Mahler: Symphony No. 9 / Schubert: Symphony No. 8
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Mahler: Symphony No.9 / Schubert: Symphony No.8 "Unfinished" (2 CDs)
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Recently deceased conductor Carlo Maria Giulini had a long and distinguished career and many regard his years at the helm of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as among his most inspired. Both works receive appropriately expansive readings with Giulini taking great care in drawing out the orchestral sonorous and chromatic potential. Giulini's judicious moderate tempos particularly in the Mahler, are especially well suited to the composers spiritual grand plan. Deutsche Grammophon's sound is remarkably good with exceptional presence and detail.
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Do not be afraid of the slow tempi; Giulini is one of those conductors of genius who can make it work, and sometimes even convince you that it's better their way, which he does in the first and fourth movements. I agree with other reviewers that he could have brought out more of the parodistic qualities of the second and third movements, but that is small potatoes compared to his attention to musical detail, and the controlled passion in his interpretation. Giulini also had a knack for getting precisely the sound he wanted out of any orchestra, even if they were used to playing differently, and much as I like Solti I prefer the sound Giulini coaxes here from the CSO.
Schubert's "Unfinished" is an odd piece; a sonata-allegro that is not overly fast (Allegro moderato), and a slow movement that is not particularly slow (Andante con moto). Giulini's rendering is equal in quality to his Mahler; the tempo of the first movement is, again, slower than I'm used to, but is justified by Schubert's marking. As with the Mahler, the attention to detail distinguishes the performance. For example, Giulini does not succumb to the temptation of accentuating the 'cello melody in the first movement; it's marked pianissimo in the score and he lets it be pianissimo, a brief ray of light in its stormy surroundings.
An excellent recording, and now that Maestro Giulini has died, a fitting tribute to his music-making. Highly recommended.
Having said the above, it also has to be stated that things move rather slowly. Not in the glacial manner of, say, Celibidache at his most agogic. The best way to describe Giulini's approach would be "impassionedly measured." Almost Brucknerian. Which, in many passages, is not a bad thing. I hear scoring details in this recording that most conductors just blow through. All that's missing, really, is a bit more accelerando where Mahler indicates it, those implied tempo accents that indicate that "all is not well." There is darkness and struggle in Mahler, even when he sings sweetly. The trick is to convey that without sounding overly histrionic or cartoonish, and at the same time allow Mahler to emotionally turn on the proverbial dime when the music calls for it. Giulini misses some of that, though not too much.
Lest I sound like I'm damning Giulini's Mahler 9 with faint praise, let me assure you that this isn't the case. I'd put it firmly within my own second tier of preferred performances, and one that I wouldn't want to be without. It's beautifully remastered, a bit light in the bass end, but amazingly realistic in timbre and presence, particularly those awesome Chicago brass players. Giulini's attention to scoring detail is not the result of overplayed highlighting; the singing melodic line is never subservient to the development of an obscure "inner voice." My own preferences, though (and recordings of the Mahler 9th seem to be a crucible for classical critics, with cat-calls aplenty from those that disagree), run towards both Karajan readings, the Bernstein/Berlin, and Barbirolli's outing with the same orchestra. And, I eagerly await the 9th's appearance in Michael Tilson Thomas' cycle with the San Francisco Symphony.
The Giulini/Chicago Mahler 9 isn't my first choice, but it's certainly one that I enjoy on its own terms.