Thursday, March 31, 2011

Serving genius...with love: Carlo Maria Giulini

The great Italian Maestro, Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005) was trained as a violist, and among other things, spent nine months in a Rome tunnel hiding from fascists near the end of WWII. These two facts reveal "everything you needed to know about him as a conductor" according to the critic Mark Sved (quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from Thomas Saler's recent biography of Giulini, Serving Genius. Illinois, 2010).

He began his professional conducting career in 1944, making his debut with a score he learned by candlelight during that perilous hibernation. Brahms' 4th symphony was the centerpiece of the first orchestral concert held in newly liberated Rome. An unlikely choice, a symphony more autumnal than triumphant, it was a fitting one for an unconventional maestro who would be known as a "man of principles and ideals, a philosopher and a poet who happens to like music."

Giulini himself remarked about his unique debut, saying Brahms "took possession of me with the most irresistible prepotenza. I directed with all the emotional charge that could come to me at that particular moment."

Giulini's recorded legacy documents an extraordinary musician who was referred to as a mystic and saint as often as a maestro. His finely wrought, deeply affecting performances of Brahms, Dvorak, Mahler, Bruckner, Schubert and Verdi (to name many of the core composers in his predominantly Austro-Italian repertoire) have possessed me with an irresistible force for the twenty years I've been listening to classical music.

Indeed, the first opera recording I owned was a cassette tape of highlights of Giulini's famed London production of Verdi's Don Carlo. That 1970 set (featuring Domingo, Milnes, Caballe, Verrett & Raimondi) began my love affair with what has remained my single favorite opera; the remastered CD is a "must-have" benchmark.

Placido has spoken of Giulini's uncanny ability to embody the music he conducted. In reference to the Verdi Requiem (another signature interpretation), Domingo said "he simply became the music to an almost frightening degree."

Domingo touches on a quality that distinguishes CMG's interpretations. In the words of a Chicago critic, Giulini has "sensitivity, imagination, and skill, and that extra, enkindling thing, the Promethean gift of fire."

His interpretations were borne out of a genuine love and respect for both the music and the musicians making it. Spending time around Giulini "can reawaken an almost forgotten sense of idealism and restore at least a part of one's faith," remarked another prominent critic.

Spending time reading about Giulini's life while listening to the music he brought beautifully, vividly to life is a reminder of the power contained even in a recording. And therein lies a paradox, for the power of great music cannot be contained. Giulini's music-making is red-blooded, visceral and fully human, awaking the senses and touching the heart. It is also searching, spiritual, mystical music for the soul. It resonates across the spectrum of emotions and is rooted in the fundamental core of humanity: love. The title of Saler's book refers to the conductor's calling. Its epigraph is a quote typical of this most self-effacing of "mega-star" maestros:

When you study a piece, the genius is there on the page, and I am here;
I must serve that genius--and serve with love.

"At once the most masculine and least macho of musicians" is another apt description of a master of balance, able to maintain the tightrope coordination "between thrilling fire and dynamism, and tranquil beauty and repose." That balance of polarities and the dynamic tension inherent in opposing them is as difficult to describe as it is to achieve. Saler discusses one aspect of this achievement in the tension between forward motion (horizontal rhythm) and the "retention" of tone quality (the timbre or color in vertical harmony). "There remained a pervasive sense of horizontal motion, with the music pushing through a thick and variably dense web of resistance, thus incrementally building an arc of tension over an entire movement and performance."

The cumulative effect of that "arc of tension" is a central factor in the effectiveness of any large work, whether it be a play, novel, symphony or opera. Sustaining--and then releasing--that tension is one of the impossible-to-teach challenges facing the creative artist either composing or interpreting the work.

