Mahler Symphony No. 9. Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Carlo Maria Giulini
Recorded April 1976, Medinah Temple, Chicago
DG Galleria 423 910-2 (1989), barcode 028942391024:
DG Double (France) 437 467-2 (1992), barcode 028943746724:
DG The Originals 463 609-2 (2000) barcode 028946360927:
Collected in “Giulini in America – Chicago Symphony Orchestra” (5 CDs) DG 477 9628 (2011) 028947796282:
Recent audiophile Japanese editions:
HM-CD DG UCCG 4873/4 5 (476 8313) (2014) 4988005808011:
SACD Tower Records Vintage SA-CD Collection vol. 1 PROC-1973 (2016) 4988031171714:
Mahler’s 9th for beginners
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 27 November 2011
The 1960s and the advent of stereo had been exceptionally favorable to Mahler’s 9th, as far as recordings went. The decade opened with Bruno Walter’s Columbia recording from 1961 (Walter’s stereo remake, afer his premiere recording live with the Vienna Philharmonic from 1938; it wasn’t the first stereo version either: that prize came to Leopold Ludwig on Everest, recorded in 1959 but released the year later and a version better than its – non-existent, when not negative – reputation). Then followed (to mention only the best and/or more significant) Barbirolli and Kondrashin in 1964, Bernstein in 1965 (first released only at the end of 1967), Ancerl in 1966, Klemperer, Solti (his first recording, with the London Symphony Orchestra) and Kubelik in 1967. Haitink and Abravanel closed the decade in 1969.
After that, record companies seem to have considerered that the needs of the market were satisfied, and much less of significance came out in the 1970s: only Giulini in 1976 and Levine in 1979, in fact. Of these, Giulini got glowing reviews back then, and was placed by the critics directly at the top of the pile. I hadn’t listened to it in years, but I approched hearing it again with an extremely favorable bias: it is the version by which I discovered the work, and back then I believed the critics, or agreed with them. Not that I knew any better, but it seemed perfect, and whenever I heard another version – Horenstein, Mitropoulos, Walter, Barbirolli, Ancerl, Klemperer were those that subsequently entered my collection in the LP days – something or the other always seemed amiss, although I probably wasn’t quite able to analyze what it was. There was something with the lyricism and tenderness of the violin phrases in the opening pages, with the pungency of the brass interjections, with the funeral ponderousness and snarling brass of the marches. It is only later, in the early CD era, that Levine seemed to offer a valid alternative.
I’ve heard much more since, am much more familiar with Mahler’s 9th and I think I’ve been able to develop my ability to analyze – and, returning to it, I must confess my relative disappointment with Giulini. One should never try to meet one’s early loves again, it never works.
Sure, there is unique tendereness and deeply-felt lyricism in the way Giulini molds those aching violin phrases that open the symphony – he is here even more expansive and lyrical than Bernstein in his live concert in Berlin three years later, taking 2:09 to reach the first build-up of dynamics at measure 27 against 2:02 (for reference, Walter took it in 1:57, and Klemperer 1:53, both by no means “fast” versions). That tenderness and lyricism imbues each modified return of those phrases, as track 3 at 0:31 and 0:59 (measure 116 and 123), track 3 again at 2:46 (measure 148 return to Tempo I), beginning of track 6 (measure 267, return to Tempo I andante), beginning of track 7 (measure 347 Wie von Anfang). And yes, there is much instrumental pungency and many felicitous details in all those typically mahlerian brass uterances, sforzandos, fortissimos, stopped horns. Try for instance the ff trombone outbursts track 3 at 1:15 (measure 127 and 128), or again the forbidding staccatissimo trombones, track 6 at 3:25 (measure 325), and the implacability of the tolling timpani and pizzicato double-basses in the same passage. The sonics are clear, detailed and vivid and there is a good separation of first and second violins, essential to enjoy to the full Mahler’s delicate antiphonal writing in the two outer movements. The great crash at 2:48 track 6 is suitably powerful and violent (mit höchster Gewalt) – though still a hair less than Walter’s fifteen years before.
Given his very deliberate basic tempo, Giulini doesn’t need to slow down much to lend the two funeral passages with tolling harps a fine feel of listless ponderousness (track 3 at 1:25, “plötzlich sehr mässig und zurückhaltend” / suddenly very measured and held-back – and here, with Giulini, the contrast with what came before isn’t very perceptible; track 5 at 3:12 “Schattenhaft” / shadowy), and his slow-motion funeral fanfares are suitably snarling and full of pent-up menace (track 5 at 2:19 and again 2:53, track 6 starting at 3:10). My youthful impressions didn’t come out of nowhere.
