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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1, Op. 68 (1876) [51:35]
Ludvig van BEETHOVEN
Overture - Egmont, Op. 84 (1810) [8:58]
Münchner Philharmoniker/Christian Thielemann
rec. Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich, June 2005. DDD           
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 6404 [60:44]

Christian Thielemann has so far proven to be a variable talent, on disc at least. Since being contracted by Deutsche Grammophon over a decade ago he has given us recordings of Beethoven, Schumann, Bruckner, Mozart and Wagner. In other words, he has been focusing almost exclusively on works from the Central European tradition composed mainly within a single century. Some have hailed him as the saviour of that tradition, an individual who is uniquely ‘in touch’ with the spirit of a time long since passed, the natural heir to Furtwängler. Others have been baffled by the inconsistency and lack of logic about his performances, appropriating the Furtwängler model from the outside rather than from within.
Of his previous releases, I have been particularly impressed by his Schumann Second Symphony and Konzertstück (with the Philharmonia, DG 453 4822) and his Vienna Phil Alpensinfonie (DG 469 5192). I am also still very much enamored of his DVD Arabella from the Metropolitan Opera with Kiri Te Kanawa (DG 073 0059). But if you lay these against a hopelessly distended and grotesque Heldenleben, the rest of his Schumann cycle and his recent recordings with the Munich Philharmonic, then you begin to see the paradox. Thielemann can be very good when working with very good orchestras who already have the music in their bones and - unlike the conductor - in their souls.
Not so long ago Oehms released a series of recordings of the Munich Philharmonic conducted by James Levine, many of which revealed the orchestra to be of a very high standard if not quite on the same level as their compatriots the Bavarian Radio Symphony. Unfortunately, the ‘live’ recordings here show them in a particularly poor light. Whether this is more a result of Thielemann’s flaccid, wayward direction or Deutsche Grammophon’s ill-managed sonics one can only speculate.
The disc does open positively, with a dark, brooding account of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. The opening chords reveal an impressively dark, rich sonority. Yet there is no impetus at the start of each chord, no real attack. Thielemann smoothes over the dramatic edges of Beethoven’s writing as he will do (rather more damagingly) in the Brahms that is to follow. The keening wind response shortly after, taken very slowly, does draw one into the story quite effectively and there is no disputing that the succeeding allegro unfolds at a well-nigh perfect tempo. And yet Thielemann still insists on underplaying string articulation at key moments and then, perversely, over-emphasising the brief chordal interjections to the point of disrupting the flow of the music.
To his credit, Thielemann does uncover some nice details, particularly in accompanimental passages, generating considerable rhythmic tension at times. Similarly, the coda is as exciting as one could hope for, with the piccolo very tastefully controlled (it is clearly audible but does not draw attention to itself). It was here, though, that I first began to suspect that the Munich strings were less than top drawer, with some alarming lapses of corporate intonation towards the close.
Unfortunately, Thielemann’s account of Brahms’ First Symphony is something of a disaster. The opening un poco sostenuto is initially impressive; the pacing is sound, and the ‘sickly’ response from the upper strings appears to be a response to Brahms’ indication of espress. e legato. Alas, as soon as the volume decreases, so does Thielemann’s tempo, resulting in the music becoming becalmed as early as bar 9, and at a virtual stand-still by bar 13. As the opening material returns, this time fortissimo (although you’d be hard-pushed to notice any difference), the tempo is noticeably slower than upon its first appearance. Such a drop in tension in the early stages of this movement can be deadly, unless the conductor whips up a storm in the succeeding allegro.
Predictably, Thielemann doesn’t. It is not a case of his basic tempo being too slow, more that he seems to carry Brahms’ legato indication from the introduction into the main bulk of the movement. Principal melodic material in the first violins becomes rhythmically indistinct, the prominent semiquaver motif treated as a poorly coordinated acciaccatura. At the close of the exposition the high-lying, syncopated strings sound far too smooth to even approach an agitato. Here it also becomes obvious that the Munich strings as recorded do not have the sheer heft for this kind of music. There is no grit or bite to the sound, possibly due to DG’s muddy, recessed recording. By the climax of the development, the preponderance of legato phrasing has robbed the music of any drama, and anyone hoping for emphatic horn and woodwind triplets to enliven proceedings will be sorely disappointed. The recapitulation fares rather better, due in part to extra details in the orchestration, but by this point most listeners will have lost interest.
