Carlo Maria Giulini, the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has always been allotted a special category among musicians, from the days he was considered one of the finest opera conductors right through to today, when he remains a man of unusually strong convictions.
The L.A. Philharmonic is good, but it could be much better. As a consequence, Giulini's concerts are marvelous; his aims are lofty, his insights superb - but the sort of greatness that can be attained with a superb orchestra - such as the Concertgebouw, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the orchestras of Boston, Chicago, and Cleveland - is still missing.
At least maestro Giulini is there, and in America, only the Chicago can also boast the presence of an almost legendary musician (Georg Solti) whose integrity to composers is more important than the trappings of a jet-age career.
Integrity has always been Giulini's most cherishable quality. Everything he does speaks of it, from the music he conducts to the way he works with his orchestra and his soloists. It was this uncompromising integrity that forced him from the world of opera in the '60s, when he finally stepped down as principal conductor of the Rome Opera.
He says he found that singers were increasingly more interested in making money than in making music. The heads of opera houses were being appointed for political rather than artistic reasons. The minimum standards he tried to sustain were impossible for him to achieve, so he switched his attentions to the orchestral repertoire.
In 1969, Giulini was appointed principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, after having guest-conducted there for several seasons. For three years he also served as head of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. In 1978, he took over as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and it was with this ensemble that Giulini led audiences through four programs in New York last week - two in Carnegie Hall, two in Avery Fisher Hall. Curiously, although Carnegie is one of the great halls acoustically, the L.A. Philharmonic sounded better in Avery Fisher.
The music performed included Brahms's ''Tragic Overture'' and ''A German Requiem,'' Dvorak's Eighth Symphony, Bruckner's Ninth, Beethoven's Fifth, Schubert's Fourth, Ezra Laderman's Fourth (a New York premiere), Stravinsky's ''Firebird'' Suite, Haydn's Trumpet Concerto in E-flat, and Verdi's ''La Forza del Destino'' overture. Most of the works - with the exception of the Laderman, the Brahms, and the Haydn, have been recorded by Giulini.
The Brahms opened the concert ''cycle,'' a brave way to get things going, given that this composer's requiem is not exactly a crowd pleaser. The overture opened the intermissionless program. Giulini asked for a dark, rich, emphatic sound regardless of tonal harshnesses. It made for an uncommonly appropriate performance. The requiem was given a reading of understated fervor. Not for the maestro the flashy excitement that some have generated in the score. If it sounded more austere than usual, it gained in reverential insight.
Giulini is a visionary. Some find this approach to music hard to take, and one does lose a certain theatrical thrust in the process, but because of that vision and the meticulous way he fits every piece into it, a work like Beethoven's Fifth - played with all the repeats, which is rare these days - takes on an inexorable sense of progression. It starts on a high plane - with uncommonly arresting, yet uneccentric, playing of the famous opening chords - and proceeds in its massive (full-size orchestra with 10 basses), monumental way to explore the themes and byways of Beethoven's musical argument, resulting in a thrilling sense of arrival at symphony's end.
One might think this would not work for Dvorak, but Giulini's reading opened up a new vista. Here was not just a pretty accumulation of tunes in strict symphonic style, but a moody exploration of somber moods in a minor key. Without distorting the music, Giulini gave it an unusual new dimension.
In an age where most maestros are refining only their staples, Giulini is exploring new works, such as the Laderman Fourth. It is a richly textured piece, well scored for large orchestra, and full of emotive pages that suit Giulini's style admirably. His gritty, earnest reading communicated the beauties of the work as well as his evidently deep-felt belief in it.
Perhaps most surprising was the colorful, opulent account the ''Firebird'' Suite received. Giulini can conjure up orchestral blends that are sumptuous, but the sheer power of this reading took this listener by surprise.
The Bruckner was more consistent than his recording of it with the Chicago. Moments that were merely convincing on the record became appropriately terrifying here - particularly in the massive scherzo. And the monumental struggle that is expressed in this score has rarely been resolved so hauntingly - so radiant in its tranquillity and sense of peaceful affirmation.
The L.A. Philharmonic is a solid ensemble, and in these four concerts it sounded better than the New York Philharmonic does except when it's on its best behavior. Giulini has worked well with the orchestra, and it has improved since my last encounter. The strings play with more attention to tone, the brass seems a bit smoother, the winds have more character. Nevertheless, it has a long way to go, and perhaps if the efforts of the maestro and his two principal guest conductors, Michael Tilson Thomas and Simon Rattle, can be properly coordinated, the sort of in-depth, ongoing work any orchestra needs can be achieved with shining results.
Giulini is unique, and his presence on the West Coast is Los Angeles's gain. The Serkin aura
If Giulini is surrounded by a special aura among conductors, then Rudolf Serkin must be considered to have something of the similar aura in the piano world.
His Carnegie Hall Recital a week ago today featured the last three sonatas of Beethoven, Op. 109, 110, and 111. It was a sellout, and at concert's end no one in the audience seemed to feel that the lack of an encore had cheated him, for Serkin's performances were as close to being exalted as one is apt to hear today.
His honesty at the keyboard is legendary. His sense of the vistas of the slow movements is unique. And if he is no longer quite up to the densest pages, it matters not at all when he is exploring those heartrending adagios and andantes.
It is nice to know that there exist a few musicians dedicated to music and not to career trappings. To have heard Rudolf Serkin play the closing pages of the Opus 111 with such an ethereal simplicity and otherworldly vision is to have been in the presence of something unique. To have been a part of an audience with which he shared his vision is the sort of special event concertgoers always hope to be able to experience. Mr. Serkin did not let us down.