i’m really not a conductor fanboy. Composers are always getting me excited; performers too, from time to time; but conductors, in general, not so much. There are some special cases: Bernard Haitink and Riccardo Chailly have both stunned me on countless occasions; i’ve always had a lot of time for Pierre Boulez’s conducting, and historically, i’ve been bowled over repeatedly by Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein. All of these conductors, through very different approaches, have made me hear pieces i know well in an entirely new way. But for the most part my enthusiasm is for specific performances or recordings, rather than believing that any particular conductor has a ‘Midas touch’. The exception to this, the conductor i’ve come to admire most, is Michael Gielen.
My first contact with Gielen was a life-changing experience: his Mahler cycle, released in 2017, is for me unquestionably the most incredible symphonic cycle ever recorded. What it demonstrated, in a way that no other conductor or orchestra has been able to match, was a perfect blend of heart and head, tapping fully into extremes of passion while at the same time meticulously teasing out each and every detail in the scores. That cycle was released as the sixth volume in SWR Music’s Michael Gielen Edition, and i was so electrified by these recordings that i began to explore other volumes in the series, and they have all demonstrated the same remarkable blend of raw emotion and ultra-clarity, allowing the music to speak with complete transparency. Thus far i’ve also explored Volume 4, devoted to music from the Romantic era (featuring, among other things, a truly blistering rendition of Schumann’s Symphony No. 1), Volume 5, bringing together Bartók and Stravinsky, and Volume 7, focusing on early 20th Century music (opening with an insanely hyper account of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass).
Late last year, the Michael Gielen Edition was concluded with Volume 10, bringing the chronology up to date, featuring works composed since 1945. Aside from the Mahler box, i’m inclined to feel this may well be the very best in the series. In no small part, it’s because the choice of music in Volume 10 acts as something of a portrait of Michael Gielen himself, demonstrating the same combination of emotionally-charged and abstract modes of expression.
Though obvious, it’s important to remember that a great conductor requires a great orchestra, and in that respect the Michael Gielen Edition is as much a celebration of the SWR Symphony Orchestra – who feature in most of the performances – as of Gielen himself. Furthermore, since i’ve mentioned the astonishing clarity, it’s only fair to give a shout out to the engineers behind these fine recordings; considering that many of them originate in live performances, it’s impressive how highly focused and detailed they are.
At the abstract end of the spectrum are works by Luigi Nono, Morton Feldman and John Cage. i’ve never heard an account of Cage’s 1958 Concert for piano and orchestra that has sounded musically interesting, though Gielen’s take benefits from making it feel as if we were sitting amongst the players, surrounded by their unpredictable actions. In the best sense, it’s an entertaining performance, so perhaps Cage would be perfectly satisfied by that. The three works by Nono are a little more engaging. His first acknowledged work, the 1950 Variazioni canoniche, moves from being momentarily Berg-like into a rather beautiful pointillist lyricism, the points of which are sustained and connected together to form rich textures that touch upon chamber music and even hint at jazz. The work admittedly sounds rather dated but that rather adds to its charm. The connections between pointillist ideas are severed in A Carlo Scarpa, architetto, ai suoi infiniti possibili (1984), questioning the relationship of everything and, in conjunction with its stop-start demeanour, making it sound equivocal. Only occasionally does it become tangible, most strikingly at the end in a series of eerie, almost octave-unisons. Gielen highlights the polarised nature of Nono’s 1987 Tarkovski homage No hay caminos, hay que caminar, emphasising its alternations between extreme delicacy and blunt force. In some respects the most abstract of these three pieces, it becomes spine-tingling in the way its smeared unisons and shimmering hover above us in a blank but unsettlingly way.
Feldman’s Coptic Light (1985) is given here the most riveting performance i’ve ever heard. Hitherto, i’d always gone to the classic recording by Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony Orchestra, but Gielen and the SWR Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of the piece (actually recorded a year earlier than Tilson Thomas’) has made me hear it as if for the first time. Like a complex cloud tilting and pulsating around a fifthy central pivot point, Gielen manages to retain the music’s inherent impressionistic blur while infusing it with energy and a sense of inscrutable purpose. Feldman occasionally sounds aloof, sometimes beautiful, here he’s just gorgeous.
Somewhere more central in the emotional–abstract continuum are works by Jorge E. López, Pierre Boulez and Michael Gielen himself. This is the only time i’ve had the chance to hear Gielen’s own music, and i confess it left me rather cold. His four settings of Stefan George poems – completed in 1958, and performed here by SWR’s equally excellent Vokalensemble – display an expected mix of hot and cold, though with a strange sense of going through the motions, as if conveying the idea of a feeling rather than the feeling itself. His 1988 orchestral work Pflicht und Neigung (Duty and Inclination) makes a stronger impression, its approach to various ‘topoi’ bringing to mind the ‘sound surfaces’ used by Rebecca Saunders. Gielen didn’t compose much, and it would be interesting to hear more of his work, though at present i don’t know of any other available recordings.
i’m not honestly sure what to make of López, represented by two large-scale orchestral works, Breath – Hammer – Lightning (1991), and Dome Peak (1993, heard here in its world première performance). The former work goes to great lengths to embody the implied extremes in its title, establishing a balance (if that’s the right word for it) between power and gentleness. López pushes it further, resulting in a binary of raining hammer blows and extended periods of total silence. Dome Peak, at 40 minutes almost twice as long, inhabits a similarly impenetrable world oscillating between extremes. That being said, though undeniably impressive (both works hint, distantly, at Varèse) there’s a palpable sense of the music pulling its punches. i can’t claim not to have enjoyed them – they’re both undeniably compelling – but they clearly need more time and familiarity to gain access into their rarefied soundworlds.
