Carlo Maria Giulini

Conductor of extraordinary gifts
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The Independent Online

Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor: born Barletta, Italy 9 May 1914; Principal Conductor, La Scala, Milan 1953-55; Principal Guest Conductorm Chicago Symphony Orchestra 1969-78; Music Director, Vienna Symphony Orchestra 1973-76; Music Director, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra 1978-84; married (three sons); died Brescia, Italy 14 June 2005.

The name seems to signify the man: patrician, elegant, devout. The man himself was charismatic, almost saintly (Walter Legge used teasingly to call him "St Sebastian"). When you met him you were in the presence of a personality both grand and self-deprecating. When you heard him - except perhaps towards the end of his career - there was no doubt that here was a great conductor.

Carlo Maria Giulini was born in Barletta, on the southern Adriatic coast of Italy, in 1914. At the end of the First World War, he was taken to live in the South Tyrol (formerly Austrian) and as he grew up he learned the language of Austria and absorbed its musical traditions so that when, in the 1970s, he became Principal Conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra he did not feel a foreigner. His formal training, however, began in Rome where, initially, he studied violin, viola and composition at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia. Conducting, under Bernardino Molinari, came later. Indeed his professional career began as a viola-player in the Augusteo Orchestra, with whom he played under Richard Strauss, Henry Wood, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, Victor de Sabata and Otto Klemperer.

It was with the same orchestra that he made his conducting début at a concert to celebrate the liberation of Rome in 1944. The programme included one of the Brahms symphonies - probably the Fourth, which he later said was the first "great" work he conducted. "Brahms took possession of me with the most irresistible prepotenza." Later the same year he was made Music Director of Italian Radio, an appointment which in retrospect looks surprising, for radio conductors need a very large repertoire. Nevertheless, it was at the Radio that he started to conduct opera, broadcasting works by Scarlatti, Gian Francesco Malipiero and others. His reputation began to grow and he received invitations from other centres. One such came from Venice, where the Earl of Harewood heard him and was unimpressed. Malipiero, who was also present, explained, "He was listening to the orchestra and not letting the music flow. It will be different tomorrow." (Perhaps La Fenice's bone-dry concert acoustic had something to do with it.)

In any case Giulini was on his way. His public opera début came in La traviata at Bergamo in 1950. In the same year he created the Milan Radio Orchestra, soon broadcasting Haydn's Il mondo della luna - which caught the ear of de Sabata and Arturo Toscanini at La Scala. As a result he made his début there during the 1951-52 season. He was to succeed de Sabata in 1953. Meanwhile he visited Prague and was deeply impressed by a particular quality he found in Czech music, "this mixture of violent rhythms and of morbidezza, of tenerezza and tristezza".

At La Scala he performed L'incoronazione di Poppaea (in Ghedini's version - he was no purist), Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Les Noces, he worked with Callas in Alceste and La traviata, he began to be associated with Luchino Visconti and Franco Zeffirelli. He guested successfully at Aix, the Maggio Musicale and the Holland Festival. In 1955 Glyndebourne invited him to replace Vittorio Gui, who was unwell, in Falstaff at the Edinburgh Festival. It was a triumphant British début for Giulini and it led, within three years, to the start of his association with the Philharmonia and, memorably, to Visconti's production of Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House in 1958. Lord Harewood, who with David Webster had put the production together, was later to write that it established Giulini "as the leading conductor of Italian opera anywhere". Webster is said to have declared that he had "found Toscanini again".

Meanwhile Giulini's international career was burgeoning. He first conducted the Chicago Symphony, with whom he was to have a long and satisfying relationship, in 1955. He began to be in demand by all the great orchestras. In London, Walter Legge was coaxing him to broaden his orchestral repertoire: he had hitherto played no Bach and little Mozart or Beethoven. In 1958 he gave the first of many performances in Britain of the Verdi Requiem. This was with the Philharmonia. The performance was repeated at the opening concert of the 1960 Edinburgh Festival, where in the 1960s and 1970s he was a regular guest, on two occasions conducting the Requiem twice during the same Festival. Philip Hope-Wallace attended a performance of it in St Paul's Cathedral in July 1966 and recalled that "sitting under the Dome, within a foot of Giulini's baton arm, the effect on me was stunning, overwhelmingly powerful and affecting". Giulini also appeared frequently at the Leeds Festival, on one occasion conducting the C Minor Mass of Mozart in memory of the Princess Royal, mother of Lord Harewood, then artistic director of the Festival.

In 1967, after giving La traviata (in Visconti's production) at the Royal Opera House, he announced that he would for the time being conduct no more opera, a decision which, considering his extraordinary gifts, remains perplexing. Fifteen years were to pass before he returned to the opera house - in Falstaff. Meanwhile, in 1969, he was appointed Chief Guest Conductor of the Chicago Symphony, recording his beloved Brahms Fourth Symphony for Angel after a public performance during his first season there. Later he was to record the Ninth Symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler and Dvorák's last two symphonies with the same orchestra. In 1971, with Georg Solti, he appeared with it at the Edinburgh Festival. Two years later he became Principal Conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, a post he held for three years. It is well known that he did not find Viennese musical politics congenial.