But the problem that I hear now in the first movement is that Giulini, more even than Walter and Klemperer, always remains in his slow-moving Andante very moderato and never animates on Mahler’s promptings: after his expansive opening, his “etwas frischer” (measure 80, beginning of track 2) remains very deliberate, and I can accept that there is a consistency to that; still, the impression is pretty lazy and doesn’t seem to make entire sense of the build-up of dynamics and, one would think, of passion that happens there, and Giulini’s “fliessend” / flowing at 0:20 track 2 doesn’t flow very much (the image of oil slipping around on the saucepan came to me, or of an albatross hovering above). But the acceleration to the allegro from 0:59 to 1:12 (measures 96-101) remains very minimal. Later on, the passage “mit Wut” (with fury) track 4 is very sluggish, and the “Leidenschaftlich” (passionate) track 5 is square and placid. The great crash may be violent but again the preceding build-up to it (track 6 at 2:37) is kept at very low gear, an SUV moving powerfully but slowly on muddy terrain rather than Kondrashin’s 1964 or Bernstein’s 1979 race to the abyss.
The value judgment associated with those interpretive parameters is of course left to each listener. Another reviewer on Amazon wrote of Giulini’s first movement that “the movement can seem episodic in some hands (eg Rattle’s version with the Vienna Philharmonic), but, with Giulini, the organic quality of the music emerges powerfully”. Sure, we are hearing the same thing: Giulini downplays the constrats, so, to a well-inclined ear, the movement sounds less “espisodic” or sectional then when you play them as written. Still, I feel that something essential of Mahler is missed in Giulini’s all-too-exclusively one-sided approach to the andante comodo: what others call his “neurotic” nature, but I find such statements often too generalized and vague: I describe it as the strong contrasts of mood, the surges of passion brutally following the fits of despondency. To me, if you don’t have that, what you have might be very beautiful and “organic”, but you haven’t quite got Mahler. I’ve described Walter’s 1961 and Klemperer’s 1967 versions as “old men’s” interpretations, because of their downplaying of these very contrasts of tempos and moods; but Giulini here is an old man with a walker.
The middle movements fare better. Not that they are more animated. In the Ländler for instance Giulini’s “fast” tempo II is even slower than Klemperer’s, who you would have thought was in a category of his own, and as a result his contrasting Tempo III (“very slow”) seems faster than it actually is, and it doesn’t establish much of a contrast when returns Tempo I, track 10 at 0:33 (measure 230) – no objection, Giulini’s little serenade there has plenty of character. He is not responsive either to Mahler’s promptings to animate, such as “Flott” (brisk, track 9 at 2:24, measure 198), “noch etwas lebhafter” (still somewhat more lively, track 11 at 1:06) or “noch etwas frischer” (still somewhat livelier, track 14 at 1:19). And when at 1:32 track 14 comes the “allmählich etwas eilend, doch nie überhetzt” of measure 497 (progressively somewhat hurried, though never overwrought), obviously Giulini as taken at heart to observe the “never overwrought” part but forgotten about the “somewhat hurried” along the way.
But to animation he substitutes a powerful and welcome vigor and instrumental pungency, that I find convincing in their own right. Many approaches work in this movement, from Leopold Ludwig’s speedy visit to Klemperer’s dance of the hippos, provided that what is really essential to Mahler’s music be present: instrumental character, and Giulini has plenty. At a deliberate but not excessively slow tempo (Walter, Klemperer were slower, Horenstein, Barbirolli were only marginally faster, and so was Levine three years later), he imbues the first part of the Rondo-Burleske with a surprising feel of bonhomie that you’d associate more with the Ländler and that mellows it down somewhat and underplays its nastiness and defiance (“sehr trotzig” is Mahler’s indication), but comes nonetheless as an interesting alternative, and some of its instrumental details are extraordinary: listen for instance how much the first horn is having fun CD 2 track 2 at 0:58 (measures 162 to 165), or again all four of them a little later track 3 at 0:04 (measures 183-187). But the defiance is there on the return of the “loud” music after the lyrical central section (track 7). As could be expected, the central section develops a searing lyricism, and Giulin expertly shapes his rubati here, neither too little nor (like Bernstein) too much.
