Death of a vital conductor, 91

Death of a vital conductor, 91


norman lebrecht

March 09, 2019

The important German-born conductor Michael Gielen, a major figure in the advance of modernism, died on Friday of pneumonia in Austria. He was 91.

The son of an opera director and a soprano, Rose Steuermann, he was raised among the Arnold Schoenberg circle and grew up in Argentina when his parent had to flee Nazi Germany.

The family returned to Europe in 1950. His father became director of Vienna’s Burgtheater and Michael learned his craft as an assistant conductor at the Vienna State Opera.

After five years as music director of Sweden’s Royal Opera, he gave the world premieres of Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten and Reimann’s Traumspiel, establishing a reputation as a champion of new music. Other works he premiered include Ligeti’s Requiem, and Stockhausen’s Carré.

He was GMD at Frankfurt Opera 1967-87, principal conductor of Belgian National Orchestra 1969–73, and music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (1980–86) and of Southwest German Radio (1986–99).

He retired five years ago due to failing eyesight.

From his interview with Bruce Duffie (here):

All orchestras are flexible.  If you behave in the right way as a conductor, you will find flexibility on the part of the musicians.  On the other hand, if an orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic has worked with a great conductor like Karajan for twenty-five years, and they have been doing Brahms’ First Symphonyevery second month of every season, and so many times on tour, they tend to play the way they’re used to, and it is unwise to interfere too much.  Bruno Walter used to say, ‘Don’t interfere if everything goes well.’  So if you know this kind of tradition on the great classics and romantics, and if you come to an orchestra like the Vienna or the Berlin Philharmonic, it is wise to know what they’re used in order not to interfere too much. 


  • Petros Linardos says:

    Great conductor. He was capable of profound interpretations of the 19th century canon, unlike many other conductors who became famous for their performances of 20th and 21st century music. RIP

  • Player says:

    Through the time spent in Argentina, he was another link to the Kleibers…

    • Garry Humphreys says:

      Indeed, in the two film documentaries about Carlos Kleiber (Traces to Nowhere and I am Lost to the World) he contributes some fascinating memories and insights.

  • Caravaggio says:

    So sorry to learn of Herr Gielen’s passing. May the man rest in eternal peace. It is disturbing to have to write these words so often.

  • Peter Owen says:

    I remember an outstanding Gurrelieder at the Proms in the 80s and wish we’d seen more of him in the UK.

  • Patrick says:

    One of the most important conductor of the second part of the 20th Century. His recording of the Mahler Symphonies with the SWF Orchestra in Baden Baden are near the top of the discography. His years at the Frankfurt Opera were decisive for the contemporary music scene. Gielen did not look to advertise himself , he was a brilliant servant of Music

  • Rgiarola says:

    This one I can call as a “teacher”. RIP.

  • Jurgen Irps says:

    Here is a very interesting interview (in German) reissued by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung today:
    Almost at the end he talks about his time in Buenos Aires where he met conductors who also had to flee Nazi Germany, and where eventually E. Kleiber became his teacher.
    I never will forget some Mahlers he did in Berlin.

  • Hilary says:

    A composer of note as well. The La Salle Quartet recorded his String Quartet for DG.

  • Edgar says:

    Indelible memory: Zimmermann’s “Soldaten”, marking the final performances of GMD Michael Gielen at Oper Frankfurt in 1987. His tenure marked one of the most exciting eras in operatic history, not merely in Frankfurt and Germany.

    Another indelible memory; Debussy “Pelleas et Melisande” at Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin in the early 1990s.

    I feel most privileged to have attended both.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    A very fine conductor. I haven’t seen him live since 1990s, when he really impressed me, but I was so looking forward to attending his concert with Berlin Staatskapelle just before he retired. Unfortunately he cancelled due to health problems, and was replaced by Lahav Shani who made a mess of Mahler 1.

  • Robert von Bahr says:

    I still, after all these years, remember vividly, when we premièred the Ligeti Requiem in the Sixties (I was leader of the first basses in the choir). In those days the writing was almost insurmountably difficult for any part of the choir, however, when Maestro Gielen came to work on it, he actually knew all the parts and could put it together so authoritatively. One of the deciding points of my (BIS’s) career. This kind of music was something we just had to support. Thanks, Maestro Gielen!!

  • Jean says:

    A major figure has passed away

  • michael hurshell says:

    Austrian, not German (father Austrian, mother Austro-Hungarian).

