Under the Spotlight

Giuseppe Sinopoli: Maestro Psychologist


Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem

  • Lucia Popp (soprano), Wolfgang Brendel (baritone), Giuseppe Sinopoli (conductor), Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Prague Philharmonic Chorus
  • Recorded 1983
  • Deutsche Grammophon 478 6790 (1 CD)

This was one of Sinopoli’s first recordings and was part of a series of Brahms’ works for chorus and orchestra. Rather than the weighty, solemn approach of Klemperer, Celibidache and Karajan, Sinopoli gives us a more consoling, humanistic reading. Textures are kept light and clear, aided by the Czech Philharmonic’s distinctive wind sonority. The high point of this performance is the climax of the sixth movement, where Sinopoli unleashes apocalyptic drama and fury at a blistering tempo, with trumpets blazing and trombones snarling. On the minus side, the fourth movement, normally a breath of fresh air after the solemnity of the first three, drags badly under this tempo. Moreover, while the soloists are lovely, the choral singing is unpolished overall, and the sonics are a bit muddy. So, while this isn’t a perfect Brahms Requiem, it’s a refreshing view that deserves to be heard, if only for that thrilling sixth movement.


A fascinating though imperfect reading, worth hearing for Sinopoli’s thrilling interpretation, and for the Czech Philharmonic’s inimitable sound.

Schumann: Symphony No. 2; Manfred Overture

  • Giuseppe Sinopoli (conductor), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Recorded 1983
  • Deutsche Grammophon 410 863-2 (1 CD)

If I had to choose a single disc to represent the art of Sinopoli, this would be it. Ever the master psychologist, Sinopoli digs deep into Schumann’s conflicted psyche. He brings plenty of nervous energy to the first movement by highlighting the obsessive quality of its tremolo string writing, and drives the whirlwind second movement to giddy heights, the Vienna Philharmonic obviously relishing the opportunity to show off their virtuosity. He also brings unsettling impulsivity to the triumphal last movement: observe the sharply articulated triplets accompanying the clarinet solo at 2:31, a real sempre con energia. But the highlight of this performance for me is in the slow movement, where he coaxes the violins to sing out their aching, ascending melody with infinite yearning. The Manfred Overture is likewise extremely fine, and so is the recorded sound. This recording is not only a perfect testament to Sinopoli’s art, it also contains one of the great Schumann 2nds.


A Schumann 2nd for the ages; Sinopoli projects the neuroticism and passion in the music like no other recording.

Schubert: Symphony No. 8; Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4

  • Giuseppe Sinopoli (conductor), Philharmonia Orchestra
  • Recorded 1984
  • Deutsche Grammophon 410 862-2 (1 CD)

This recording was highly acclaimed when it was first released in 1984 and was apparently one of the factors that led to Sinopoli’s appointment as principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra. The Schubert is the standout performance here. Sinopoli takes his time in the first movement, moving the music at an inevitable, funereal tread, only to shatter it with a monumental, expressionistic climax that never turns harsh or crude, such was his masterful grasp of orchestral sonority. Following such intense soul-searching, a gently lyrical second movement provides much-needed closure. I find the Mendelssohn less successful; the outer movements are full of energy but lack the colourful élan one finds in the best renditions of the work (Abbado, Bernstein, Szell), while the inner movements (the menuetto especially) suffer from the same heaviness that marred the fourth movement of his Brahms Requiem. The Philharmonia plays beautifully in both performances; at this early stage of their collaboration, they had already acquired from Sinopoli that trademark warmth and lushness, particularly in the strings, that would distinguish their many subsequent recordings. The sonics are full and impactful, though slightly cavernous.


A largely auspicious start to the Sinopoli-Philharmonia partnership. The Mendelssohn, though slightly heavy-handed, is coupled to a darkly intense Schubert that is most fascinating.

Mahler: The Complete Recordings

  • Mahler: Symphonies Nos. 1-9, Adagio from Symphony No. 10; Das Klagende Lied; Das Lied von der Erde; Lieder
  • Giuseppe Sinopoli (conductor), Philharmonia Orchestra, Staatskapelle Dresden (Das Lied von der Erde)
  • Recorded 1985-1990, 1996 (Das Lied von der Erde)
  • Deutsche Grammophon 471 451-2 (15 CDs)

Shortly after that recording of Schubert and Mendelssohn, Sinopoli embarked on this cycle of Mahler’s symphonies, which would prove to be among the most enduringly controversial recordings of his legacy. Both Sinopoli admirers and detractors would refer to these recordings as evidence for their respective cases.