Giulini’s finale is very beautiful – but, although this is very sublte matter, I find it to be all surface. Sure it’s beautiful: adopt a suitably slow moving tempo, conduct a major symphony orchestra with the requisite silky strings and warm horn, and how could the finale of Mahler’s 9th fail to be beautiful? But again I find one essential thing to be missing: conflict. Giulini’s finale is the one I would have expected of Karajan: you are a tourist watching – gliding over – a beautiful, refined Italian landscape. I don’t hear in it the agonizing autobiography of a man torn between his love of life and his acceptance of death and farewell to the world.
Now, I don’t want to satisfy myself with such litterary and subjective comments. It isn’t enough just to record one subjective’s reaction – after all, that might be nothing more than because of what you’ve eaten at dinner. Comparison with other versions of the finale that have moved me much more and more deeply than Giulini’s gives some of the reasons of that reaction. Take Barbirolli in Berlin in 1964, and simply compare the two opening bars. Barbirolli’s tempo is faster, meaning that he goes less for beauty of sound and more for expression of soul; in consequence of his tempo, his grupetto (the characteristic four thirty-second quasi-grace notes that form the motivic basis of the movement, changed either into sixteenth- or eighth-notes) is played much faster, with the bows digging much deeper in the strings; it sounds not like beautiful music, but like passionate and almost coarse singing. Then on the second bar Mahler stages a slowing-down of tempo on three descending, accented quarter notes. With Giulini the accents are mellow, with Barbirolli they are stabs. Another telling comparison is in the string outbursts after the moments of gloomy stasis – and add Bernstein, in 1979 in Berlin, to the comparison. The first one happens at 2:04 track 9 (2:05 track 4 for Barbirolli, 2:10 track 9 for Bernstein). Barbirolli is all passion here, with a perceptible stepping up of tempo, in accordance with Mahler’s “straffer im tempo” marking; Bernstein is raging intensity, at a tempo kept spacious; Giulini is all beauty and fullness of sound (horribly marred by the sonic problem I will address hereafter), tempo remaining very spacious. Another one is track 14, after the long desolate passage with tolling harp (13:47 for Barbirolli, track 14 for Bernstein), and builds up to the movement’s great climax. Mahler writes “more flowing, though not throughout rushed” – and adds, in small writing: “erupting violently”. Barbirolli erupts violently, even more intensely and passionately than the first time, with a very brisk tempo. Bernstein hurls into the storm with agonizing intensity, at a tempo kept very large. Also at a tempo kept deliberate, Giulini’s weak outburst hardly moves the intensity pointer (but his ensuing build-up and climax are fine).
Naturally the microscopic view can blind you to the larger whole, but these are in fact significant samples of Giulini’s overall approach. He makes Mahler’s finale sound like Barber’s Adagio for strings – beautiful, nostalgic, autumnal, meditative, but never conflictual. Some may prefer it that way, but I personally don’t think that this is what this movement is about.
One sonic problem had bothered me since the first release of this recording, which I had back in the LP days in the form of cassette tape, and I attributed it to the medium, but it hasn’t been solved for the CD reissue, so it must have been in the source itself: it is a flutter in one of the stereo channels which mars the string tone when it is at its most intense. I had this (first, I believe) CD reissue in DG’s Galleria’s collection, and I even bought the later French DG double reissue to see if the problem had been fixed: but they are exactly the same transfers. I’ve never read any comments about this in the record magazines, but I am relieved to see that some of the reviewers of the DG Double on Amazon.com do mention it: it always feels good to discover that the problem is not with your own ear. I didn’t find it as present in the first movement as I remembered, but you can clearly hear it over headphones at various points in the finale, and it is annoying: try track 9 at 1:07 for instance. I’ve read that it had been bettered on the Originals reissue, and Amen to that, (post-stript from April 2021:) but apparently, judging from a review posted on Amazon Japan (thank you Google translator!) the problem still mars the recent audiophile reissues referenced above, specifically the HM-CD edition: “First of all, it is very annoying to hear that the 1st and 4th movements contain flutter”. Ultimately, I don’t think I’m investing in a new copy, not for I reading that I don’t find so essential after all. Enough milking the customer is enough.
In many ways Giulini’s recording is perfect for beginners in Mahler’s 9th. Because its edges are smoothed out, it is less likely to scare `em off. Four stars for the beginners, three for the others