Vienna, October 5, 2019; Musikverein—When Christian Thielemann stands in front of the Vienna Philharmonic, you can be sure of one thing: The orchestra does what he wants. Famous for simply ignoring or not caring about who stands in front of them or how they are conducted, the finicky Vienna Philharmonic likes and listens to the occasionally controversial Prussian conductor like none other. Similarly, Thielemann loves them: It’s perhaps the only place where he regularly works and where there hasn‘t been any acrimony (or even rumors thereof) yet. He looks very relaxed conducting the orchestra, too, with a smile and minimal gestures. Bent forward, with his trademark low hanging arms, hands near the floor, he appears as if shuffling superfluous notes back to the first desks. You know the picture: It’s the third from the left on the evolution chart (as Jay London would put it). This almost literal hands-off approach serves Bruckner well, whose symphonies don’t react well to micromanaging.
That’s a good sign coming from Thielemann, to whom Bruckner does not come as natural as many think. Somehow Thielemann has been positioned as a Bruckner-specialist over the last few years. I’m not quite sure why. He conducts Bruckner symphonies gladly and often and on important occasions, but I’m not sure much more often than, say, Blomstedt or any number of other conductors. And that’s to say nothing of whether it is better or not. Yet he, even more than other conductors it seems, attracts the “specialist” label. Conduct anything more than thrice and you’re a “specialist”, these days. And while it might be hard to argue that he isn’t a Wagner specialist, what with his sensational sense for a moment, opera in general, and the ability to unhurriedly fast forward through passages, the label doesn’t fit in Bruckner. Thielemann’s Bruckner is above average, granted. But is that a big deal, in a world where the likes of Riccardo Muti, Mario Venzago, and Mariss Jansons all conduct and are hailed for their Bruckner? Thielemann’s more controversial efforts have their share of detractors and admirers while his best efforts are nearly universally acknowledged as very good or better.
Being more comfortable in the moment, the long line is not his foremost concern. His sound-shaping abilities serve Bruckner well, but the neglect of the architecture doesn’t. The outer movements of the Eighth symphony (in the Haas “best-of-both-worlds” version) suffered on this occasion from a sense of disquiet, even as the orchestra sounded saturated, downright Jessye Norman-esque in the opening Allegro. The Trio of the (otherwise compelling) Scherzo felt hurried – anti-climactically pushed forward – despite slow tempos. Flexible and sinuous phrasing made up for it. But then Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic, nearly flawless but for a minor hiccup, shone in the slow movement! An arcadia of autumnal sounds, in golden-brown colors, there was a real element of dramatic arc to this! Subtle and soft-grained Wagner tubas and horns delighted. This total consequence and fingerprint free poise and purpose: if only it had also been present in the last movement! Instead, the latter careened indecisively until the predictably rapturous final climax. Good, if not revelatory, stuff in all. The audience loves Thielemann no matter. The orchestra was already halfway home, and the Viennese were still applauding Thielemann on stage.