Go to the opera or the ballet and you’ll find most of
the audience - unless they’ve indulged in one too many
gin and tonics before curtain-up - with their eyes glued to
the action on-stage.
Go to a concert hall, on the other hand and you’ll see
a large proportion of them looking down into their laps or even
with closed eyes. Discounting those who are nodding off - or
even fast asleep - it’s easy to understand why. After
all, there isn’t actually a great deal to be gained by
watching the conductor’s back for an hour or two and,
with little else to look at, it’s quite easy to become
initially distracted and then completely fixated by odd details
like the woman violinist’s large drop earrings swaying
vigorously in time - or, rather more alarmingly, failing
to keep time - with the music.
Placing cameras in the concert hall, however, gives - quite
literally - a whole new perspective on performance. We can now
see what the orchestra sees and attempt, however inexpertly,
to work out exactly how it is that conductors exercise their
control and achieve the results that they do. And the fact that
such filming has been going on since the days of Arthur Nikisch
(even though we can’t hear the results he was producing
as he died before sound recording on film was introduced) offers
us a valuable historical archive to facilitate comparison.
Thus we can see that, pace his “bandmaster”
label, Toscanini’s wonderful effects were often achieved
by very delicate hand gestures (I love the frequent one where
he points urgently to the tip of his very sharp nose but, discounting
the theory that he’s indicating a bad smell, am still
at a loss to understand its precise meaning). We can also begin
to comprehend the hold that Mengelberg had over the Concertgebouw
players by staring, just as they did, into his utterly mesmeric
eyes (which, though we can only see them on film in black and
white, surely must have been bright blue). Leopold Stokowski’s
baton-less and perpetually fluttering hands and fingers have
even greater intensity and magic when seen from the front. And
Leonard Bernstein uses a facial expression that conveys a state
of almost perpetual sexual orgasm to achieve his results.
We could go on and on.
As has been often observed, the secret of conducting a successful
performance of a Bruckner symphony - of achieving, in particular,
a satisfying balance between its overall architectural span
and its individual elements - is an elusive one. We are fortunate,
though, to have some fascinating performances on film and to
be able to see, thereby, how such admired interpreters as Jochum,
Karajan and Wand applied the skills acquired over a lifetime
to doing so.
You will notice, incidentally, that none of the three conductors
mentioned filmed their Bruckner as young men. True enough, Jochum,
with the Orchestre National de la RTF, may have been a mere
stripling of 62 when he recorded the seventh symphony. But Karajan
was 77 when he conducted the ninth symphony with the Berlin
Philharmonic and 80 when he set down the eighth with the Vienna
Philharmonic. Meanwhile, Günter Wand’s regular visits
with his NDR Symphony Orchestra to the Schleswig-Holstein Music
Festival produced film of his Bruckner at the ages of 78 (the
fourth), 84 (sixth), 86 (fifth), 87 (seventh), 88 (eighth) and
89 (ninth). I have given full details of these filmed performances
at the end of this review.
Now, however, we have a new DVD of Christian Thielemann, who
must have been just 46 or 47 when Bruckner’s seventh was
filmed and 48 or 49 at the time of the fourth (the DVD booklet
fails to give precise dates of the performances). His comparative
youth notwithstanding, however, the box cover boldly claims
him to be “widely regarded as the leading Brucknerian
of our age” - and not just, you will note “of his
generation”. Harald Reiter’s booklet notes go even
further, describing him without any qualification as “the
most interesting and significant interpreter of Bruckner’s
symphonies currently before the public”.
Thielemann himself is well known for his frequently professed
reverence for Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan.
Comparison of his accounts with those of the two older conductors
therefore makes as good a starting point as any.
The most self-evident point to make, using the admittedly crude
basis of overall timings to make comparisons with Furtwängler
(live recordings of the fourth in Munich and the seventh in
Rome, both from 1951) and Karajan (his studio recordings of
the fourth from 1976 and the seventh from both 1977 and 1990),
is that Thielemann is slow. In fact, he clocks up the longest
accounts in no less than six of the eight movements under consideration.
Only in the seventh’s scherzo does Karajan’s
later Vienna Philharmonic recording exceed him by just 18 seconds,
while Furtwängler’s exceptionally spacious timing
of 18:28 for the fourth’s andante outlasts not
just the runner-up Thielemann but also Karajan and every other
conductor on my shelves - Böhm (two versions), Jochum (three
versions), Kabasta, Klemperer, Knappertsbusch and Tintner.
