'I am a corrective to the industry'

If there is one thing Michael Gielen hates, it is 'fast food' music. Robert Cowan met the conductor as he prepared for a rare visit to London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Who would have imagined that, while most record companies are axing repertoire, cancelling contracts and throwing orchestras back into the cold, EMI has absorbed a little-known German catalogue (Intercord) featuring a provincial orchestra and a largely unfamiliar conductor? I say "unfamiliar", though Dresden-born Michael Gielen first guest-conducted the BBC Symphony in the 1960s. He has also held significant conducting posts in Stockholm, the Netherlands, Cologne, Frankfurt and Cincinnati and, since his association with the South West German Radio Orchestra, has achieved legendary status among cognoscenti who value intelligence, interpretative integrity and a steadfast refusal to toe the commercial line.

"I am a corrective to the industry!" laughs Gielen, relaxing in Baden- Baden amid rows of vineyards on the warmest day of the year so far. But why a "corrective?" "Because I am totally against the 'industrial' quality of current sound recordings. All right, I have to put up with a certain amount of reverberation from recording technicians; but transparency and clarity are so much more important."

Gielen, who celebrates his 69th birthday this year, has led the SWF-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden since 1986 and will follow them to their new home, a newly designed, pounds 65m concert hall in Freiburg. He has maintained a bold tradition that sprung to life 50 years ago under the baton of Gustav Gorlich, was nurtured by Hans Rosbaud (the orchestra's most celebrated maestro prior to Gielen himself) and continues to promote the new, the old and the unfamiliar.

Gielen talks about enlightenment and what he calls the "fast food" mentality that dominates the present-day world. "It's so much idiocy," he says. "People who deal with serious music are outsiders and we have to fight for our survival, even within the radio network. And yet we're talking about... perhaps one and a half per cent of people who listen to 'classical' music."

He laments "compilation" fever. "It all has to do with the medium of television," he exclaims. "For example, if you observe how TV films are cut, no single sequence lasts for longer than a minute, so the viewers' attention-spans are both trained and limited by what they see. And then what? It becomes increasingly difficult to concentrate on a musical movement of, say, 10 minutes - not to mention a half-hour portion of Mahler (I'm thinking of the first movement of the Third Symphony), which even experienced listeners sometimes find hard to follow. But if people don't learn to listen in full, the day will come when full-length works will disappear from the airwaves altogether."

In addition to a rigorous and often inspired presentation of the standard classics, Gielen and his orchestra continue to promote new music. "Wherever I have been a music director, I have played modern music with consequences," he says. "In America, I performed more American music, naturally; but I also programmed Schoenberg. At first, the audiences were disconcerted, and of course there are those people who had their subscriptions, mostly middle-class bourgeois. So, some would leave, while others would attend concerts who hadn't come before - because they had previously found it so boring. And after a few years, when it was time for me to go, many people wrote to tell me how they had finally understood that music means so much more than it used to and that to 'recognise' a piece is not the same as having properly dealt with it."

Gielen concedes that Schoenberg still hasn't been absorbed into the repertory, nor Webern, though "Berg has, a little; he's more tonal and his music is more Romantic. There's this deep valley between repertoire and its reception - that's if the repertoire is in any way radical. I do what I can to forge a bridge for those who are willing to cross it; I want to make them hear, feel, sense what is going on in the music. But it remains a fact that the majority of the audience still has horrible problems with pieces that were written in 1909!"

And what about Mahler? "Ah yes, but that's largely thanks to Bernstein - and to an enormous misunderstanding. You see, there's the kitsch side of Mahler, but for Bernstein it was all kitsch - and of course it was a great success. But Mahler only employs kitsch as one of the elements in his musical picture of civilisation. If you take a major novel like War and Peace, the kitsch, the folksy, the 'simple things' are part of the big design. But one must be grateful to Bernstein for the fact that Mahler is so popular now that you can actually risk playing him in a more cerebral way - and it's still accepted!"

Gielen likes to challenge his own tastes. "I know that many people think of Shostakovich as a great composer, and although I haven't really discovered him yet, I'm looking forward to tackling the Tenth and Eighth Symphonies." I mention Franz Schmidt's Fourth Symphony and he merely shrugs his shoulders. "But maybe I'm wrong," he adds. "I like to be wrong."

His devotion to modern music is marked by extreme discernment, even to the extent that when a London orchestra invited him to take part in a new-music cycle, he rejected the work they wanted him to conduct (a piece cast in a post-Minimalist style) as "shocking - 30 minutes of repetitive shouting". "This is not 'minimal'," he barks in a tone of mock-exasperation, "this is maximal shouting! For me, it's like Fascism, terrible! I told them that of course I would come for their cycle, but certainly not for that!" And he didn't.

So does this episode signal a blanket condemnation of Minimalism? "Not if it's done as intelligently as it is by Steve Reich," he replies, "especially in a piece like Tehillim." But he is bemused, he admits, by Philip Glass ("all those operas on a C major arpeggio - up, down, up, down...") and is keen to recall the pre-Minimalist section of Beethoven's Pastoral symphony first movement, where a five-note figure is repeated 34 times, "then 32 times in a different key. And it has a good tradition!"

Gielen is also a respected composer, with various vocal and instrumental works to his credit, although he is not composing at the present time. "I need a whole summer without learning, without somebody else's music trying to get into my head," he says. "Then, perhaps, I can start to concentrate. I need to have a certain freedom, and although I've planned an orchestral piece [his first], I've so far only written down the ideas in prose."

Composer-conductors (or vice versa, depending on how you view their music) have always played an important part on the concert and recording scene, from Klemperer, Furtwangler and Kubelik, to Bernstein, Knussen and Salonen. Does creative activity sharpen a conductor's response to the work of other composers? "To compose is the only way to make music," says Gielen firmly, "which is quite different to having a score just standing there in front of you. And yet, you think of Carlos Kleiber - perhaps the only living genius among conductors - and he has never composed a note!"

Gielen's own conducting style was greatly influenced by Kleiber's father Erich, a major force in Buenos Aires, the Gielens' home during the last war. Early musical training - mostly from followers of Schoenberg's Second Viennese School - ensured an unusually keen critical sense. "It was a certain way of looking at scores and judging what I heard," he says, "the sort of thing that has made me think of myself as the opposite of the record industry. Which is perhaps why the industry has never taken me on."

But now the industry is taking him on, although public response will no doubt dictate the viability of the decision. An EMI "Gielen Edition", shortly to be launched in the UK with a new Beethoven symphony cycle, progresses apace with Bruckner and Mahler (cycles-in-the-making that EMI are anxious for Gielen to complete), Brahms symphonies ("in preparation"), plus a whole host of works by, among others, Suk, Rachmaninov, Schoenberg, Reger, Varese and Debussy. In fact, it was Debussy's Jeux that helped while away my travelling hours from Baden-Baden back to Frankfurt. It's a remarkable performance of a remarkable piece, very much the product of a mind that has selected, absorbed and strengthened its interpretative priorities. Sorry about the lack of snappy "buzz" words, and I'll freely admit that Michael Gielen doesn't fit the standard "Glam Classics" mould; but if these records fail to sell, it won't be for musical reasons.

n Michael Gielen conducts Brahms (Violin Concerto) and Schubert (Great C Major) at the RFH, 7.30pm tomorrow. Booking: 0171-960 4242