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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
In memoriam Michael Gielen

Symphony No. 6 in A minor ‘Tragic’ (Two performances)
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
SWR MUSIC SWR19080CD [3 CDs: 172:51]

Last year I reviewed a substantial boxed set from SWR Classic containing a complete cycle of the Mahler symphonies and most of the orchestral songs conducted by Michael Gielen (1927-2019). That project was something of a revelation to me. Previously I’d heard some isolated examples of Gielen in Mahler but I hadn’t appreciated quite how good a Mahler interpreter he was.

The set included what I described as “a terrific performance” of the Sixth symphony, recorded in September 1999. The booklet accompanying the set made reference to a 2013 live performance of the symphony by Gielen and the SWR Sinfonieorchester and held out the tantalising prospect that it was hoped to issue the performance on disc in due course. Well, here it is and, moreover, it’s accompanied by a 1971 performance, the existence of which was previously unknown to me. I learned from the booklet that for some years it was issued in pirated incarnations, the identities of the orchestra and conductor concealed behind pseudonyms. This is its first official release.

Why, you may ask, should SWR Classic go to the trouble of issuing in the same set two performances, given over 40 years apart? In fact, there are radical differences between the two performances and, indeed, those who possess the aforementioned box will also be able to trace Gielen’s performance evolution in the work. For a start, the 1971 performance plays for 74:01. By 1999 Gielen’s view of the work had broadened to the extent that he took 84:51. In 2013 his performance occupied 94:25. But his view of the symphony had altered radically in another way too. The 1971 and 1999 performances have the Scherzo placed second and the Andante moderato third. In 2013, however, Gielen reversed the order of the middle movements. We read in the booklet that Gielen studied carefully the academic debate around the movement ordering and came to the conclusion that for him the Scherzo-Andante order made more sense. Nonetheless, he determined that in at least one performance he would follow what were apparently Mahler’s own wishes on the subject. Consequently, in 2013 for what turned out to be his last-ever performance of the symphony he placed the Scherzo third. Collectors who are familiar with the boxed set of Mahler recordings will know that this isn’t the only instance of this ever-inquisitive musician being open to a change of mind. Early in his career he only felt that it was appropriate to conduct the Adagio first movement of the Tenth symphony, which he recorded in 1989. Subsequently, though, he studied the Deryck Cooke performing edition of the whole work and changed his mind. Thank goodness he did; his 2005 recording of the full Cooke edition is a fine achievement.

This is an occasion when a comparison of the individual movement timings for Gielen’s three recordings of the Sixth will give you a good idea of what to expect, though not the full story. To facilitate comparison, I have used the same order of movements in the table that follows. However, it’s important to remember that in the 2013 performance the Andante moderato (III) is placed second.

Movement 1971 1999 2013
I 21:04 24:54 27:45
II 12:02 14:31 15:31
III 13:15 14:46 16:09
IV 27:36 30:42 34:40
Total 74:10 84:51 94:25

I think we can deal with the 1971 performance in fairly short order. The opening Allegro energico is taken very briskly and by comparison with the later versions Gielen seems much too hasty. As a result, he appears rather to skate over the surface of the music. By 1999 he’d come to adopt a much steadier tempo. As I found when I first heard that performance as part of the boxed set, it’s an impressive account of the movement, and by comparison with the 1971 traversal there’s a great deal more probing beneath the music’s surface. In terms of pacing alone this would be my preferred version of the three under consideration here, though, as we shall see, Gielen found even more in the music in 2013. Gielen’s account of the Scherzo was swift and acerbic in 1971, the music sharply articulated. The 1999 rendition occupies the middle ground between the other two versions; as in 1971 the performance is very pointed but I’m much more comfortable with the pacing – and considerably happier than with the 2013 tempi.

The 1999 reading of the Andante moderato flows very well indeed; in fact, I don’t detect significant interpretative difference between this and the 2013 performance, though the latter is a little broader. I simply don’t warm to Gielen’s 1971 treatment of the music at all. The core tempo is far too swift and the result is that the performance sounds rather glib; Gielen would come to have a much greater understanding of this movement. His first thoughts on the huge finale are urgent and direct. The performance is certainly dramatic but, with the hindsight that his later performances provide, we can see that much was missed. There is, for example, no real sense of foreboding about the introduction, especially when compared with the 2013 reading. It’s hard to escape the feeling that in 1971 Gielen’s view of the finale – and, indeed, of the symphony as a whole – was less than fully formed. By 1999 his treatment of the finale was infinitely better and, indeed, had the 2013 recording not come along, daring and probing from first note to last, I would have been very satisfied with the 1999 account.

