REVIEW: Giulini in America: Chicago Symphony Orchestra

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

 

Last September Deutsche Grammophon released a compact disc
set entitled Giulini in America: the Los
Angeles Philharmonic,
a compilation of nearly all of the DGG recordings
that the revered Italian maestro made when he was music director of the L.A.
Phil from 1978-1984 (my review is HERE).

53624-Giulini 7-11 Cover.jpg

This month comes what might be called a prequel to those
recordings: Giulini in America: Chicago
Symphony Orchestra
(DGG 00289 477 0628), a survey of the conductor’s DGG
recordings with that great Midwestern ensemble in the 1970s. (There’s another
set, from EMI Classics, entitled The
Chicago Recordings,
that documents that label’s work with Guilini and the
CSO but IMHO this new DGG set has significantly better reproductive qualities).

 

This new DGG/Chicago boxed set has five CDs (the LAPO box
has six) and, at $23.66 on Amazon (slightly less than the LAPO box, which has
dropped down to $26.07), it’s a great bargain, considering the superlative
sound documented in three recording cycles: April 1976 in Chicago’s Medinah
Temple and April 1977 and March 1978 in the CSO’s Orchestra Hall.

 

It’s worth noting that the three box sets do not duplicate
each other in terms of the music offered,. This DGG set contains an essay by
Bernard Jacobson, who was music critic at the Chicago Daily News during Giulini’s tenure with the CSO.

 

Here’s how the CSO DGG discs were formatted:

 

CD 1

*SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D 417 Tragic

*DVORK: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op.95 From the New World

CD 2

*SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9 in C major, D 944 The Great

*PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 1 in D major, op. 25 Symphonie classique

CD 3

*DVORK: Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op.88

*MUSSORGSKY/RAVEL: Pictures
at an Exhibition

CD 4

MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 (Movements I-III)

CD 5

MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 (Movement IV)

SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D 759 Unfinished

*BRITTEN: Serenade for
Tenor, Horn and Strings,
op. 31

Robert Tear, tenor / Dale Clevenger, horn

 

* Restored to the
catalogue

 

As you can see, many of these pieces have been out of print
for several years, so this set offers significant historical value. Moreover,
unlike the EMI Classics box each piece on the DGG recordings does not carry
over onto two discs except for Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, which was a necessity
because of that work’s length.

 

Whether you had the pleasure of watching Giulini conduct in
Los Angeles or just wonder why veteran critics such as me get misty-eyed at
those remembrances, this new set offers myriad clues as to the nature of the
man who was LAPO music director from 1978-1984.

 

Giulini’s approach to music was spiritual; he didn’t conduct
works to which he wasn’t totally committed but when he led something, it was
always an almost mystical experience. He had a very limited repertoire; the “newest”
piece in this collection is Britten’s Serenade
for Tenor, Horn and Strings,
which dates from 1943 and features poignant
efforts from Tenor Robert Tear and Dale Clevenger on horn. The rest span exactly
a century, from Schubert’s Symphony No. 4 (1816) to Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, composed 100 years
later.

 

In this DGG box, you’re aware of Giulini’s reverence for
music in all of the pieces he recorded primarily because of two things: (a) his
tempos are almost always luxriant — those who grew frustrated with him would
call them tepid — and (b) the sound he produced from the CSO was unfailingly
mellow, especially in the brass sections.

 

Three examples: (1) If you’re used to hearing Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony whipped along with
breakneck speed, this CSO recording may seem almost pedestrian, but the inner
textures that emerge are quite special. (2) There’s a wonderful gentleness to
Giulini’s way of leading Dvorak’s Symphony Nos. 8 and 9 that isn’t often
emphasized by conductors these days. (3) No one has more poignantly captured Mahler’s
sense of impending doom as he wrote his Symphony No. 9, particularly in the
final movement (the recording won Giulini the last of his seven Grammy awards, three
of which were with the CSO).

 

If you don’t know the Giulini backstory, it’s worth
recalling. He was born on May 9, 1914 (he died on June 14, 2005). He studied
both violin and viola and, at age 18, won an audition to become the last-desk
violist of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia orchestra, which at the
time was considered Italy’s most significant ensemble. There he played under
such legendary conductors as Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwangler and Fritz
Reiner, along with composer/conductors Richard Strauss and Igor Stravinsky.

 

In 1940, Giulini won a conducting competition but World War
II intervened. Although a pacifist, Giulini served in the Italian army but
eventually went into hiding for nine months rather than serve with the Nazi
army. On July 16, 1944, Giulini came out of hiding to lead the Accademia
orchestra in the first concert after the Mussolini government had fallen.

 

In 1950, Giulini led his first opera and it was there that
he made a growing reputation in Europe. He first conducted in the United States
at the age of 41 with the Chicago Symphony in 1955 at the invitation of the
CSO’s then-music director Fritz Reiner.

 

For decades, Giulini conducted rarely in the U.S. outside of
Chicago. He became the CSO’s principal guest conductor in 1969 and held that
position through 1972. He maintained a strong CSO presence until Ernest
Fleischmann, the L.A. Philharmonic’s executive director (later executive vice
president and managing director) lured Giulini west in 1978. It was one of
Fleischmann’s great coups to convince Giulini to come to Los Angeles (where he
replaced Zubin Mehta), a move that ultimately proved to be satisfying for
Giulini and a major step forward for the Phil.

However, Giulini never lost his love affair for the Chicagoans. “It was a deep
love and friendship,” explained Giulini in 1980, “something that belongs to my
body, my soul and my blood.” Moreover, it was definitely a two-way street. “In
five minutes,” said Victor Aitay, former CSO concertmaster, “he had an
orchestra that loved him … From then onwards, it was a long-time love affair
with him.”

 

That love affair shines through beautifully on these new
recordings.

_______________________

 

(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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