSO roundly beats this one) and a soulful Adagio.

A colleague of mine once raised a quibble about some of Giulini’s Vienna Philharmonic recordings, claiming that the orchestra’s tone tended to sound too homogeneous and lacking in variation, while the strings and horns (the horns are very prominent) sound excessively brilliant in a way that does not suit Giulini’s humane and reserved approach.  While this may be a detriment in the 7th and 9th symphonies, these same qualities carried over to the 8th symphony however make it sound like less of a problem, and in some ways Giulini’s maintenance of Bruckner’s sprawling architecture is helped by the Vienna Philharmonic’s massive, unchanging sound.  For me, I always admire that glorious brilliance of the strings and horns, and to hear them so prominently in the 8th symphony is sheer joy.  Add this to Giulini’s interpretation, which is darkly dramatic, solid and dignified, and to me this recipe spells one of the great performances of Bruckner’s Eighth.

To the concerto performances:  the Beethoven 1st, 3rd and 5th piano concertos are played by the venerated Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli.  Michelangeli plays up the classical proportions of the music while sometimes taking away the fantasy of the cadenzas that pianists as diverse as Barenboim or Kempff bring to it in favor of a more rigorous, unyielding approach, but his technique and tone are absolutely sublime (have those trills been more beautifully executed by anyone ever?) and the Vienna Symphony plays with a healthy, robust tone under Giulini’s steady and sensitive direction.  The VSO also plays for Berman’s Liszt concerto performances (reviewed here by Leonard) and I can only second his review by saying that they are aristocratic, thoughtful and full of integrity while still packing a punch in the flashier sections.  Berman’s solo Venezia e Napoli, a great performance, fills out the disc.

Two other items, both of which I am not extremely familiar with, fill out the set, one being Verdi’s opera Rigoletto featuring a star-studded cast (Domingo as the Duke of Mantua, Cappuccilli as Rigoletto, Cotrubas as the Daughter, and Ghiaurov as the villain), the other being an angular, largely tonal and wholly enjoyable cantata An die Nachgeborenen (To Posterity), Op. 42 written in 1973 by Austrian composer Gottfried von Einem (1918-1996), and sung by Julia Hamari and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

On the whole, for the Brahms and Bruckner alone, this inexpensive set (around HK$450) is completely worth your hard-earned money, and the sonics are all at least very good (though some audiophiles have detected problems with the remastering–the Brahms on Newton Classics sounds better, they say).  The box is marginally too small to contain all the contents of the box, and the cover photo is stupid, but nobody really cares.  For fans of Giulini, and lovers of the Vienna sound, this box really is a tremendous treat, and even regular listeners will gain much listening pleasure from these 15 discs.  Now let’s hope that DG does the Right Thing and follows up with a Giulini in Berlin set…


  • Album name:  Giulini in Vienna
  • Performers:  Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (piano);  Lazar Berman (piano);  Carlo Maria Giulini (conductor);  Vienna Symphony Orchestra;  Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Works included:
    • Beethoven:  Piano Concertos 1, 3 and 5 “Emperor”
    • Brahms:  Symphonies 1-4;  Haydn Variations;  Ein deutsches Requiem;  Tragic Overture
    • Bruckner:  Symphonies 7-9
    • Liszt:  Piano Concertos 1 and 2;  Venezia e Napoli
    • Verdi:  Rigoletto
    • Von Einem:  An die Nachgeborenen
  • Label:  DG 479 2688
  • No. of discs:  15
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD/DDD

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

One thought on “Giulini in Vienna

  1. i just bought the box giulini ” the london years” on warner classics; yesterday bar code 5 099999 373924; i only listened tot Brahms 4 with philharmonia;as a starter yet; i find it as fascinating as his later Chicago account which you like so much ( as i do) ; i know what to do the rest of this sunday! i attended to a giulini los angeles concert in brussels in 1980 , one of the greatest eroica’s i ever heard , and also a deutsches rquiem in london one or two years later; he was one of the greatest conductors ever; thanks for your website ; ps another interesting site , unfortunately for you in dutch, is “musicalifeiten ” with interesting and comprehensive reviews. marc

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