Giulini emphasizes passion and pathos of Dvorak's ('Tragic') D Minor Symphony

June 26, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Dvorak, Symphonies Nos. 7 in D Minor and 9 in E Minor ("From the New World"), performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Carlo Maria Giulini conducting (Sony Classical SX2K 58946): Received wisdom about conductors maintains that the tempos of Germanic conductors tend to slow down as they grow older and that those of Latins get faster. Proponents of this theory usually point to such conductors as the German Otto Klemperer, who started fast and ended slow, and Toscanini, who started fast and finished at something approaching the speed of light. It's a wonderful generalization, but it's full of holes. Take Carlo Maria Giulini, for example, who through the 40s and 50s was a firebrand in the Arturo Toscanini-Guido Cantelli manner and who now takes some of the slowest tempos to be heard in the concert hall and on records.

Giulini is one of the genuine podium giants of the last third of the 20th century -- the others are the late Leonard Bernstein and the late Herbert von Karajan and Georg Solti -- and he has already left a recorded legacy that is equal (or perhaps superior) to those of the others. But many of his recent records have been disappointing. His current Beethoven cycle for Sony with the La Scala Orchestra, for example, sometimes seems to parody what Giulini used to be: expansive phrasing once so expressive has become ponderous; melodic lines once caressed are now massaged; the the music making once so sweet is now often cloying.

With reservations, however, I like Giulini's Dvorak symphonies better than his Beethovens. The composer's D Minor Symphony is sometimes known as the "Tragic," and Giulini's reading pushes that point of view most persuasively. There is is an emotional weight, a sense of gravitas, in this performance that is not to be heard in any other. The monumentality of the interpretation comes in part from Giulini's slow tempos -- at almost 44 minutes, this must be (if not the slowest) among the slowest on records. But it is not the conductor's speed (or lack of it) that creates the sense of seriousness. It's the way he emphasizes the symphony's heroic pathos and passion, the lingering sadness which he wrings from its details and the extraordinary playing he elicits from the great Amsterdam orchestra, which commits itself to Giulini's interpretation with enormous concentration and conviction.

This is not a record for everyone, however, and certainly not for first-time buyers. Such single-minded interpretations -- whether of music, literature or the visual arts -- usually neglect many details simply because of the narrow, albeit powerful, focus of the interpreter's vision. If you are interested in a performance with a first movement coda that explodes in a burst of adrenalin, a foot-stamping scherzo and an exhilarating finale, you had better look elsewhere. But if you're willing to take the time to consider the possibility that the Dvorak D Minor is a tragic precursor of the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler, you need to investigate this remarkable, if idiosyncratic, performance.

Much of what has been remarked about Giulini's Dvorak D Minor can also be said about his interpretation of the "New World." Like the recording of this piece that Karl Boehm made late in his career, Giulini presents the piece in a weighty Germanic, rather than a fiery Slavonic, manner. There are beautiful details, such as the English horn solo at the beginning of the work and pianissimos that make one catch one's breath. But although there is no denying the tender sincerity of the interpretation, this performance -- compared with many others, including Giulini's still-available versions from 1962 with the Philharmonia (EMI) and 1977 with the Chicago Symphony (DG) -- still lacks the fire and brilliance it needs to succeed.

One more caveat: Why has Sony given us only these two symphonies, when the time available in this two-CD package would have it made it easy to include Giulini's already-released version of the composer's G Major symphony?


To hear an excerpt of Dvorak, Symphonies No. 7 in D Minor and 9 in E Minor, performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6190 after you hear the greeting.

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