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S & H Concert Review

Debussy & R.Strauss, Adrianne Pieczonka (sop), Philharmonia Orchestra, Christian Thielemann, RFH, 1st April 2003 (MB)

This concert was a perfect example of why Christian Thielemann is the kind of conductor you would hike (a pastime of the maestro) a hundred miles to hear. He is never less than a revelation, free of the shackles of period performance and one of the few conductors able to make the Philharmonia play with the sumptuous body of tone for which it was once famous.

His confidence in this orchestra must be absolute because so much of this programme of French and German music relied on the Philharmonia’s exposure to solo work – whether in the woodwind of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (and the effortlessly beautiful flute solos of Kenneth Smith) or in the horn solos in Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder (stunningly played by Laurence Davies). If these individual contributions deserve mention it is also only fair to comment on the magnificent playing the Philharmonia produced throughout the concert; such ravishing sounds, especially in the Debussy, were spellbinding. On this form, and with this conductor, there is simply no more beautiful sounding orchestra in the world.

If Mr Thielemann’s way with Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is reminiscent of Karajan’s, his La mer is more akin to a famously beautiful recording Celibidache made in 1991. His tempi were suitably languorous in the former, which added to the distillation of atmosphere in this work. It was magically played with the requisite refinement of tone expanding to the sheer rapture of the climax, immaculately controlled. La mer, with perhaps the conductor a little more at sea than is usual in this work, shimmered with a radiance, albeit a more mid-European one than one reminiscent of the shores off La Manche. Noticeable was an iron control over dynamics which allowed the wind and string sonorities to melt accordingly, never clouded by the extravagant brass lines which close the outer movements of this expressionist poem.

Mr Thielemann returned to using a score after the interval, yet the performance of Strauss’ swansong seemed anything but a copybook reading; Adrianne Pieczonka was the stand-in soprano, but in reality anything but a stand-in. She gave a ravishing account of these eternally meaningful songs, perhaps a little bright of tone to give real value to some of Strauss’ darker lines, especially at the close of Im Abendrot, but consistently lyrical in what she sang. With her impeccable German and soaring soprano, which rose effortlessly above the stave, and without a hint of uncomfortable vibrato, this was a memorable performance, at least the equal of the last performance I heard this orchestra give of these works with Renee Fleming at the Proms in 2001.

Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel breathed a little fire into the last minutes of the concert – although this seemed the only time throughout the evening that Mr Thielemann struggled to control the percussion and brass of the Philharmonia. They all but swamped the strings. It was certainly not short on drama (his Strauss credentials already having been proven with a glittering Don Juan some years back with the same orchestra, and a glowing Heldenleben with the Vienna Phil (to be released in the autumn by DG) showing him to have a Karajanesque sympathy with this composer). Perhaps the performance was a little too straight-laced, with that last ounce of wit held back, but as well played as it was here it never for once ceased to impress.

Marc Bridle



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