S&H Concert Review

Brahms, Wagner, R.Strauss: Philharmonia Orchestra, Christian Thielemann, RFH 30 November 2000 (MB)

This concert, ostensibly a fund raising gala, proved an uncomfortable evening. This had absolutely nothing to do with the playing, which was often outstanding, and a great deal to do with one of the most restless and bronchial audiences I can remember. Had it not been for the fact that Christian Thielemann was conducting repertoire for which he is establishing a fine reputation I would have left long before the end.

Not that things started promisingly. Sarah Chang, just nineteen, proved an unsatisfactory soloist in Brahms' violin concerto. Her entrance after the orchestral opening was phrased bitterly - I hesitate to use the word ugly but at the time I thought just that - and for much of the first movement she proved quite out of her depth. Her double stopping, surprisingly for a first rate soloist, was frequently insecure - and it never really improved. Much more is needed in this work than a sweet tone and the big sound the first movement demonstrably requires for its drama to unfold. I sensed very little intensity to the bold statements of the development, and even less to the poetic, tessitura writing of the melody after the cadenza. True, Chang's tone reached the stratosphere, but it sounded as cold and uninvolving as an ice princess. The slow movement was better - and one sensed a real conversation going on between Chang's violin and Christopher Cowie's deliciously phrased oboe solos. The arabesques were not perhaps as involving as some I have heard, but there was beauty of phrasing and tone in abundance. The Hungarian gypsy finale was fast - but not idiomatic and failed to ignite as it should. Where there should have been an element of hedonism I fear all we heard was a headlong rush to the finishing post. Overall, Miss Chang's Brahms proved hugely disappointing.

The second half eventually opened (after people were asked to take their seats) with Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod to Tristan and Isolde. The Prelude, perhaps the single most written about piece of music in history, was given a heavily Romantic performance by Thielemann. It started at an inordinately slow tempo (much slower than the marked langsam) but this had its merits: the cellos five note ascent in bar 5 moved from cresc to dim not just purposefully, but with resolved singularity. As with Sergiu Celibidache's single recording of this work every note breathed with the epiphenomena which that conductor constantly strived to achieve. What followed proved sublime, with the performance veering between an opulence of phrasing and an explicitness of passion. Strings were often searing in their tone, brass full-throated, if a little boorish and loud (and occasionally flat). The Transfiguration was extremely fine and beautifully played.

The concert ended with performances of two of Richard Strauss' tone poems. Tod und Verklärung was given a graphic account, one that shifted, often menacingly, between the sporadic beats of a dying man's heart to the violent, writhing agonies of his pain. This was often an overwhelming performance structured as it was around Thielemann's concerns to paint the broadest of canvases. One can question his tempo - which often bordered on the extreme - but there was little doubt about the integrity of the performance as a whole. No where were Thielemann and his orchestra better (even more opulent here than in the preceding Wagner) than in the work's coda. Strings soared like eagles as they proclaimed the transfiguration. There was exaltation and ecstasy as the climax approached, then a descent to eternal rest that was magically achieved. This was a memorable and gorgeously coloured performance, and shows Thielemann has the makings of a great Strauss conductor.

Till Eulenspiegel, Strauss' most perfectly constructed work, was economically handled by Thielemann and the Philharmonia in a strikingly dramatic and swift performance. There was no lack of humour, and Thielemann handled the brilliance of the orchestration masterfully. The sheer difficulty of the horn solos makes this a difficult work to listen to - will he or won't he, I nervously say - but here they were easily overcome by the Philharmonia principal, so much so that he seemed able to contrast his tempos between the two solos very explicitly. Elsewhere, there was nimble string playing and effortlessly raucous woodwind phrasing. If there is a problem with this work it must be the final section of the work. Strauss deploys so much inventiveness in his orchestration, which is often wildly imaginative, that few performance are ever alike. Thielemann was no exception in not being able to highlight everything - the horn theme on oboes and violins was all but obliterated by over-balanced flutes and horns, and there was a little difficulty in co-ordinating the fff, ff and f passages beyond bar 544. Having said that, Thielemann did at least reveal more of this work's fascinating inventiveness than most, and the end was a thrill.

I have only previously heard Christian Thielemann conduct opera (Strauss again, in an unforgettable Elektra), but here he proved to be an exciting orchestral conductor. I have heard from American colleagues that his concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra can be dull affairs, but here, conducting an orchestra he has played with regularly in concert and on record, there was a genuine sense of spontaneity. Thielemann may still have much to do before he becomes director of a major orchestra, but in the meantime the Philharmonia could do much worse than offer him a more permanent position with the orchestra. In a world of diminishing returns for today's conductors, Thielemann is that rare thing: a real talent.

Marc Bridle

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