BEETHOVEN:  Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93.  Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37 (Stefan Litwin, pianist).  Grosse Fugue Op. 133 (arr. Gielen).  SCHUBERT:  Symphony No. 9 in C.  BRUCKNER:  Symphony No. 6 in A.  BACH-SCHOENBERG:  Prelude and Fugue in E Flat.  SCRIABIN:  Symphony No. 3, OP. 43 "The Divine Poem."  BUSONI:  Berceuse el╦giaque, Op. 42.  RAVEL:  Une barque sur l'oc╚an.  STRAVINSKY:  Scherzo à la russe.  SCHOENBERG:  Die glückliche Hand, Op. 18 (John Brľcheler, baritone).  BERG:  Der Wien. WEBERN:  Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10.  Cantata No. 1, Op. 29 (Christiane Oelze, soprano). STEUERMANN:  Variations for Orchestra.  GIELEN:  Pflicht und Neigung.  JOHANN STRAUSS:  Voices of Spring Waltz.
Southwest German Radio Orch/Berlin Radio Symphony Orch; Michael Gielen, cond.
HÄNSSLER LC 10622 (5 CDs) (DDD/ADD) TT: 74:30  / 71:33 / 65:39 / 78:08 / 59:07

This five-disc box was issued last year to celebrate Michael Gielen’s 75th birthday (he was born July 20, 1927 in Dresden, two days after Kurt Masur was born in Brieg, ceded after WW2 to Poland). Repertory ranges from a Schoenberg transcription of Bach’s E-flat Prelude and Fugue (BWV 552) to the conductor’s own 1988 Pflicht und Neigung (Obligation and Inclination) for winds, brass, keyboards and percussion, a “further development of the central movement of my String Quartet from 1983.” This last is the coda on disc 5—an overview of the Second Viennese School that includes the 8-minute Varations for Orchestra by his maternal uncle, Eduard Steuermann, a keyboard pupil of Busoni “always a bit like Schoenberg’s slave [Gielen has written]; instead of teaching him composition [during the last four years before WW1], Schoenberg let him do piano reductions of Die Glückliche Hand and of Erwartung.” The Variations are, Paul Fiebig adds in his program note, “something like a combination of Webern’s brevity and Schoenberg’s expressive mood.”

It remains the least characterful piece on that disc, however, which begins with Die Glückliche Hand in a vivid performance featuring John Bröcheler (Gabriel in Jacob’s Ladder that Hänssler coupled with Gielen’s Mahler Eighth) and the Berlin Radio Choir. Berg’s Der Wein follows, although Melanie Diener falls somewhat short of Judith Blegen’s vocally pristine version once available on CBS/Sony with Pierre Boulez conducting the NYPhil. Next come Webern’s Five Pieces and Cantata No. 1, Op. 29, in which Christiane Oelze is a wonderful soloist with the Webern Choir of Freiburg. The insert does not make clear what was recorded where in 1990-91, 1996, and 2001-02, both in Freiburg and in Baden-Baden. But the sound is consistently crisp and characterful—Hänssler’s track record is enviable in its recordings of Gielen, whose own music (not incidentally) is bracingly bold and expressive, despite its intricate structure.

Schoenberg’s 1928-29 Bach transcription, introduced on tandem days by Webern in Vienna and Furtwängler in Berlin, is a welcome codicil to Gielen’s outstanding 2001 performance of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony, unsurpassed in organization even by Klemperer and Karajan, on the middle disc of these five. It and the hyphenated Bach (from 1996) both come from Freiburg—a generous coupling one hopes can be purchased singly in future. The Schubert “Great” C major on disc 2 was a live recording April 27, 1996 at a tour concert in London’s Royal Festival Hall. Don’t expect Furtwängler and you will find it a tonic, a freshet—straightforward lyricism and a wealth of nuance but never at the expense of the music’s structure. Gielen doesn’t take all the repeats—his “heavenly length” is just under 52 minutes—although he lets the Scherzo be longest at 14:14, whereas the remaining three clock between 12 and 13 minutes each. His program note is treasurable, too, and ends with the admission that Schubert’s is “almost the only music which very often brings tears to my ears.” The acoustic is ample albeit a degree drier than we hear in the Freiburg recordings. The appended Voices of Spring (Freiburg, 1998) eschews repeats for the most part. It is German Strauss, as Erich Kleiber’s was, but not very charming—the only real disappointment in this comprehensive collection.

Beethoven has been one of Gielen’s specialties from the beginning of his disc career, and the Eighth Symphony (Freiburg, January 2000) is simultaneously ebullient and muscular with a smile quintessentially Beethovenian. The Third Concerto from 1994 at Baden-Baden (likewise Gielen’s marvelous arrangement for string orchestra of the Grosse fuge, Op. 133) is, as it should be, a serious performance of music that Beethoven intended to be serious. Gielen’s introduction is taut and ongoing, which is not to suggest Toscanini-like, however, and his soloist proves of like mind. Mexico-born Stefan Litwin does not push-and-pull, nor does he superimpose the manners of any other composer; he is a partner without abdicating his role as soloist. I was put in mind of Schnabel at key moments, and will listen more times without the obligation of a review.

Finally, on disc 4, there is the surprise of Scriabin’s “le divin Poème,” listed first (which it should be) as Symphony No. 3, Op. 43—a Gielen kind-of-specialty since 1973 it turns out (“one of the most significant composers in the time of upheaval before the First World War”), which he first conducted in Chicago, then “resold” to Baden-Baden in 1975, when this performance was recorded. But he adds, “Unfortunately [Scriabin] had very little technique, so that the piece which has become the favorite of kapellmeisters, his Poème d’extase, in which the trumpet ‘bleats out’ the main theme umpteen times without alteration, is as primitive as popular music. Of course, it is loud and sounds good and is therefore always a success. I originally chose the Third Symphony in order not to play what everyone else always plays.” Don’t expect Stokowski here, any more than you should expect Furtwängler (or Toscanini) in Gielen’s Schubert Ninth. But what you get is eloquent as well as tightly organized, to the extent Scriabin’s limitations allowed.

In addition on disc 4, Gielen conducts Busoni’s haunting Berceuse élégiaque, 1995 caviar for the general not included in his Cincinnati Vox recording of Busoni’s pre-Puccini Turandot Suite and Two Studies for “Doktor Faustus.” Another surprise, as stimulating as anything on this disc, is Ravel’s neglected Une barque sur l’océan, recorded in 1997. Finally, from Freiburg in 1998, comes a properly droll performance of Stravinsky’s 1943-45 Scherzo à la russe in its third and final version for full orchestra (begun as unused film music for North Star, then transformed into a “jazz band” piece for Paul Whiteman). Only the Scriabin is pre-digital, but the transfer has been made with such finesse it is worthy company for the shorter companion works. The SWR orchestra in 1975 hadn’t the sonority or panache that Gielen as music director imparted between 1986 and 1999, but the idiom presented no stylistic challenges; 29 years of avant-garde music in heavy doses had created a uniquely versatile ensemble.

All of us Michael Gielen fans now have five more helpings of “Faszination Musik” from Hänssler to satisfy our appetite for music covering three centuries. A belated “Happy Birthday” salute, and his listening contemporary’s hope for many more active years ahead.

(January 2003)