Christian Thielemann and Staatskapelle Dresden have been in Tokyo, including performing Robert Schumann’s ultra-wonderful four Symphonies, captured for Sony Classical at Suntory Hall concerts (repertoire not new to Thielemann’s discography, previously with the Philharmonia Orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon, which didn’t quite communicate, memory suggests).
Schumann’s Symphonies have been finely documented by the gramophone for decades (they are less-apparent in the concert-hall), notably, as it happens, by a previous-generation Staatskapelle Dresden, Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting Heaven-sent accounts (ex-EMI and, if currently available, now on Warner, and which he didn’t quite emulate in the Philadelphia re-makes).
Thielemann opens ‘Spring’ Symphony with bracing, call-to-arms, trumpets (brass-writing is highlighted elsewhere in these readings); and, as the slow introduction gently rustles the season into life, we are immediately informed that the sound-quality is excellent (tangible and detail-conscious, responding well to a volume increase) and that Thielemann employs antiphonal violins with potent basses behind the firsts – ideal for this music – and as the exposition unfolds it is evident that the orchestra is at full-blooded strength (without loss of clarity or incident) and that Thielemann is taking (and will take) a flexible view of the music, ebbing it to expressive advantage; dynamics are carefully considered too, and thoughtful tempos aid articulacy without compromising direction. The ‘Spring’ has its grand and dramatic aspects, which Thielemann plays up a treat and encourages, as he also does vigorous forward-moves and eloquent points of refection, nor is there any lack of subtlety or poetry when required. In other words, he savours the music in all its particulars without losing coherence, save perhaps in the Finale, the odd phrase moulded extravagantly. The unhurried Scherzo has a delightful lilt and the Trios are encompassed without awkward changes of gear or are in tempo-relationship; the second Trio may nip along but (slide-rule out) it is mathematically twice as fast.
That, in a nutshell, is Thielemann’s approach. One might query some of the punctuation and swells that he introduces into the Second Symphony’s first movement but not the level of passion or vibrancy generated, or the precise and unanimous playing of the (here lucidly enunciated) Scherzo, the second Trio glowing with Innigkeit – these are live performances (without hardly any audience intrusion, applause removed) and, allowing for any post-concert touch-ups there may have been, or not indeed (I hear none), on these Tokyo nights the venerable Dresden musicians were remarkably able to ride Schumann’s flights of fancy, relate his fables, and also negotiate Chefdirigent Thielemann’s closely-observed demands, without a hair out of place. The Second’s Adagio is a particularly glorious ten minutes, played raptly and with beguiling woodwind solos.
Thielemann gives the first movement of the ‘Rhenish’ enough room for breathing space and aufschwung, resplendent horns, and continues to avoid haste in the middle three movements, the first two are reveries, and especially when we arrive at Cologne Cathedral, majestic and awe-struck. The Finale, a couple of ungainly emphases aside, is pointed with elegance and lightly trips; following a brassy blaze of triumph, the coda sprints. The Fourth Symphony (as revised) is especially trenchant and powerful, although there are a few undue lingers along the way (if Thielemann owns a metronome then he keeps it in a locked drawer and has lost the key), and the continuity of the movements is beautifully dovetailed; there is a winsome violin solo in the ‘Romanze’, and if the conductor perhaps indulges the Scherzo’s twice-played Trio, then the transition into the sprightly Finale is momentous. All repeats are observed; although (as usual) I could do without that in 4/iv – Sawallisch omits it – but if Thielemann otherwise follows in the footsteps of his admired German forebears then he does so on his own terms and his personalising of this music mostly persuades and enlightens.Given what I have written, I suppose I should be giving four stars, but it feels terribly mean, and that’s one thing Thielemann isn’t with these inexhaustible creations. The coda of the Fourth Symphony suggests a victory lap.