In general terms, Thielemann’s handling of tempo in this movement is wayward to say the least. After commencing the allego at a sensible speed, he then slows significantly for any chordal passage (such as that beginning at bar 88), any moment of interesting harmonic activity, or when the dynamic dips below forte. I seem to recall that Richard Osborne, commenting on Thielemann’s recording of Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh symphonies (Gramophone, 3/1997) remarked that ‘more than once, the pulse lurches oddly, suggesting that matching up takes was not easy. One wonders, indeed: has Thielemann yet fully mastered the art of returning absolutely to his given tempo?’. On the evidence of this recording, this is a problem that afflicts even his live performances. The effect is, of course, far less noticeable in Strauss and Wagner, but Brahms’ structures are still inherently classical and require a far more disciplined approach to tempo relationships.
Matters improve in the central movements. The Andante sostenuto begins slowly, but Thielemann really does allow his string players to wallow. Indeed the string sound here is so markedly different from the lackluster monotony of the first movement that one is tempted to believe that it was recorded at an entirely different performance altogether. Thielemann presses ahead with an unmarked stringendo towards the first climax and, after that, the tempo settles at something a little more flowing than the opening. Praise must be given to the principal violin for the exquisite, sweetly singing solo work towards the close of this movement and to the wind soloists for some lovely playing. Thielemann stretches the tempo in the final bars significantly but manages to hold the atmosphere. The Un poco Allegretto e grazioso once again begins at a sensible tempo, but is marred by Thielemann’s insistence upon speeding up quite significantly whenever the music becomes more animated, resulting in some awkward shifts back to his original tempo.  
Problems arise once more in the final movement. There is more fire on display in this movement than in the first, although string articulation is still smoothed over in places. The opening is fine, at once dramatic, intense and mysterious. Thielemann resists the temptation to slow significantly at the Più Andante, and his players produce some wonderful, solemn sounds. It is with the arrival of the Allegro no troppo ma con brio that I take issue. Matters of tempo aside, Brahms marks the dynamic as poco f. Whilst you can argue that, in this context, poco f could imply anything even a whisper louder than pianissimo, that was clearly not Brahms’ intention. Thielemann gives us little more than a piano here, robbing the chorale of any weight or, indeed, ‘brio’. This pales somewhat into insignificance when compared with how he manipulates tempo here. He begins slowly (although by no means too slowly) but then accelerates in stages until the fortissimo statement of the same theme some thirty bars later. In no way is this implied in the score and, in any case, the effect simply does not work, draining the music of any dignity.
Having said that, once Thielemann does actually arrive at his main tempo, it is a rather good one. Even here though, many will find Thielemann’s frequent tempo moderations distracting. His broadening for the climactic ‘chorale’ is just about feasible, although it is somewhat crudely presented. The final dash to the end of the movement suggests that Thielemann may be more successful at ending a symphony than beginning it.
As already suggested, Deutsche Grammophon’s sound is another factor to be considered. Muddy, recessed and lacking in internal detail, it does nothing to rescue what must surely count as one of the ugliest, laziest and most frustrating recordings of this work in recent years. With a multitude of excellent performances already available, this issue is somewhat unnecessary. That it arrives at full price should be enough to put it out of contention altogether. For less than the price of this disc, Günter Wand’s superb early digital recordings of the complete Brahms Symphonies can be purchased (RCA 74321 20283), a cycle marked by its plain, unvarnished honesty and an understanding of the idiom that seems to have escaped Thielemann completely.
One final point regarding the presentation of the current issue demands to be made. As has become the norm with issues of ‘live’ Thielemann recordings, the booklet features an interview (or rather ‘apologia’) with the conductor. My quotation of choice for this particular release: ‘Here I slow down even earlier, even though there is no ritardando marking in the score. A musicologist might express his misgivings at this and point to the fact that Brahms wrote the score out in full. I’m aware of this, of course, but…I feel that Brahms allows us this freedom’. Axel Brüggemann, author of the booklet notes, helpfully points out that ‘in adopting this approach, Thielemann comes very close to Brahms’ own compositional aesthetic’. Considering this glowing endorsement of Thielemann’s unique understanding of Brahms, it may seem churlish for a critic to disagree.
Owen E. Walton


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