By contrast, Boulez’s Notations could hardly be more immediate. All five included here (Nos. 1 to 4, completed in 1978, and No. 7, dating from 1997) are, again, given the most exhilarating treatment, revealing anew how, far from being a mere embellishment of their original piano versions, the orchestration becomes an integral part of both the nature and the articulation of its ideas. The recordings in this volume are here at their most stunningly vivid, Gielen demonstrating incredible control over seemingly impossibly volatile material, while the SWR orchestra makes the most of the wealth of complex inner detail. No. 3 is especially outstanding, being almost too much to take in the enormity of its tremulous energy, bristling and boiling, sinewy lines extruding briefly before being checked and rechannelled back in the melée. It seems ironic that Boulez marked this piece, “Très Modéré”.
Commentary about Michael Gielen tends to speak almost exclusively about his cool, level-headed approach to conducting, and his insistence on meticulous detail. i’ve said similar things here, but as i commented at the start, what has always impressed me most about Gielen is the way that emotion also comes through loud and strong, never artificially-induced but as a natural corollary of his transparent approach. That’s nowhere more evident than in the more emotionally-charged works in this set.
Gielen gave the first performance of György Ligeti’s Requiem in Sweden in 1965 (while chief conductor at the Stockholm Royal Opera), and this recording of the piece dates from just four years later. In a similar way to Feldman, Ligeti’s sonorist works can tend to be presented in a rather aloof, disinterested way, as if their textures were all about the combined blur rather than the intricate details that create that blur. Gielen allows us to experience both. While verbal clarity is not Ligeti’s prime concern in the Requiem, we’re often aware of motes of language and pitch moving within the core of the music, which makes their subsequent accumulation into the work’s most forceful sequences all the more heartfelt. All the same, when the blur takes over the results are an astonishing mix of mystery and melancholy, the music always sounding as if it just wants to recede into shadow. Though often described as such, it’s debatable whether Michael Gielen agreed that Star-Child (1977) by George Crumb (who died just two weeks ago), charts a progression from darkness to light. That’s not a criticism at all; if anything, i like the uncertainty that surrounds this performance (of the 1979 German première), and the impression it gives that apotheosis can be just as terrifying as apocalypse.
Despite being relatively short works, Gielen also releases a huge amount of emotional heft from György Kurtág’s 13-minute Stele (1994) and Mauricio Kagel’s 9-minute Ein Brief (1986). The Kagel, featuring the wordless aftermath from reading the evidently traumatic titular letter, turns soprano Klára Csordás into a form of human theremin, all the more troubling in the way her uncannily smooth undulations betray nothing of the ferocity of the orchestra. There’s the engrossing impression of a mind coming unhinged in real time before our ears. Kurtág’s music is turned into a funereal processional, the orchestra veering from smeared glissandi and beating dissonances to extreme activity where each player seems to be following all the others in an enormous swarm. Yet Kurtág above all seems to be indicating a lack of energy, and Gielen manages to turn this into a kind of enervated yet solemn rite, intense and profound.
The highlight of this volume – and, to be frank, it completely blew me away – is the work with which it begins, Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s epic Requiem für einen jungen Dichter. Gielen conducted the world première of the work in 1969 in Düsseldorf, and the recording included here was made 30 years later, in April 1999. The staggering clarity and quality of this performance are all the more remarkable considering that it’s a recording of the final rehearsal for the US première (which was not recorded). It seems fitting that it’s hard to put this performance into words: by the time the piece is concluded, words are entirely spent. Zimmermann fills the Requiem with quotations from a plethora of poets, politicians, writers, thinkers, and dictators, both melding and causing unbearable frictions between the rational and the religious, between philosophy, ideology and dogma, in the process putting the case for the individual even while many of the words threaten to extinguish them entirely. The Latin text becomes almost a literal bit of marginalia in this overwhelming verbal hodgepodge, only occasionally the focus, sometimes serving as a linchpin, elsewhere a peripheral, almost irrelevant bit of (faux?) sentimental anguish.
Elaborated through sequences of dramatic solos (superbly performed here by sopranos Isolde Siebert and Renate Behle, and baritone Richard Salte), electronic sounds, archive recordings, excerpts from existing music and by turns unfathomable and strident orchestral writing, for all its impossible quantity of detail what makes the Requiem für einen jungen Dichter so agonising is the compacted stress of its accumulative weight. We drown in it, grasping morsels of ideas here and there such that they become impossibly tangled, in the process losing sight of where one speaker ends and another begins, forcing us both to make our own sense of what we’re hearing and also, as if for survival, to focus on our own beliefs and feelings, and where and how they sit within this densely clustered soundscape.
More than anything else i’ve heard in the various Michael Gielen Edition volumes i’ve explored so far, and certainly more than anything else in this wonderful final volume, this particular performance above all is a testament to Michael Gielen’s dauntless approach to realising the most complex of scores. On the one hand, everything in it is utterly crystal clear; on the other hand, it is an absolutely staggering, heart-stopping expression of anger, bitterness, horror, despair and maybe just a whiff of half-hearted hope – though if anything that only makes its final effect all the more devastating.
Michael Gielen was a marvel, one of music’s – and, especially, contemporary music’s – most indefatigable champions, and this volume goes a long way to demonstrating the twin strengths of intellect and feeling that make his performances so infeasibly powerful. It’s the perfect way to bring to an end the Michael Gielen Edition, but i seriously hope SWR will keep combing through the archives of his performances to release even more of its treasures in the future.