In July of 1927 there was an amazing astral conjunction in the classical directorial orb. In nine days of that month and year, three great and long-time teachers came to the world: the Swedish-American Herbert Blomstedt, the German Kurt Masur and the Austrian Michael Gielen. The first one is, at 91 years old, the current patriarch of the orchestra directors, the oldest active. Parkinson's disease determined the removal of Masur, in 2014, that he died one year later. And Gielen, who also remained absent from the stage since 2014, due to his serious eye problems, died yesterday at his home in Innerschwand am Mondsee, Upper Austria.
The three represent the generation of anti-romantic and modernist directors that emerged after the Second World War. All three have had greater international impact in their maturity. And all three stand out as interpreters of the great Central European symphonic repertoire, from Beethoven to Mahler. But, in that triad, Gielen always distinguished himself by following the opposite path. From the avant-garde to the classics, with Schönberg as a turning point. There was never a difference for him between the modern and the old. Everything had, in some way, the same ingredients. Everything was music.
In his memoirs, titled not casually Unbedingt Musik (Insel Verlag, 2005), traces a detailed account of his career. He starts with his first musical impression at the age of five: his father, the theater director Josef Gielen, singing Schubert on the piano with his mother, the actress Rosa Steuermann, at his home in Dresden. He developed his career towards the opera, as the stage manager of the absolute premieres of Arabella Y The silent woman, by Richard Strauss. She was sister of the pianist and composer Eduard Steuermann, disciple and close collaborator of Arnold Schönberg. But a Social Democrat and a Jew had little future in Hitler's Germany. And they ended up emigrating to Buenos Aires, in 1940, after passing through Berlin and Vienna.
In Argentina, the young Gielen received a solid formation as a pianist and composer. Buenos Aires was, at that time, a lush paradise to immerse itself in the musical legacy of the Second School of Vienna. He not only studied piano with Rita Kurzmann, friend and collaborator of Alban Berg, but also composition with her husband, Erwin Leuchter, who had been assistant to Anton Webern. He was a teammate of Carlos Kleiber and a friend of Mauricio Kagel. He worked as a pianist répétiteur for Erich Kleiber and Fritz Busch, at the Teatro Colón, where he also attended Wilhelm Furtwängler, at a Passion according to Saint Matthew, by Bach, and Tullio Serafin, in a Rule , by Bellini, with Maria Callas. He began to compose and Schönberg soon became his musical hero. In 1949 he played a recital, in Buenos Aires, with all the piano work of the father of atonality and twelve-tone, as a celebration of his 75th birthday.
But the future of Gielen was not on the keyboard nor in the musical creation, although he never abandoned the composition. In 1952 he made his debut as a conductor at the State Opera of Vienna, replacing Clemens Krauss. He took over a production from his father of Joan of Arc at the stake, by Honegger. That success decided his career towards the pit. And in the following years he directed more than fifty opera and ballet titles in Vienna, which he combined with an intense activity of contemporary music on the radio. In 1960 he obtained his first appointment as musical manager of the Stockholm Opera, where he collaborated with Ingmar Bergman in a famous production of The progress of the libertine, by Stravinski. His links with the new music were consolidated with premieres of Kagel, Stockhausen, Berio and Ligeti. But his most memorable achievement was the premiere, in Cologne, of the opera The soldiers, by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, in 1965, a title that had been considered impossible to interpret by Wolfgang Sawallisch. He also worked as musical director of the Dutch National Opera of Amsterdam and collaborated, in 1974, with the film directors Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in his sensational film about the Moses and Aaron, from Schönberg.
His most influential stage as an opera director is located in Frankfurt, between 1977 and 1987, in what is still known as the "Gielen era". In those years, the Austrian director not only premiered new titles of Nono, Hespos or Zender, but he recovered operas of Schreker and Busoni, along with the completed version of Lulu, from Berg. Although even more legendary were his collaborations with avant-garde stage directors, such as Hans Neuenfels and Ruth Berghaus, in the Mozart, Verdi and Wagner operas update. Together with the playwright Klaus Zehelein he consolidated in Frankfurt what is now known as Regietheater, which has determined the current predominance of the scene over music in the opera. Gielen ended up dissatisfied with this drift. He got tired of working with young people régisseurs that put their own creative ideas before the more or less explicit pretensions of the composer. And he moved slowly away from the opera house, although he never left it.
Surely the most lasting influence of Gielen resides today in the concert hall. In 1969 he succeeded André Cluytens at the head of the Orchester National de Belgique, in Brussels. He started a pioneering program that aimed to connect the classical repertoire with contemporary music. He explained to Schönberg through Beethoven, assembling A survivor of Warsaw with the Ninth Symphony, or Webern mixed with Schubert. He continued in Cincinnati, starting as of 1980, where he promoted his symphonic discography with an intense and transparent Eroica of Beethoven (Vox).
But his most fruitful stage has been, since 1986, as head of the Symphony Orchestra of the SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg (today the Symphony Orchestra of the SWR after its merger with the Radio Symphony of Stuttgart). With them he recorded for Hännsler magnificent complete cycles of the symphonies of Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler, along with abundant examples of music by Bartók, Stravinsky and the Second Vienna School, works by several uncommon composers and later contemporary music. An immense phonograph that Naxos has compiled and is publishing in ten voluminous boxes along with many other previous recordings in the call Michael Gielen Edition. His Mahler stands out, with that combination of expressionism and objectivity, which exemplifies his record of Seventh (1993), but also that Bruckner of fluid precision that rises in the Sixth (2001), together with his interpretations of Schönberg, headed by his recording of the Concert for piano, with Alfred Brendel, (1993) or his amazing and transparent version of the Gurrelieder (2011).
His catalog as a composer is not abundant, although it has been decisive for his interpretive work. It combines vocal works and pieces for instrumental ensembles that follow the aesthetic trail of the Second Vienna School, but the absence of creations for orchestra or some scenic composition is surprising.
Despite his close Spanish-American ties, Gielen has not been a frequent director in Spanish audiences. Stresses his impressive project linked to Schönberg, during the 2004-05 season, which led at the Palau de la Música in Valencia to three orchestras (Tonhalle de Zurich, Radio de Berlin and SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg) and which was the premiere in Spain of the cantata The happy hand, from Schönberg.