Chicago Classical Review » » Thielemann makes a triumphant return, directing CSO in Thrilling and Majestic Bruckner

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Christian Thielemann conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 on Thursday evening. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

On the way to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert on Thursday night, I bumped into a veteran CSO member in the parking lot and asked him how the week’s rehearsals went: Did Christian Thielemann met expectations? »

“No,” replied the musician. “He has far, far exceeded them.”

He went on to say that the conductor from Germany was the most impressive and held a virtual seminar on how to use the limited rehearsal time effectively without wasting a minute.

“So should he be the guy?”

“They should catch it,” he said. “Catch him now!”

Of course, the musicians are a controversial and highly opinionated bunch and one player’s opinion of who Riccardo Muti should follow as CSO’s next music director isn’t necessarily shared by 90 other players.

But those comments were largely confirmed in this most anticipated program of the current CSO season, as Christian Thielemann returned to conduct a powerful and majestic rendition of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8.

Widely recognized as one of the finest conductors of our time, Thielemann has made his career largely in Europe over the past two decades. Currently conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden and artistic director of the Salzburg Easter Festival from 2013 to this year, he is a regular guest on the podium with the best orchestras in the world, including the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philharmonic Orchestra from Vienna.

It was Thielemann’s first CSO stand in 27 years and he faced a largely new orchestra only when he last visited in 1995.

Among music connoisseurs, the importance of the occasion as a de facto audition was apparent – due to the conductor’s reputation, his long absence, and the fact that his main Austro-German representative will to CSO like a well-cut glove.

One can explain a good number of empty seats due to the unawareness of Thielemann’s name for the garden variety viewer as well as a program lacking in populist appeal. Yet Bruckner’s Eighth—the only work of the evening—in many ways proved ideal for this auspicious return.

Anton Bruckner enjoyed little success during his lifetime, but the premiere of the Eighth Symphony in 1892 (performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of Hans Richter) was a triumph and brought belated recognition to the aged composer who continued for the last few years of his life.

At 82 minutes in length, the Eighth is Bruckner’s largest work with a slow movement spanning almost half an hour on its own. The symphony is characterized by its large-scale structure and slow-building architecture with Stentorian brass chorales alternating with pastoral episodes. The vast Adagio achieves a high degree of expression unique even in Bruckner’s output.

Even before Thielemann took the stage, one could see evidence of a fresh and thoughtful approach, with the orchestra arranged in a new configuration. The violins were split left and right – rarely seen locally in late Romantic music – with cellos inside on the left and basses behind on risers. The violas were in their usual place, as were the brass and woodwinds; Wagner’s four tubas were placed in their own space on the right for better separation from their brass colleagues.

For geek-loving textual minds, Thielemann is one of the few contemporary conductors to use the Haas edition of the 1890 version of the Eighth rather than the later Nowak; like Karajan and Furtwaengler, he modifies Haas with some passages from the original 1887 version.

After entering to rapturous applause, Thielemann took his time to begin, leaning against the podium ramp and waiting nearly a full minute for the audience to rustle to calm down before giving the downbeat.

Thielemann, 62, is a tall man with an intriguing and somewhat unorthodox catwalk style. Wielding a long drumstick, he frequently directs the music with a vertical up and down motion of both hands, the drumstick accelerating with the tempo. When he utters a long sentence, he spreads his legs and leans his long body back so far that you think he might tip over. Completely concentrated from the first bar to the final chord, he often leaned on the front string sections to push them while sometimes bringing the brass down a notch with a subtle gesture.

The first tutti of the opening Allegro moderato set the tone for the performance—rich, full-bodied tones with brass above rather than Bruckner Muti strings. Yet despite leaving the horns off-leash, there was never a shrill or raspy edge, even with the ample volume. The new layout seemed to allow for some improvement in transparency, except for the occasional lack of presence of the second violins whose instruments faced the back wall.

Thielemann combined a sprawling architectural sense of the work with a pulling power and explosive quality that made for a highly focused yet thrilling journey. He kept a firm but flexible momentum in the opening movement alternating between brass chorales and bucolic interludes; the solo flute peeked all over the place to provide charming bird calls at times when you didn’t even know it existed.

There’s a potential minefield for this huge score to become episodic and start to feel repetitive, but Thielemann’s laser-like focus kept one for the duration. The massive Scherzo went with plenty of weight and thrust, but there was an overall lightness to the movement, with an airy quality to the Trio’s flowing lyricism.

The Adagio felt particularly spacious even though Thielemann only took 24 minutes, which is faster than many. It conveyed the strange and luminous mystery of the main theme – the beautifully refined playing of the first violins, of the music stands in particular – punctuated by the muscular bursts of the brass. Thielemann has judged the ebb and flow of this vast music with uncommon skill, unfolding the long paragraphs with seeming inevitability as the ascent rises higher and higher. The Adagio’s climax, capped by a crash cymbal and triangle, was majestic and resounding with a cumulative release of tension following the inexorable buildup. The movement’s quiet closing bars – so often rushed – provided a rare degree of warmth and consolation.

The finale erupted with its main theme charged with intimidating power and ferocity. Thielemann made the movement’s long-delayed gratification unusually compelling, with each contrasting episode creating an entertaining interlude rather than feeling like boring interruptions. With his eye on the telescope, the conductor patiently but surely constructed the intense closing bars, which delivered the requisite C major peroration in a flamboyant, triumphant coda.

After the final chord faded, Thielemann held silence with stick aloft for a good thirty seconds; to his credit, the audience applauded him before erupting in cheers and a thunderous standing ovation.

The CSO musicians covered themselves with glory in this performance in all sections. The blended force and highly polished horns led by lead horn David Cooper’s magnificent solo work were particularly noteworthy. The Wagnerian tubas quartet also made its soft, rounded sound felt.

All busy during the performance, Thielemann was called back on stage four times, smiling as he called out individual players and sections for arcs with each reappearance. He finally gave a charming shrug as if to say, “Well, I think I’ve got everyone now!”

2024 will mark the 200th anniversary of Bruckner’s birth. A complete Bruckner cycle led by Christian Thielemann in the CSO’s 2024-25 season? We can dream.

In the meantime, there are three other performances of this program. Go for it, even if you’re not a Bruckner enthusiast. Thielemann – and the CSO – will make you a believer.

The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

Posted in Performances

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