, September 2010
Go to the opera or the ballet and you’ll find most of the audience—unless they’ve indulged in one too many gin and tonics before curtain-up—with their eyes glued to the action on-stage.
Go to a concert hall, on the other hand and you’ll see a large proportion of them looking down into their laps or even with closed eyes. Discounting those who are nodding off—or even fast asleep—it’s easy to understand why. After all, there isn’t actually a great deal to be gained by watching the conductor’s back for an hour or two and, with little else to look at, it’s quite easy to become initially distracted and then completely fixated by odd details like the woman violinist’s large drop earrings swaying vigorously in time—or, rather more alarmingly, failing to keep time—with the music.
Placing cameras in the concert hall, however, gives—quite literally—a whole new perspective on performance. We can now see what the orchestra sees and attempt, however inexpertly, to work out exactly how it is that conductors exercise their control and achieve the results that they do. And the fact that such filming has been going on since the days of Arthur Nikisch (even though we can’t hear the results he was producing as he died before sound recording on film was introduced) offers us a valuable historical archive to facilitate comparison.
Thus we can see that, pace his “bandmaster” label, Toscanini’s wonderful effects were often achieved by very delicate hand gestures (I love the frequent one where he points urgently to the tip of his very sharp nose but, discounting the theory that he’s indicating a bad smell, am still at a loss to understand its precise meaning). We can also begin to comprehend the hold that Mengelberg had over the Concertgebouw players by staring, just as they did, into his utterly mesmeric eyes (which, though we can only see them on film in black and white, surely must have been bright blue). Leopold Stokowski’s baton-less and perpetually fluttering hands and fingers have even greater intensity and magic when seen from the front. And Leonard Bernstein uses a facial expression that conveys a state of almost perpetual sexual orgasm to achieve his results. We could go on and on.
As has been often observed, the secret of conducting a successful performance of a Bruckner symphony—of achieving, in particular, a satisfying balance between its overall architectural span and its individual elements—is an elusive one. We are fortunate, though, to have some fascinating performances on film and to be able to see, thereby, how such admired interpreters as Jochum, Karajan and Wand applied the skills acquired over a lifetime to doing so.
You will notice, incidentally, that none of the three conductors mentioned filmed their Bruckner as young men. True enough, Jochum, with the Orchestre National de la RTF, may have been a mere stripling of 62 when he recorded the seventh symphony. But Karajan was 77 when he conducted the ninth symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic and 80 when he set down the eighth with the Vienna Philharmonic. Meanwhile, Günter Wand’s regular visits with his NDR Symphony Orchestra to the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival produced film of his Bruckner at the ages of 78 (the fourth), 84 (sixth), 86 (fifth), 87 (seventh), 88 (eighth) and 89 (ninth). I have given full details of these filmed performances at the end of this review.
Now, however, we have a new DVD of Christian Thielemann, who must have been just 46 or 47 when Bruckner’s seventh was filmed and 48 or 49 at the time of the fourth (the DVD booklet fails to give precise dates of the performances). His comparative youth notwithstanding, however, the box cover boldly claims him to be “widely regarded as the leading Brucknerian of our age”—and not just, you will note “of his generation”. Harald Reiter’s booklet notes go even further, describing him without any qualification as “the most interesting and significant interpreter of Bruckner’s symphonies currently before the public”.
Thielemann himself is well known for his frequently professed reverence for Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan. Comparison of his accounts with those of the two older conductors therefore makes as good a starting point as any.
The most self-evident point to make, using the admittedly crude basis of overall timings to make comparisons with Furtwängler (live recordings of the fourth in Munich and the seventh in Rome, both from 1951) and Karajan (his studio recordings of the fourth from 1976 and the seventh from both 1977 and 1990), is that Thielemann is slow. In fact, he clocks up the longest accounts in no less than six of the eight movements under consideration. Only in the seventh’s scherzo does Karajan’s later Vienna Philharmonic recording exceed him by just 18 seconds, while Furtwängler’s exceptionally spacious timing of 18:28 for the fourth’s andante outlasts not just the runner-up Thielemann but also Karajan and every other conductor on my shelves—Böhm (two versions), Jochum (three versions), Kabasta, Klemperer, Knappertsbusch and Tintner.
But—and here the ability to see the conductor’s face from the point of view of the orchestra really pays off—these performances are “slow” only as measured by the clock. Rather, they are simply (!) exceptionally intense ones.
