I have sat through a couple of performances of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen in the space of a week and cannot recall the sensation of exhaustion of hearing all Beethoven’s nine symphonies in one week, as I have now that I have “completed” the series of concerts of Christian Thielemann and the Wiener Philharmoniker in Berlin. Differently from the Ring, I don’t believe Beethoven ever intended to have them performed in sequence, as Wagner has intended his tetralogy to be. I have no basis to bet that the composer has probably understood each symphony as a step further rather than a completion to a whole set of works; some may dispute that by quoting the 8th, but I am no Beethoven specialist to engage into a discussion like that. At the contrary, I am so entirely convinced of Böhm’s and Abbado’s classical approach (rather than the proto-late-Romantic concept many conductors seem to follow) that I have never felt tempted to investigate further into the discography. As a result, I cannot boast to write a review (if I can really boast to write a review about anything), but rather my impressions, which are pretty much the consequence of my subscription of the above-mentioned conductor’s readings of these works.
If listening to these concerts was a demanding (and certainly gratifying!) experience, I wonder how exhausting it must have been for the musicians. These were no studio recording nor retouched broadcasts recorded in concerts months apart, but one more run of performances closely scheduled in a tour (and Berlin was not even the first destination). In view of that, the unfaltering energy, precision and virtuoso quality of the Vienna Philharmonic only show why this is one of the very best orchestras in the world. If the legendary French horn players had their small share of blunders, who can really blame them? This is difficult music performed consistently in such a large scale that only the best could survive. And they have really commendably.
As for the conductor, I have to say that if I am picky in some of my observations about Thielemann, the reason is that he is such a gifted musician that one is doubly upset to find fault in something. First of all, I must mention that his sense of balance is remarkable even among great conductors. Under his baton, all section of an orchestra are matched in perfect proportion, no matter how loud the sound is (and it is generally quite loud) and I still have to remember a performance of the 9th where soloists, chorus and orchestra were so perfectly combined as his. Also, he knows how to take profit of an orchestra’s particular strong feature; in this case, the Vienna Philharmonic’s hallmark crystalline pianissimo playing. Although some tempi could seem slow for some ears, the sense of rhythm is always remarkable and his punchy, precise accents are everything this music needs. That said, I do believe Thielemann is too much of a disciplinarian. His almost obsessive control of the orchestra too often straightjackets the proceedings, denying it emotional content (as I have noticed in his last Bayreuth Ring) and the last ounce of abandon that makes a performance really memorable. This slot for emotion is replaced by some kind of relentless intensity, which has its mechanical and spasmodic moments. Sometimes one had the impression that every little chord was so strongly highlighted, accented, forcefully played that the necessary chiaroscuro that produce the sense of development, contrast and climax was lost. Every moment seemed a climax and, in the end, one got finally used to that and started to find a sensation of sameness. If I could give, out of the depth of my insignificance, Thielemann some advice, it would be – make a trip somewhere warm, get some caipirinhas, make some Brazilian friends, listen to some Nina Simone and learn to relax. When he has done all that, I bet we all are going to see far more complex rather than formidable music-making of a conductor who has no technical fault and seems to be able to achieve anything.
For my taste, symphonies 1, 3 and 9 were this series’ best items. In the 1st symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic’s amazingly precise articulation in the context of a full-powers approach sold me the conductor’s Wagnerian approach (which I do not normally enjoy). In spite of the 3rd symphony’s rather rough finale, I found the massive, weighty marcia funebre strangely convincing. As for the 9th, one can see in his attitude on the podium alone that the conductor has a particular relationship with this piece. Its more visionary concept, its large scale and its inbuilt emotionalism and unbridled energy fit Thielemann’s talents as a glove. The French horns were not ideal, the chorus has its matte moments and, apart from an exemplary Mihoko Fujimura and an expressive Robert Holl, the solo singers were below standard – but the performance never failed to sound right.
On the other hand, the 2nd symphony lacked concentration and ultimately spirit to my ears. Apart from a brilliant allegro ma non troppo, the 4th symphony disappointed me in a mechanical adagio and no sense of humor and lightness in the remaining movements. This lack of grace, humor and variety deprived the 8th of its true charm. In the 5th, I found his statement of the “fate” motive (unstressed third note and weak emphasis on the last one) mannered and ineffective. The first movement lacked forward movement and contrast as a whole and the French horn interventions sounded a bit rushed and ultimately awkward, but the final allegro was truly uplifting. To say the truth, that evening’s encore, a powerful, profound Egmont was the best item in the whole series. The 6th symphony could use with a lighter-foot – the performance was helplessly heavy, the contrast of the storm and the last episode largely lost, especially because the Gedänke did not sound particularly froh here. As for the 7th, I am afraid that the allegretto lacked pathos and sense of mystery and the final allegro con brio was so heavily handled that one could only admire the Vienna Philharmonic to achieve some flexibility in this context.