It’s time to consider the 2013 performance, recorded live at the Salzburg Festival. The first movement is taken at a very deliberate speed; indeed, when I made a spot comparison, I found that Gielen’s core tempo is only slightly above that of Barbirolli. I was disconcerted at first by the speed - and surprised when I read in the booklet that Gielen initially proposed to take the music even slower; he decided to up the speed after hearing a recording of the rehearsal. However, the reservations I had were soon swept away. In part this was because Gielen invests the music with rhythmic energy and life. But what really made me forget about the tempo was the penetration of the conducting, allied to a tremendously acute response from the orchestra. The performance is marvellously detailed and compels the listener’s attention from bar to bar. It’s true that the performance is weighty but it never feels weighed down. Transitions and tempo relationships are all expertly managed. Never once does the conductor’s grip falter in a performance of utmost concentration.

Next comes the Andante moderato and, my goodness, we need the relaxation of this movement after the tense experience of the first movement. The performance brings out very successfully the bittersweet nature of the music and the air of nostalgia that pervades much of it. The orchestral playing is delectable and there’s a great deal of fine solo work to admire, not least from the principal horn. The extended climax (from about 11:30) is passionate and urgent while the tranquillity that Gielen and his players achieve in the final bars s very satisfying.

The Scherzo temporarily shakes my faith in Gielen. The marking is Wuchtig (heavy or weighty) and that’s how the music sounds. I don’t know how many performances of this symphony I’ve heard over the years but I’ve never heard it taken so slowly, so stolidly. Even if you regard the movement as a curtain raiser for the finale, I think the treatment of the music is too heavy-handed although I would acknowledge that even despite this the conducting is full of interest. Needless to say, the altväterisch episodes are slower than one is used to and I don’t think they come off at this pace. In my experience, performances have generally come in at around 13 minutes, give or take 30 seconds or so: Gielen’s sixteen minutes is extraordinary – and not in a good way.

It was Sir Simon Rattle whose recent Berlin recording persuaded me of the musical argument for placing the Scherzo third, and in part he did so by taking the finale almost attacca, thereby underlining the compositional links between the close of the Scherzo and the opening of the finale. We read in the booklet that in this 2013 concert Gielen made a pause between the two movements so you don’t get that carry-through that Rattle offers – and in any case, you have to change CDs at this point.

After the disappointment of the Scherzo, Gielen’s account of the finale more than redresses the balance. If I had to select just one word to describe this performance it would be ‘shattering’. Right from the start I sensed I was in for something rather special. Gielen’s way with the introduction is ominous, dark and searching: the music has an almost gothic countenance. When Mahler moves into one of his marches (5:20), Gielen’s tempo is broad, which is consistent, I believe, with his view of the first movement. Broad the pace may be, but the performance is totally gripping. In the Scherzo the slow tempi were a major distraction. Here, the speeds are often slower than I’m used to but such is the conviction of the music-making that the point scarcely registered. Gielen and Mahler stretch the players of the SWR Sinfonieorchester but never are they found wanting Their playing is unflagging in its intensity and hugely committed – the horns and brass are magnificent throughout. The first hammer blow (14:31) unleashes a musical tumult but its successor (20:17) is a moment of catharsis. Everything that follows the second hammer blow right through to 31:40, just before the coda, is simply extraordinary in its intensity: one has the sense of a musical crucible. Gielen leads us through a dark drama, compelling our attention at every turn. The coda (32:32) is emotionally bleak, the playing expertly controlled. Mercifully, a silence of some ten seconds elapses before the performance and the performers receive a thunderous ovation.

I can’t readily recall hearing a more intense account of this extraordinary movement. It’s on a par with the performances by Mitropoulos and Tennstedt. Significantly, perhaps, their performances, like Gielen’s were recorded live. All three conductors take the listener to the edge of the abyss, but all of them do so in a controlled way that never tips over into hysteria. I remain troubled by Gielen’s way with the Scherzo in this performance but the first two movements are excellent and the finale demands to be heard.

If I’m honest, I don’t think that the 1971 performance would justify release by itself. However, it’s valuable to have it in this package, especially since I believe this 3-disc set is priced as if it were a single disc. Having the 1971 and 2913 performances together enables the listener to trace the evolution of Michael Gielen’s approach to this symphony, and all the more so if you also have the 1999 performance. I’ve found it fascinating and rewarding to make these comparisons and the 2013 reading has the stamp of greatness on it.

The recorded sound for the 1971 performance is very good, especially considering its age. The 2013 performance is offered in excellent sound which does full justice to the performance. There’s a good booklet with essays in German and English about Michael Gielen’s history with the Sixth symphony. Gielen was a Mahler conductor of genuine stature and this set is a fitting tribute to him following his death earlier this year. It’s an equally fitting tribute to the collective skills of the excellent SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg. Their splendid playing in the 2013 performance demonstrates what a scandal it was that the bean counters engineered its merger with the Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart (SWR) in 2016.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan

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