The Munich Philharmonic has a long history of playing Bruckner’s music. Past music directors have included Ferdinand Löwe (1897-1898 and 1908-1914) who infamously, if with the best of intentions, dedicated himself to “improving” the composer’s works; Siegmund von Hausegger (1920-1938) who excised Löwe’s cuts in Bruckner’s ninth symphony and so was the first to perform it in its original form; Oswald Kabasta (1938-1944) who recorded a superb seventh and a very good fourth; Hans Rosbaud (1945-1948) whose impressive and very well regarded account of the seventh will be recalled by many as one of the highlights of the Turnabout LP catalogue; and Sergiu Celibidache (1979-1996) whose monumental interpretations continue to divide critical opinion. As their successor since 2004, Thielemann had, by the time of these recordings, clearly established an immensely strong and personal rapport with its members and was able to capitalise and build on what the booklet notes describe as a uniquely “German” sound in Bruckner performance (“a darker, more astringent timbre with less vibrato than the brilliant sonorities that are typical of so many American orchestras”).
So, apart from their most obvious characteristic of intensity, what of the performances themselves?
Both accounts are exceptionally well constructed and entirely dominated by the conductor’s long-term musical perspectives. From the very opening page of the fourth symphony in its 1880-1881 version, Thielemann’s control over his players is characterised by unblinking—and often very precisely focused—eye contact, expressive use of his body and clear and decisive, though also, where required, exceptionally delicate, stick technique.
Deutsche Grammophon’s engineers have managed to capture the very wide dynamic range that the conductor and orchestra achieve superbly and the sound is very well balanced to allow us to hear everything going on. A particular characteristic of Thielemann’s approach is to give more than usual emphasis to transitional passages by slowing down markedly, thereby revealing felicitous details that are often skated over in other accounts. Tension is kept high throughout and the performers’ intense concentration, giving the impression that they are looking at the score with newly opened eyes, communicates itself very convincingly.
Skilful control of dynamics is also very evident in the Romantic’s second movement, with the sound at its opening seemingly appearing from nowhere. The build-up to successive climaxes is steadily and unerringly achieved, with consistently beautiful—yet carefully controlled—playing from the strings. The third movement offers the brass an opportunity to shine (if not literally—the Munich Philharmonic is clearly not sponsored by Brasso) and once again this is a wonderfully detailed account, with a particularly ingratiating performance of the central ländler section that is taken rather more gently than often and sounds, as a result, winningly rustic.
The finale gives us the single jarring note in the DVD’s visuals—a superimposed soft-focus image of the horns that is quite at odds with the rest of the filming, characterised as it is by the absence of such technical gimmickery. But musically it is a great success. Once again Thielemann builds up very deliberately to the first orchestral climax, maintaining a very steady pulse (“quite sedate”, I jotted down in my notes) but with occasional unexpected little rhythmic twists—quite a contrast to Furtwängler, for example, who, in comparison, tends to push on with markedly greater urgency.
The opening movement of the seventh symphony maintains the intense level of concentration that was apparent throughout the whole of the fourth. There is a sense of overwhelming inevitability as we approach each climax, so that the moments of highest drama clearly evolve inevitably from the preceding developmental passages rather than merely being placed willy-nilly on their summit. The woodwinds perform especially well here, but the whole orchestra is shown once again as a body at which to marvel.
For some reason, though, the seventh’s two central movements fail to maintain the level of interest generated thus far. While each in its own way demonstrates both the precision and power of the orchestra, something has been lost. Thielemann almost gives the impression that, with rather less scope to individualise them, he is pleased to get through them in as unremarkable a manner as he can. While it would be inaccurate to say that he and the orchestra are performing on autopilot, there is simply far less here in the way of a distinctive vision or level of achievement. The previously intense level of concentration does return in the finale, however, and Thielemann’s own pride in the overall achievement is evident from his private smile directed at the musicians before he turns to the audience’s applause.
These are, then, performances that should be heard by all lovers of Bruckner’s music, though you will note that I do not claim that they necessarily demand to be seen. The visual element is of great interest, as I noted earlier, in that it helps give us an idea of how Thielemann achieves his musical aims in practice. But how often does one want to watch a concert on TV? Rather, I hope that the recordings made at these two remarkable concerts can also be marketed on the medium of CD so that we will be able to appreciate Thielemann’s striking take on Bruckner through reproducing equipment that is far more flexible and more likely to do his musicianship sonic justice than the average living room television set.