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Sad news, but we all go when the time comes. The man rests in peace, but his legacy remains. No doubt he will be remembered first for his no-nonsense and analytical (some would say “modern”) but at the same time passionate conducting, but don’t forget that he was also a pianist (in his early years) and a composer. He had the capacity to make sense (find a sense?) of the most complex and senseless avant-garde scores. In this way his recordings of the standard repertoire (he excelled in Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler) are “reference recordings” par excellence, they are “neutral”, correct, and still very likeable and never boring. For those who are not acquainted with his conducting, I recommend his Mahler 7 with the SWR Sinfonieorchester (Hänssler Classic), surely my favorite recording of this work and a very representative example of his work.

  • Novagerio says:

    The last battle back in 2012:

  • barry guerrero says:

    Not only has Gielen recorded one of best, all around Mahler cycles of anybody, he was clearly one of the best with the ‘Vienna New School’ – particularly Schoenberg. He flew under the radio as far as being a household name in America, but that’s of no importance. He was truly a musician’s musician. Not too shabby with Bruckner, either.

    • Spenser says:

      “flew under the radio”….
      I believe you meant “radar”, Barry, but “flew under the radio” is wonderful …. it’s now my chosen phrase.
      BTW, I agree 100% with your assessment of Gielen, just as I might have back when we worked together at the Tower Records Classical Annex.
      (think cheese….)
      And let’s not forget his Bartok….

  • Hilary says:

    A superb, bracing performance of one of the great Stravinsky ballets but marred in places by some trickery at the mixing desk: for instance, the important cello and bass entry towards the start is barely audible. By way of tribute to the conductor, maybe this could be restored to some semblance of normality:

  • Monsoon says:

    I’d wholeheartedly argue that Gielen was one of the greats of the last 50 years. He had an individual approach to everything he conducted. His interpretations never sounded forced like was trying to say something new for the sake of it. And the pairings on his CDs were way more interesting and inventive than what most conductors do, such as Mahler/Ives and Tchaikovsky/Berg.

    As many others have said, his Mahler cycle is superb and puts to shame many of the self-declared high-priest of Mahler.

    Thankfully, he made a great number of recordings with the SWR.

  • David H Spence says:

    We live in an era today, if one can call it that, where intellectuality in music, music-making, the arts in general is treated with disdain, sometimes outright contempt. Where in the U.S. would one get a responsible performance of Die Soldaten, any performance of it at all? Somebody like a Gielen or one of his best proteges, Ingo Metzmacher, is looked upon, looked down upon as a specialist in 20th century repertoire. They both know and have conducted music in full cognizance that our developing an ear for the best 20th century music out there and what has been composed since develops an ear for listening to more classical repertoire, for its formal qualities and expression than if we do not. I know of, for instance, no better cycle of the Beethoven symphonies on disc, especially from the past thirty years than a set Gielen made with the Southwest German Radio SO for EMI. There are installments in this I find clearly preferable to what will run across in Karajan, Solti, Bernstein, even Sawallisch.

    Especially of the Sixth and Seventh, also of the Ninth Symphony, Gielen’s Mahler was truly exceptional. A broadcast one evening many years ago came on of the Sixth with the Chicago SO and Gielen. He had insisted at least enough on these players putting their own way of playing this aside and for it all, particularly but not only in the usually sprawling last movement to be fully attentive to its even at times minute formal properties. One thereby seldom comes across a more expressive account of this music, from its being so highly charged from within. Contrast this with a Ninth performed nearly a year ago, with a prominent maestro of these days. which with much loud playing made this music sound as though it could have been written after, influenced by the music of John Adams. I tuned out after two movements of this, not caring to hear any more of it – and as conducted by somebody who should know better. With Gielen, there was never any self-aggrandizing tendency, just a passion for rendering, interpreting music for what unique perspective so many great works we think we know have to offer.

    Gielen at the Frankfurt Opera was part of a team with Ruth Berghaus (from Walter Felsenstein’s first class in Berlin) in staging the Ring, Rosenkavalier, numerous other works. We today do not know enough, not nearly enough, regarding this very fine collaboration. One may not realize it, but when one watches a Flimm, Kupfer, Peter Konwitschny or David Alden production of something, not only in the highly unique and advanced way in which Berghaus internally inculcated choreography into her staging concept of a work. I envy anybody who may have had any (or some) firsthand experience of this.

    I feel fortunate, and an event that could in no way be re-created today with anybody with ensemble in question, Gielen’s visit to Houston as an honorific to Elliott Carter for his 80th birthday. The program was the Carter Piano Concerto (Ursula Oppens) and Schubert Ninth Symphony. Gielen even drew a pleasant tonal quality out of the strings downtown here, something that very seldom has occurred since and absolutely can not anymore.

    There still may be a few around – Nagano, Nott, Jurowski, Metzmacher- capable of at least well approximating the level of integrity Gielen brought to his work. but precious few. Gielen will or at least should be sorely missed. He indeed left an enduring legacy behind.