At a few points in this performance the orchestra seems a little
loud in relation to the choir. This is notably in the tenors’
important solo passage in the last movement. Otherwise the sound
is very fine. There is the usual choice of subtitles, particularly
useful in this text-heavy work. The concert is beautifully filmed,
with lots of close-ups of the conductor, the soloists and carefully
chosen performers, as well as a few long shots of Munich’s rather
strangely-shaped hall. Conducting with neither score nor baton,
Christian Thielemann presents an impassive, unsmiling figure
on the rostrum, only occasionally encouraging the singers by
mouthing the words. He beats time with both arms and his gestures
seem relatively inexpressive. His eyes, however, are fixed on
the performers, and mainly, as far as one can see, on the choir.
He demonstrates total technical mastery.
The booklet essay, by Harald Reiter, contains a prophetic sentence:
“In the last twenty years two conductors above all have sought
to bring out the spiritual content of what is undoubtedly Brahms’s
most important work in terms of its outer and inner dimensions
… Sergiu Celibidache and Christian Thielemann.”
The opening movement begins in sober fashion, the slow descent
to the depths before the choir’s first entry clear and perfectly
balanced. Then, just as one is struck by the consistency of
pulse, as the opening music returns Thielemann adopts a measured
tempo, and the close of the movement is slow and solemn indeed.
Only Sinopoli, of the recorded versions I know, takes more time
over this first movement. Kempe, in a 1955 Berlin performance
I reviewed some months ago (Naxos 8.111342) at 11:45 takes almost
the same time, but Klemperer takes just ten minutes, and Masur,
in a live performance from New York in 1995 (Teldec) needed
even a minute less than that. Timing is only part of the story
but more than once in this first movement the word ‘lugubrious’
came into my mind, which, in this of all works, it shouldn’t.
The second movement, “Denn alles fleisch”, begins at a more
flowing tempo. The choir is superbly disciplined, whether it
be in the first, quiet statement of the main theme or in the
fortissimo repeat, complete with very prominent timpani.
Magnificent too is the choral singing in the second part of
the movement, marvellously attentive to the conductor’s demands,
both here and throughout. The ravishing final passage, simply
marked tranquillo in the score, provokes a marked slowing
from the conductor.
Christian Gerhaher is clear and expressive in the third movement,
and the choir provides a beautifully controlled yet intense
piano. No one seems hampered by what is again a very
slow basic pulse. Even Sinopoli takes less time over this movement
than Thielemann does, and there are surely passages that are
simply too deliberate here. The gorgeous episode for the choir
at the words “Ich hoffe” is magnificently sung but terribly
drawn out. The whole movement carries not one indication of
change of tempo, though you would never know it from this performance.
The basic pulse of the final fugue, on the other hand, seems
just right, and the vigorous, mezzo-staccato articulation
in the string accompaniment ensures that the music never settles
into the marmoreal heaviness that sometimes afflicts it. Not,
that is, until the close, where the conductor slows down massively
before a huge and unmarked pause preceding the final chord.
Thielemann just about respects Brahms’s request for a moderate
basic pulse for the well-loved “Wie lieblich” (“How lovely are
thy dwellings”), and the choir responds with some magnificent
singing, with particularly pure-toned sopranos and tenors on
the final page. Yet once again there are expressive excesses,
including one particularly unfortunate application of the brakes
at the words “immer dar” (43:42).
Christine Schäfer’s solo is eloquently sung, even if one might
wish for a warmer, more motherly timbre in this crucial role.
It was here that I finally lost patience with this performance.
No cadence point, it would seem, may pass without delaying the
resolution; no important moment may go unacknowledged. A truly
horrible hiatus appears as early as the sixteenth bar (46:42),
repeated in the corresponding place later in the movement. This
may be what is meant by “bringing out” the work’s “spiritual
content”. To my ears, however, the purity of the music is lost,
leaving something lachrymose and self-indulgent.
Two more offensive changes of gear occur in the huge fugue that
closes the sixth movement (at 64:05 and 65:13). Happily, Gerhaher
is magnificent once again earlier on. By now I feared for the
worst in the final movement, already difficult for the audience,
at the end of a long evening, and challenging for the conductor
to hold together. Thielemann doesn’t hold it together, though
this is not the same as saying that his is not a consistent
view. Too many changes of tempo, too many very slow tempi, too
much expressive underlining undermines the feeling of forward
movement in the most drawn-out reading of this movement I have
ever heard. Spiritual? Reverent? No, turgid and dull, I fear,
are words that came to my mind.
The concert ends strangely. Thielemann holds his hands high
for a long time, as is now the practice, delaying the applause.
The image fades away, but applause is there none. Surely, one
thinks, the audience can’t be so moved as all that! But then
the closing credits roll, against a background of sporadic coughing
and, bizarrely, the sound of footsteps as if the conductor has
left the platform in silence.