The cycle started with the justly admired 5th, a virile and impetuous interpretation, though tarnished slightly by some shockingly bad editing in the second movement. Then followed a curious 2nd with an apotheosis that failed to attain the exaltation and grandeur suggested in the work’s epithet, and a perverse, poorly played 6th with a sluggish andante and dull finale. The 1st that followed those was nothing special.

After those duds, however, came some veritable gems: an exquisite Das Klagende Lied (recorded live in Tokyo in 1990), a refined and detailed 4th beautifully sung by Edita Gruberova and sporting a deliciously sly violin solo in the Scherzo, an intensely lyrical 9th, and a deeply cogent, compelling 7th with a particularly rapturous central interlude in its first movement. Best of all was the 8th, a tremendously well played, sung and recorded performance that was as glorious and inspired as the 2nd was prosaic. The 3rd and Das Lied that concluded the cycle did not operate on the same level, being somewhat faceless, but they certainly weren’t bad. The sound is very variable too, but it gets better with the later recordings.

So where does this leave us? Sinopoli’s is a highly variable Mahler cycle which cannot be recommended as a top choice for a set of the Mahler symphonies. However, the best performances contained herein (4, 7-9, Das Klagende Lied) are sufficient to establish Sinopoli as one of the great Mahlerians, an interpreter as keenly understanding of Mahler’s inner turmoil as he was faithful to his score.


A highly inconsistent Mahler cycle, the best performances of which reveal Sinopoli to be a deeply sympathetic interpreter of the composer.

Mahler: Symphony No. 6, Adagio from Symphony No. 10

  • Giuseppe Sinopoli (conductor), Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
  • Recorded 1981 (10), 1985 (6)
  • Weitblick SSS0109-2 (2CD)

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (+Strauss: Don Juan)

  • Giuseppe Sinopoli (conductor), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Recorded 1992
  • Pandora’s Box CDPB 286 (1CD)

Sinopoli’s Mahler legacy was not confined to the cycle for DG; there exist several live recordings of his Mahler, some of which are vastly superior to their studio counterparts. The 1st and 6th under consideration here are cases in point.

Recorded a year before the studio 6th, this performance with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra finds Sinopoli in a particularly spontaneous mood. As with the studio recording, he takes a fatalistic view of the work, but here he imbues the music with drama and tension and sustains the narrative much more successfully (it now takes 87 minutes rather than the studio recording’s unbelievable 93). He emphasizes the score’s grotesque moments, such as in the finale’s sinister opening, and especially in the section between the two hammer-blows (sound sample). Here, driven by Sinopoli’s relentless pace, Mahler’s nightmare of expressionistic horror is transformed into a macabre wild hunt, and the Stuttgart orchestra’s colourful playing imprints on the listener an aural portrait of the clacking of horse hooves and clattering of dry bones. Like teetering on the precipice of an infinite abyss, listening to this performance is a cathartic, unforgettable experience.

This 1st is equally terrific. The story goes that this concert, given in March 1992 in Suntory Hall, Tokyo, was due to be conducted by Carlos Kleiber, who pulled out at the very last minute. He was replaced by Sinopoli, who requested a brand new program. Despite the hasty circumstances, Sinopoli sounds much more engaged here than in his diffuse studio recording and delivers an exhilarating interpretation with poetry and power in equal measure. Meanwhile, the orchestra retains its characteristic gracefulness in the first movement, but doesn’t shy away from producing some nasty sounds in the demonic start to the finale. The feverish coda (sound clip), with brass pealing and timpani pounding away, is an unforgettable vision of almost paganistic glory.

These performances do not only show Sinopoli’s Mahler in their best light, but also reveal an artist who was willing to take risks in concert. Some risks paid off, while others were less convincing; but in both performances, the music sounds as though they were composed before one’s very eyes. That gift is one of the hallmarks of a truly great artist.


These two live performances of Mahler capture Sinopoli at his most spontaneous and inspired; a 6th that plumbs the depths of despair, and a 1st that reaches to the heavens.

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