Whatever Happened to Christian Thielemann?

by Sedgwick Clark

Christian Thielemann is Germany’s most sought-after conductor. Twenty years ago, he was on the hot track to a big U.S. career. He made the customary rounds of the majors and, I can attest, led some impressive concerts over five seasons with the New York Philharmonic between 1995 and 2002, excelling in the widescreen tone poetry of Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony and Ein Heldenleben. When leading Der Rosenkavalier at the Met in 1993, he stood up to Kathleen Battle’s diva demands and her career never recovered. He began recording for Deutsche Grammophon. He conducted Hans Pfitzner’s Palestrina at the Lincoln Center Festival in 1997 and seemed to be connecting with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the mid-1990s. But until last week his most recent appearances locally appear to be at the Met for Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten in January 2002.

He has said that the reason is scheduling, but I wonder. Artistic kerfuffles dot his European posts. A political right winger, he reportedly made a comment to the effect that Germany had no cause to apologize for its past, and a well-known artist manager told me that his career was dead in the U.S.

Now age 53, he conducts at Bayreuth, Salzburg, Berlin, Vienna, and Dresden, where he became principal conductor this season of the Staatskapelle Dresden, which he led at Carnegie Hall on April 17 and 19. The orchestra is 465 years old and boasts a creamy, consonant sonority. I recall a fine concert some years ago conducted by Herbert Blomstedt at Lincoln Center, featuring the Bruckner Fourth. The ensemble’s outstanding recorded symphony cycles of Schumann by Wolfgang Sawallisch (EMI) and Brahms by Kurt Sanderling (RCA) stubbornly resist deletion from my collection.

Thielemann’s symphony performances have often struck me as wayward, much in the manner of one of his mentors and Furtwängler acolyte Daniel Barenboim, so I skipped the first concert, all-Brahms. But the second concert was devoted solely to Bruckner’s monumental Eighth Symphony, and I figured that a former protégé of Herbert von Karajan might have something worthwhile to say about the work. I was wrong.

Bruckner’s Eighth opens with a pianissimo tremolando in the strings, doubled by sustained horns. One’s ears should prick up immediately in anticipation, but a ragged horn entrance broke the spell before it even could be cast. Perhaps for this reason, the symphony’s ominous, sharply rhythmic primary motive in the lower strings was disconcertingly phlegmatic, and the movement only gained purpose toward the end. The Scherzo was marred by the kind of fussiness New Yorkers endured during Lorin Maazel’s tenure at the Philharmonic, and Thielemann  compromised the movement’s giddy rush to the double bar with a clumsy ritard at the end and a cushioned attack on Bruckner’s final, staccato note. The sublime Adagio began impatiently but broadened expressively by the climax. Overall, the finale was most successful, and he seamlessly integrated the Haas edition’s conflation of the original 1887 version and the 1890 revision. Alas, any positive feelings I had over the performance’s 84-minute duration were obliterated by his grotesque distortion of the symphony’s final four notes.

European speculation has Thielemann succeeding Simon Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonic when the Brit’s contract expires in five years.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

4/25 at 7:30. Zankel Hall. Young Artists Concert. Ives: Three Places in New England. John Adams: Shaker Loops. Andrew Norman: Try. Michael Gordon: Yo Shakespeare. (John Adams and David Robertson, instructors.)

4/26 at 8:00. Trinity Church. Choir of Trinity Wall Street; Novus NY; Julian Wachner, cond. (free admission; pre-concert lecture given by Matthew Guerrieri at 7:00). Stravinsky: Sacred works (complete). The Flood. Abraham and Isaac. Threni. Introitus.

4/27 at 8:00. Trinity Church. Choir of Trinity Wall Street; Novus NY; Julian Wachner, cond. (benefit for music education; composers panel discussion at 3:00; musicologists/critics panel discussion at 7:00). Stravinsky: Sacred works (complete). A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer. Elegy for J.F.K. In Memoriam Dylan Thomas. Requiem Canticles. Canticum sacrum.

4/28 at 3:00. Trinity Church. Choir of Trinity Wall Street; Novus NY; Trinity Youth Chorus; Julian Wachner, cond. (free admission). Stravinsky: Sacred works (complete). Anthem. Cantata. Pater Noster. Credo. Ave Maria. Symphony of Psalms. Bach (arr. Stravinsky): Canonic Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch.”

4/28 at 7:30. Weill Hall. Yale in NewYork. Claudia Rosenthal, soprano; Boris Berman, piano; Ettore Causa, viola; Jasper String Quartet; members of the Yale Philharmonia/Julian Pellicano. Hindemith: Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 11, No. 4 (1919). Minimax (Repertoire for Military Orchestra), parody for string quartet (1923). Overture to The Flying Dutchman as Played at Sight By a Second-Rate Concert Orchestra at the Village Well at 7 o’clock in the Morning, parody for string quartet (c. 1925). Die Serenaden, Op. 35 (1925). Kammermusik No. 2, Op. 36, No. 1, “Piano Concerto” (1924).

4/30 at 7:00. Metropolitan Opera. Handel: Giulio Cesare. Harry Bicket (cond.); Dessay, Coote, Bardon, Daniels, Dumaux, Loconsolo.

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