EDINBURGH FESTIVAL / MUSIC: Musical chairs: Stephen Johnson on Carlo Maria Giulini

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The Independent Culture
Someone had blundered. A confusion over press tickets for Carlo Maria Giulini's Edinburgh Festival Brahms evening with the European Community Youth Orchestra meant that now the tickets were nowhere to be found. The Usher Hall was, we were told, packed solid. But this particular cloud had an interesting silver lining. A bit of old-fashioned critical blustering secured me, a friend, and North German radio's foreign correspondent three places behind the triangle seat in the first half, and in front of the first violins in the second.

Revelations followed. Perhaps critics should be compelled to sit beside the players from time to time; after all, a conductor's back is only half the story, if that. During the first work, Brahms' Second Symphony, we were able to discover that Herbert von Karajan was not the only podium giant to conduct with his eyes closed. Giulini's eyes half- opened occasionally, but obviously not enough for him to see that the members of the orchestra were slaving with their eyes fixed intently on their music- stands. The kind of conductor- player eye contact that normally goes with a vital performance was hardly in evidence. This would explain a quality I've noticed in several Giulini performances and recordings: however sumptuous the sound, the effect has been curiously impersonal.

It's true that there was some appealing solo playing from the woodwind and horn sections, but it is the job of the conductor to bring life to the whole. While the performance Giulini and the European Community Youth Orchestra obtained had more inner tension than, say, Daniel Barenboim's recent Brahms's Second with the Chicago Symphony in London, it was still a long way from the chamber music-like quality that conductors suh as Toscanini, Furtwangler, Klemperer or, more recently, Gunter Wand have been able to find in Brahms.

Visual enlightenment number two concerned Giulini's beat. Furtwangler is proof that you don't need a firm beat to get striking results, but rhythmic drama wasn't his strong point either. It certainly wasn't with Giulini. Ensemble slipped occasionally in both symphonies, while the great passacaglia finale of the Fourth Symphony had a heaviness that wasn't simply attributable to the slowish tempo - Klemperer, for one, could certainly make it sound slow and taut.

Perhaps the sheer size of the string section was a disadvantage. Forty violins and 11 basses can be a gift to a conductor who values breadth and depth of sound, but it's arguable that Brahms's reputation for 'stodginess' grew as conductors began to concentrate more on sound and less on short expressive phrasing and rhythmic drive. The 20 first violinists of the European Community Youth Orchestra sounded more together than some professional violin sections - it would be churlish criticism not to admit the high technical quality of these young players. But in both symphonies' finales, the leaping, surging violin figures emerged in soft-focus. The ovation the players gave Giulini at the end suggested that they got more out of the experience than I did. Still, it might be a good idea for them, now, to work with someone completely different, someone who values precision, energy and fine expression: Nikolaus Harnoncourt perhaps, or Simon Rattle?