But - and here the ability to see the conductor’s face
from the point of view of the orchestra really pays off - these
performances are “slow” only as measured by the
clock. Rather, they are simply (!) exceptionally intense
The Munich Philharmonic has a long history of playing Bruckner’s
music. Past music directors have included Ferdinand Löwe
(1897-1898 and 1908-1914) who infamously, if with the best of
intentions, dedicated himself to “improving” the
composer’s works; Siegmund von Hausegger (1920-1938) who
excised Löwe’s cuts in Bruckner’s ninth symphony
and so was the first to perform it in its original form; Oswald
Kabasta (1938-1944) who recorded a superb seventh and a very
good fourth; Hans Rosbaud (1945-1948) whose impressive and very
well regarded account of the seventh will be recalled by many
as one of the highlights of the Turnabout LP catalogue;
and Sergiu Celibidache (1979-1996) whose monumental interpretations
continue to divide critical opinion. As their successor since
2004, Thielemann had, by the time of these recordings, clearly
established an immensely strong and personal rapport with its
members and was able to capitalise and build on what the booklet
notes describe as a uniquely “German” sound in Bruckner
performance (“a darker, more astringent timbre with less
vibrato than the brilliant sonorities that are typical of so
many American orchestras”).
So, apart from their most obvious characteristic of intensity,
what of the performances themselves?
Both accounts are exceptionally well constructed and entirely
dominated by the conductor’s long-term musical perspectives.
From the very opening page of the fourth symphony in its 1880-1881
version, Thielemann’s control over his players is characterised
by unblinking - and often very precisely focused - eye contact,
expressive use of his body and clear and decisive, though also,
where required, exceptionally delicate, stick technique.
Deutsche Grammophon’s engineers have managed to capture
the very wide dynamic range that the conductor and orchestra
achieve superbly and the sound is very well balanced to allow
us to hear everything going on. A particular characteristic
of Thielemann’s approach is to give more than usual emphasis
to transitional passages by slowing down markedly, thereby revealing
felicitous details that are often skated over in other accounts.
Tension is kept high throughout and the performers’ intense
concentration, giving the impression that they are looking at
the score with newly opened eyes, communicates itself very convincingly.
Skilful control of dynamics is also very evident in the Romantic’s
second movement, with the sound at its opening seemingly appearing
from nowhere. The build-up to successive climaxes is steadily
and unerringly achieved, with consistently beautiful - yet carefully
controlled - playing from the strings. The third movement offers
the brass an opportunity to shine (if not literally - the Munich
Philharmonic is clearly not sponsored by Brasso) and once again
this is a wonderfully detailed account, with a particularly
ingratiating performance of the central ländler section
that is taken rather more gently than often and sounds, as a
result, winningly rustic.
The finale gives us the single jarring note in the DVD’s
visuals - a superimposed soft-focus image of the horns that
is quite at odds with the rest of the filming, characterised
as it is by the absence of such technical gimmickery. But musically
it is a great success. Once again Thielemann builds up very
deliberately to the first orchestral climax, maintaining a very
steady pulse (“quite sedate”, I jotted down in my
notes) but with occasional unexpected little rhythmic twists
- quite a contrast to Furtwängler, for example, who, in
comparison, tends to push on with markedly greater urgency.
The opening movement of the seventh symphony maintains the intense
level of concentration that was apparent throughout the whole
of the fourth. There is a sense of overwhelming inevitability
as we approach each climax, so that the moments of highest drama
clearly evolve inevitably from the preceding developmental passages
rather than merely being placed willy-nilly on their summit.
The woodwinds perform especially well here, but the whole orchestra
is shown once again as a body at which to marvel.
For some reason, though, the seventh’s two central movements
fail to maintain the level of interest generated thus far. While
each in its own way demonstrates both the precision and power
of the orchestra, something has been lost. Thielemann almost
gives the impression that, with rather less scope to individualise
them, he is pleased to get through them in as unremarkable a
manner as he can. While it would be inaccurate to say that he
and the orchestra are performing on autopilot, there is simply
far less here in the way of a distinctive vision or level of
achievement. The previously intense level of concentration does
return in the finale, however, and Thielemann’s own
pride in the overall achievement is evident from his private
smile directed at the musicians before he turns to the audience’s
These are, then, performances that should be heard by all lovers
of Bruckner’s music, though you will note that I do not
claim that they necessarily demand to be seen. The visual
element is of great interest, as I noted earlier, in that it
helps give us an idea of how Thielemann achieves his musical
aims in practice. But how often does one want to watch a concert
on TV? Rather, I hope that the recordings made at these two
remarkable concerts can also be marketed on the medium of CD
so that we will be able to appreciate Thielemann’s striking
take on Bruckner through reproducing equipment that is far more
flexible and more likely to do his musicianship sonic justice
than the average living room television set.