Christian Thielemann’s reputation as a Straussian conductor is somewhat older than his as a Wagnerian, and I would dare to say that, although he is often mentioned as some sort of Bayreuth’s great hope, R. Strauss’s music is still the repertoire where all his strengths lie. His instincts are basically almost invariably right in this music, his ability to produce perfectly transparent textures in large scale is admirable, and the sense of forward movement and objectivity that make his Wagner sometimes insensitive drain his Strauss of all hint of sentimentality.
This evening, the conductor decided to explore some rare Straussian pieces with famous soloists to draw a larger audience. The orchestral numbers were composed in circumstances that explain their almost complete oblivion today: the Festmusik for the city of Vienna was a 1942 official command and, although the Festliches Präludium was composed in 1913, it was performed in the celebration of the German chancellor’s birthday in 1943. While the former is a quite uninteresting piece for brass instruments and timpani, the later is an impressive (if rather shallow) tour-de-force for organ and great orchestra expertly calculated to produce a standing ovation (as in this evening). Thielemann resisted the temptation of overdoing the effect and gave a sober yet powerful rendition of this exuberant score.
The conductor’s sense of balance proved providential for his soloists – Renée Fleming offered a gorgeously and stylishly sung Traum durch die Dämmerung over a delicate carpet of orchestral sound. Winterliebe requires a lighter touch for its upwards melisme that made it a bit difficult for her to pierce through, but she still then eschewed any vulgarity. The Gesang der Apollopriesterin (op. 33-2) showed the soprano in her best form and behavior – savoring the text, coloring it with imagination and producing beautiful round top notes throughout. In Waldseligkeit, she could not find the necessary ethereal mezza voce, but her voice has inbuilt floating quality and she handled the lower end of the tessitura better then most. Thomas Hampson’s baritone is a bit higher than almost everything he sang this evening requires; he could barely be heard in the bottom of his range and exposed high notes were a bit rough. Nonetheless, he showed himself as an ideal interpreter for the somber declamation of both the Hymnus (op.33-3) and the Notturno (op. 44-1) and still produce the right hearty enthusiasm for the Pilgers Morgenlied (op.33-4). Thielemann provided kaleidoscopic sounds, perfectly blended to his singers, knowing the right moment when he should and could boost his orchestra and when to scale it down to give pride of place to vocal effects.
Both singers would appear again in the big romantic scene in the second act of Arabella. Fleming’s clear diction and creamy tones worked to perfection. When she decides to put her jazzy mannerisms aside (as in this evening), one can really understand why she is considered the leading Straussian of her generation. Hampson had to work hard for impact, but blended exquisitely in Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein. The audience would also be treated to the prelude to act III, where Thielemann proved not only to have a superior understanding of the structure of this passage, but also to make it sound consequent, polished, animated and surprisingly beautiful. The Berliner Philharmoniker responded in the great manner during the whole evening. I really can’t wait to hear his Frau ohne Schatten in Salzburg this Summer.