Since 1958 he had been a regular, if not frequent, guest with the Philharmonia (and New Philharmonia). In the earlier years, his repertoire, never very large, was surprisingly varied. Ravel's Mother Goose Suite (a favourite of his), Debussy's La Mer and Three Nocturnes, Franck's Symphony and Psyché et Eros, Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet (the suite) and Nuits d'été, Mussorgsky's Pictures occurred in his programmes - along with certain Italians - Vivaldi, Rossini, Cherubini, Respighi, Casella, Petrassi. He was persuaded to do some Britten and, with the composer, conducted the War Requiem (in 1969). Les Illuminations, the Serenade and the first performance of the overture The Building of the House followed. (In the early Sixties he had conducted Wilfred Josephs' Requiem at La Scala). He did some big Romantic symphonies - Dvorák's Seventh, Tchaikovsky's Second, Schumann's Third, Bruckner's Eighth, Mahler's First. But he returned again and again to his first and abiding loves - Verdi, Brahms, Beethoven (the Missa Solemnis and the Choral Symphony) and Mozart.

In 1982, Giulini returned to opera with a production of Falstaff which originated in Los Angeles, where he was Music Director of the Philharmonic from 1978 to 1984. This production, subsequently seen in London and Florence, was controversial. He had supervised every aspect of it himself. He talked of "stripping away buffo excess". A Los Angeles critic wrote that "the Giulini Falstaff is deficient in charm, wit and whimsy, but there are intelligence, elegance, suavity, profundity" - conspicuously Giulini's own musical characteristics. London expectations were on the whole disappointed: the performance was deemed an anticlimax.

There is a clue here to the man's nature. He was a deeply serious artist. As a young man he had conducted a Gershwin programme: "I adore Gershwin, I love the music, but I cannot do it." Similarly, "I love and admire Puccini, but I cannot conduct Puccini." (De Sabata had tried to persuade him to do La fanciulla del West.) Though he had titanic physical energy in those long arms and wonderfully expressive hands he was, in general, slower than Toscanini and he did not have (or need) de Sabata's demonic character. In fact he was closer in style to Furtwängler, though he was delicate in Debussy and Ravel.

"Sempre cantare" and "Staccato - ma sempre legato" were two of his quintessential concerns and they are beautifully illustrated in his 1959 recording of Don Giovanni. From the first bars of the overture it is clear that the orchestral sound will be full, rounded and big. Inner parts are always given proper value. Balance is admirable and tempi are, to my mind, virtually ideal - the slow ones never ponderous, the quick ones never rushed. Giulini had a fine, if not absolutely ideal, cast (Walter Legge saw to that) and with the exception of Giuseppe Taddei's occasionally wobbly Leporello he gets highly accomplished singing from Eberhard Wächter (Don), Joan Sutherland (Anna), Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Elvira), Graziella Sciutti (Zerlina), Luigi Alva (Ottavio), Gottlob Frick (Commendatore) and Piero Cappuccilli (Masetto). Indeed, the singing is sometimes simply too beautiful. "La ci darem" is more bland than erotic, while Sutherland's recitatives are so smooth and quick that they often lack dramatic point. To what extent this is due to the fact that the performance was a studio creation and had not derived from a stage production, to Legge's no doubt firmly expressed wishes, or to Giulini's own obsession with legato it is hard to say. Either way - though now in one sense "old-fashioned" - the set gives, and deserves always to give, enormous pleasure.

Giulini was a compassionate and exceptionally courteous man. At Edinburgh in 1955 he told me of Furtwängler's growing deafness and his distress, on behalf of a colleague, was palpable and touching. In February 1980, I visited him in Milan, with a Swedish colleague, on behalf of the European Broadcasting Union. He was solicitous, coming to the door himself and leading us on a stately walk to a favourite restaurant (a modest one) where he was clearly adored. He made us feel we had done him a favour, whereas he had undertaken to broadcast, live from Los Angeles, a programme comprising Webern's Six Pieces, Berg's Violin Concerto (with Itzhak Perlman) and Bruckner's Ninth Symphony. The concert was heard throughout Europe on 8 November 1982. It was very fine.

A private man (it is said that it was part of his Los Angeles contract that he would never have to attend post-concert parties or to meet the blue-rinsed ladies' committees) he was deeply troubled, from 1982, by the illness and eventual death in 1995 of his wife, Marcella, to whom he was wholly devoted. She was a gifted painter and had organised his life. Partly paralysed by a stroke, she increasingly needed his presence and there came a stage when he would not leave Europe and insisted on being at home for two weeks between engagements. I think it is to this prolonged anxiety that one must attribute a certain loss of energy, of fire, in his later performances. Always a thinking musician, he had, when younger, combined and ideally balanced the physical with the cerebral. Latterly, the physical element was diminished and the performances, though never lightweight, were sometimes pedestrian.

So it is by those blazing earlier concerts and opera performances - notably the Verdi Requiem and Don Carlo - that we should now remember him; and for the nobility of his character.

Robert Ponsonby