I have three of Giulini's versions of the Verdi Requiem (another "desert-island" work). They all have his signature interpretive stamps: rich sonorities (especially in inner voices), committed, dramatic performances from choir, soli & orchestra, and the balance between the Apollonian and Dionysian alluded to above. All three recordings maintain the dynamic arc in different ways. The classic 1964 EMI set is another benchmark, and the obvious first choice. A recent BBC "Legends" live set from the same period is more viscerally exciting, though less polished--and with less distinguished soloists--than its studio counterpart. A 1989 DG recording with the Berlin Philharmonic is often dismissed (like many of Bernstein's late recordings) as being too lugubrious. It is notably "slower" than its predecessors, but no less dramatically paced. The attention to detail is astounding (Giulini was 75) and Gramophone magazine described it as "the most spiritual, reverential, and perhaps visionary yet to appear."

Those same qualities were sometimes found in excess by critics who accused Giulini of romanticizing every piece he conducted. In our era of historical "authenticity" and "period performance," Giulini's interpretations of Bach, Mozart & even Beethoven veer wide from the "early music" schools of interpretation. Saler relays an anecdote that caused the maestro to grin widely even as he told it. He relates a story about Paul Hindemith conducting Bach with a German orchestra aiming for historical "accuracy." Insisting they came "from the direct Bach tradition" they refused to comply with Hindemith's request for "a more beautiful sound and sonority." Giulini quoted Hindemith's reply: "But I don't know how, with no vibrato, Bach could have so many sons." Arguments about period performance style and practices aside, the final arbiter of merit for many of us is simply whether or not the performance was effective, accomplished, and moving. Attention to details of style and "authenticity" result in polished "authentic" performances that remain lifeless if not animated with attention to details of content & intent. Isn't all art essentially romantic?

Giulini paid attention to details of style and substance. That attention was honed in the conductor's nine months of silent hiding, studying Brahms by candlelight. Bernard Jacobson quotes Giulini's wonderful description of the elements that combine to give a composer and a work a distinct "physiognomy."

"At a given moment what we hear is the line that leads the composition. But this is the physiognomy of a face--the nose, the mouth, the eyes. Then there is something which is very important, and that is what is inside this. And this interior body, with the bones and the nerves and the blood--this is really something that I should say in Brahms...needs to be absolutely a part of the physiognomy of the line."

Giulini not only describes the process engagingly, but brings it dynamically to life. Jacobson goes on to remark the "interior body" is one of the reasons why listening to familiar works under Giulini's baton is like "hearing a piece for the first time." And participating in the raw power of viscerally engaging music--that is at once spiritually vital and "mystically intent"--connects one to that nexus where transcendence is experienced and meaning is lived.

Giulini's music-making manifests this nexus--the Apollonian intellect sparked by attention to details (technique, balance, nuance, voicing, texture, etc). The "physiognomy" of the "interior body" is balanced and enlivened with the Dionysian passion of "Promethean fire." (I invoke Nietzsche's polarity in the classical sense of Dionysian physicality, sensuality & emotional openness, not the pejorative Dionysus of decadent excess).

Giulini was not as "famous" as the "Dionysian" Bernstein or "Apollonian" Karajan. And he would have deflected attention drawn to such a comparison. "I think people should listen to the music. Opinions and details about the interpreters are not so important." Agreed. But CMG is in a class almost entirely his own. And it is a class we all need to attend.

In response to a question (in a BBC radio interview) about his repertoire of "grand, noble and spiritual" works and the existence of a moral force in music, he replied unequivocally. "Absolutely...Music gives to life one great thing: hope. If we don't have hope, what we can do?"

That is an important and distinguishing detail about the man and his approach to music. "Music must have a spiritual quality. It is absolute necessity for humanity. Man needs love."

One of the few prestigious offers of public recognition he did not refuse was from the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Europe's "musical hall of fame," based in Vienna). He was one of only three living members in the society at the time of his induction in 1978. Karajan and Böhm were the other living heirs to Beethoven, Brahms and their immortal kin. Instead of speechifying, Giulini said "I am at the service of music. There is really nothing else to say."