The Kapellmeister

For more than 20 years, Christian Thielemann’s performances have been undisputed highlights at the Musikverein. In 2022/23, the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna will devote a separate cycle to him.

“He only conducts in competition with himself!”

An international formwork panel manager about Christian Thielemann

As is well known, the Vienna Philharmonic does not have a chief conductor. If one had been chosen in the recent past, the result would certainly have been quite clear: Christian Thielemann and the Wiener Meisterorchester are entwined in a kind of musical love affair. The orchestra is in the same situation as many, many Austrian music lovers. The man from Berlin has conquered hearts, even though – or perhaps even because – he is averse to any show.

Thielemann’s appearance contradicts the recently accustomed image of the “music actor” at the conductor’s podium who almost choreographically strives for the visual interpretation of the music. This, pardon me, unattractive figure, so completely concentrated on his craft, perhaps Karl Böhm had the most lasting effect. The association is no coincidence for all those who can still remember it: Böhm too, like Thielemann today, was an undisputed authority on the podium, feared for his good ears and his intimate knowledge of the score, but loved not only by the audience, but also by his musicians, because under his direction the music was carefully rehearsed, but then in an incomparably natural way, sounded almost “as if played by itself”.

The word conductor never crosses the lips of Christian Thielemann as a job title. He calls himself Kapellmeister and considers it an honorary title. Of course, the magic that obviously happens when he raises his baton cannot be expressed in dry, technical terms. That’s where the proverbial spark always jumps from. This is certainly not the case with every conductor. But that’s a whole other story.

Incidentally, the story of the conquest of Vienna by the Berliner Thielemann, began like anything but a fairy tale. Admirers of the artist generally date his “breakthrough” to October 2000. At that time he directed a Richard Strauss programme with the Vienna Philharmonic. For the listeners, this was often love at first note. It also seemed to be the case for the musicians, who subsequently asked Thielemann to take the podium again and again and made numerous CD and DVD recordings with him. But the truth, as is so often the case, is less sensational and headline-grabbing. Perhaps the members of the orchestra could not even remember it in 2000, but Christian Thielemann had already conducted it many times in its capacity as orchestra of the Vienna State Opera. His real Viennese debut was recorded in the annals of the house on the Ringstrasse on 19 November 1987. “Così fan tutte” was on the programme, and in retrospect that seems quite astonishing, because the music world does not necessarily associate Thielemann with the name Mozart. However, the 29-year-old was by no means free to choose at the time. He was an up-and-coming talent who jumped in when an offer came up. It came, because after all, his great role-model, Herbert von Karajan, had given him benevolent words of recommendation along the way.

Those who knew the background listened more closely even then, because Karajan recommended the young man in protest, so to speak; against the decision of the jurors of the conducting competition that bore his name. Karajan, unlike the “experts”, was highly impressed by the rehearsal work of his former assistant and prophesied a great future for him. The prophecy, as we have known for a long time, has been fulfilled. However, only with a delayed effect. In 1988, Thielemann had just moved from his post as Kapellmeister in Düsseldorf to Nuremberg, where he left no doubt as to where his preferences were. Against fierce resistance, he even pushed through a new production of Hans Pfitzner’s “Palestrina”, which aroused the curiosity of connoisseurs beyond Germany. This was even followed by a small “Palestrina” renaissance, which was to take Thielemann to London and New York with this opera. In the intervening decade, the artist’s name spread like wildfire, and Thielemann became musical director of the Deutsche Oper in his hometown.

From that point on, the clairvoyant always knew where this artist was conducting, and one read the often negative comments in the German media about the German conductor with a preference for the German repertoire. International audiences loved Thielemann’s Wagner and Strauss performances from the very first moment. When he made his debut at the Bayreuth Festival in the summer of 2000 with the “Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, he was already a living legend. He was the first and only conductor since Arthur Nikisch to succeed in rehearsing all ten music dramas canonized by the composer for his festival in Bayreuth. It was impossible to imagine the Wagner Festival without him.

And the Vienna Musikverein as well. The register of the Golden Hall now contains more than 100 entries concerning Thielemann. So it’s time for the first Thielemann focus of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, whose programme sequence naturally reflects the unmistakable Thielemann repertoire.

Of the four planned programmes, three will be performed by the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, whose Artistic Director Thielemann will be until 2024. The spectrum ranges from Beethoven to Gustav Mahler to Richard Strauss, whose oeuvre is central to Thielemann’s repertoire canon, alongside that of Richard Wagner. Not only does he have most of Strauss’s operas in his repertoire, but he also has an astonishing number of symphonic compositions. The popular tone poems between “Don Juan” and the “Alpine Symphony” will be heard (this time “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” and “Death and Transfiguration”), but also real rarities such as “Japanese Festival Music”. Among the discoveries for Straussians are also the performances of vocal works. Again and again, Thielemann invites prominent singers to join him on the podium to perform something from the rich heritage of Strauss’s orchestral songs or fragments from operas in concert.

Diana Damrau is expected at the Musikverein on June 17.
There will also be singing the following day for the finale of the Thielemann focus. Gustav Mahler’s Third, the longest symphony in the great repertoire, will be performed. Christian Thielemann found his way to the music of this composer late, but the almost fairytale-like narrative structure of this work suits him particularly well. The opera conductor can “stage” a musical drama to be heard, the “Summer marches in”, according to Mahler’s “stage directions”, among other things, and the music overhears “What the flowers tell me in the meadow” or “the animals in the forest tell me”, before the work shines into the abysses of the human soul, to finally lead into an Adagio hymn of about half an hour: “What Love Tells Me”.

The conductor leading the Vienna Philharmonic (26 February and 25 February in the cycle ‘Master Interpreters III’) contrasts this symphonic cosmos with Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, which is no less ambitious in terms of content and scope. It is not without reason that the Philharmoniker chose Christian Thielemann to record the complete Bruckner symphonies for CD and DVD for the first time in their history. The work comes to an end with these concerts, which will be recorded live. The Bruckner performances of this team of artists in particular were found by music lovers to be deep and fulfilling. It was already the eighth when, after its overwhelming rendition by the Philharmoniker under Thielemann at the Musikverein in 2007, an international record manager said to the bystanders: “He only conducts in competition with himself!”

It is not only in this respect that Christian Thielemann is challenging himself this time with his Musikverein cycle. As far as Beethoven is concerned, Viennese music lovers can also draw comparisons: Thielemann recorded all nine symphonies on CD and DVD with the Vienna Philharmonic even before the Beethoven Year. Now, on 12 September, the artist’s focus will be on the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, played by the Sächsische Staatskapelle, Dresden. The audience likes to act as an arbitrator in such debates …

Text by Wilhelm Sinkovicz.

Musikverein Wien, red carpet, staircase to the Großer Musikvereinssaal and Brahms Saal

In Focus 2022/23

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Musikverein Wien, interior, Großer Musikvereinssaal, Golden Hall, architecture, organ, rows of seats, seating, ceiling painting

Daniel Barenboim on his 80th birthday

Daniel Barenboim, honorary member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, is also celebrating his 80th birthday with a whole series of concerts at the Musikverein.

Musikverein Wien, interior, Großer Musikvereinssaal, Golden Hall, architecture, organ, rows of seats, seating, ceiling painting

Composer in Focus: Mark Andre

In a comprehensive portrait dedicated by the Musikverein to the German-French composer, this can be experienced in a wide range of works – from miniatures for solo instruments to chamber music and large orchestral works.