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In memoriam Michael Gielen
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6 in A minor ‘Tragic’ (Two performances, from 1971 & 2013)
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Michael Gielen
rec. 12-14 May 1971, Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden; live, 21 August 2013. Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg
CD3 also contains a short extract from a 2001 interview, War Mahler gläubig? (Was Mahler religious?). The booklet includes an English transcript
Reviewed as a 16-bit download
SWR MUSIC SWR19080CD [3 CDs: 172:51]

I came to Michael Gielen (1927-2019) when I chanced upon a CD of his Mahler Eighth, recorded live at the Alte Oper, Frankfurt, in May 1981 (Sony). I was quickly converted to his thoughtful, clear-eyed approach to this repertoire, especially the individual Hänssler sets. The latter were subsequently reissued as Vol. 6 of SWR Music’s Michael Gielen Edition, which also included newly released accounts of the Rückert Lieder and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; as a bonus, there’s a DVD of Symphony No. 9, filmed around the time the CDs were being recorded. This big box was very well received by John Quinn. Indeed, SWR’s multi-volume retrospective contains some truly memorable things, as I discovered when I reviewed Vol. 7.

Nearly all of Gielen’s recordings were made with the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, as it was before the controversial Stuttgart merger in 2016. It was an extremely accomplished and versatile band, of which he was chief conductor from 1986 to 1999. In that time, Gielen developed a wonderful rapport with these players, as those tribute boxes so amply demonstrate. After that, he remained their conductor laureate until 2014, when failing eyesight forced him to retire. (His last conducting appearance was with the NDR Symphony Orchestra in February that year.) And if further proof of this special relationship is required, just compare their Mahler 7, recorded in 1993, with the conductor’s live Berliner Philharmoniker one, set down in 1994 (Testament). As I noted at the end of that review: ‘A good but rather uneven Seventh; no match for Gielen’s Hänssler version.’ On reflection, it’s the consistency of vision and follow-through that makes the original cycle such a remarkable - and enduring - achievement.

Now we have these contrasting performances of No. 6: a 1971 studio recording presented here in its first ‘authorised’ release - more details below - and a new, live one from Salzburg in 2013. How fascinating to compare readings from the start of Gielen’s Mahlerian odyssey to its completion 42 years later. Both the 1971 performance and the 1999 one in the SWR set put the Scherzo second, a sequence Gielen favoured until, in 2004, he read a research paper that appeared to prove beyond all doubt that Mahler preferred Andante-Scherzo. The Salzburg invitation nine years later offered Gielen the perfect opportunity to make the change. I daresay that will please those who never trusted Alma’s contrary advice to the Dutch conductor and Mahler devotee, Willem Mengelberg, after her husband’s death.

Here are the timings of all three recordings:

1971 (Scherzo-Andante)
21:04 / 12:02 / 13:15 / 27:36

1999 (Scherzo-Andante)
25:01 / 14:36 / 14:46 / 30:40

2013 (Andante-Scherzo)
27:45 / 15:31 / 16:09 / 34:40

I started off by revisiting the 1999 performance, which clocks in at 84:51. The first movement has a darkly emphatic tread, its rasps and snarls well caught by the SWR engineers. Two things struck me at once: how well shaped Gielen’s reading is, and how cannily he judges tempos and tempo relationships. (The symphony never sags or stretches, as it can so easily do.) Indeed, the opening narrative is as tense and trenchant as one could wish. The strange Scherzo is no less impressive - the unforced detail and complex colour palette are especially telling - and the supple Andante is so affectionately done. After that dreamy interlude the musical equivalent of a cinematic lap dissolve at the start of the Finale comes as a rude awakening. It’s one of Mahler’s most formidable creations, its idyllic Wunderhorn flashbacks swept aside by passages of huge weight and power. Gielen and his players are superbly controlled here, the disparate moods boldly characterised, the hammer blows all the more pole-axing for being so carefully - and dramatically - prepared for.

So, a very cogent and compelling Sixth, whose manifold virtues are typical of Gielen’s cycle as a whole. Incidentally, the original Hänssler releases offered some unusual and often stimulating fillers, in this case Alban Berg’s Drei Orchesterstücke, Op. 6 (HAEN 93029). Then again, Gielen and his orchestra were celebrated for their commitment to to the music of Mahler, the Second Viennese School and beyond. And he trained his players well, as SWR’s anniversary box of Messiaen‘s orchestral works, recorded with Sylvain Cambreling between 1999 and 2008, reveals at every turn.

Rewind to 1971, and the liner-notes describe how this recording was pirated and sold with the conductor given as either Eduard van Lindenberg or Hartmut Haenchen. Once its true provenance was confirmed, those illicit copies were withdrawn from sale. Auditioning the genuine article, I noticed just how swift the first movement is. That said, it’s suitably taut and very mobile, the analogue sound lean and quite bright without being excessively so. However, Gielen’s tempi and phrasing aren’t as intuitive as they’d eventually became. (That goes for his grasp of the symphony’s architecture, too.) As for the orchestra, they lack the weight and superior blend of later years. The Scherzo is is certainly animated - volatile, even - but there’s little hint of a subtext; without that, we only get half the story. Alas, the Andante isn’t fully formed, either. And what of the tumultuous, multi-layered Finale? At 27:36 it’s the quickest of the three - and it shows. Gielen drives the music much too hard at times, and that doesn’t help when it comes to building tension or a coherent argument. Then again, that was 1971, and Gielen’s Mahler was clearly a work in progress. (The Frankfurt Eighth shows how far he’d come in just a decade.)

Fast forward to 2013, where, at 27:45, the first movement is the most leisurely one here. Interestingly, the booklet says Gielen actually upped the tempo here, as he felt the rehearsal performance was too slow. Even then, the pulse isn’t quite as strong as it was in 1999. In mitigation, the playing is simply marvellous, Klaus-Dieter Hesse’s recording warm, full and nicely detailed. Indeed, in the face of such splendours any reservations I might have had at the outset soon evaporated. After that weighty and surprisingly propulsive opener, the Andante offers a modicum of relief, its wistful, dancing rhythms delectably sprung. Happily, Gielen never underplays the music’s essential strangeness, coaxing a whole range of ear-pricking colours and sonorities from his faithful, fearless band. In fact, there are moments in the Andante where I’m tempted to say this Sixth is as good as, if not better than, any I’ve encountered in the past forty years.

Moving on to the Scherzo, I’ve rarely heard it sound so weird and wonderful, the Wunderhorn references so appealingly presented. Every section excels - the firm, well-rounded horns are a joy to hear - while the thrilling tuttis are always sensibly scaled. At this juncture, the sense of being part of an extraordinary musical event is at its most potent; and, if that weren’t praise enough, Gielen delivers a thrilling Finale, its strongly contrasted sections framed with all the skill of one steeped in this great score. Moreover, Mahler’s light rememberings and dark equivocations have seldom been so beautifully articulated. And what a stirring summation, conductor and orchestra at their transported - and transporting - best. The applause is rapturous; then again, for many in the seasoned audience this was probably the Mahler concert of a lifetime.

Gielen’s Salzburg Sixth crowns a distinguished career studded with awards, honours and world premieres; its companion, recorded 42 years earlier, is of passing interest only.

Dan Morgan

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