Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded June 2005 in Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: April 2007
CD No: DG 477 6404
Duration: 61 minutes
The expectancy of a live performance is evident before the music starts; and Christian Thielemann’s inhalation of breath sets the seal. There is a charge to the first chord of Egmont, Thielemann immediately establishing a sonorous, deliberate and weighty view of Beethoven – this is the style of Furtwängler and Giulini. There isn’t quite the fire, or quite the incisive timpani, of George Szell’s stunning Vienna Philharmonic recording (part of his complete version of the “Egmont” music, for Decca). Thielemann isn’t one for ‘period’ niceties, though – this is full-blooded Beethoven, given with Romantic leanings, tempo fluctuation and a wide dynamic range (as in the Brahms, some contrasts and turns of phrase are just a little contrived). There’s no doubting the power and the expressiveness, though.
The recording captures all this manfully; but some of the lower strings’ quieter dynamics are just a little too distant – adjust the volume upwards to focus them and fortissimos can be somewhat aggressive and glaring. The acoustic is a tad too reverberant. ‘Live recording’ it might be, but there is little sense of an audience (although that could be a compliment!) and applause is not retained.
Brahms’s First Symphony also enjoys antiphonal violins and left-positioned double basses; it is a similarly mighty performance, too – tempos are measured, phrasing is richly sounded with plenty of emotional juice (even sentimentality) squeezed out. Thielemann observes the repeat of the exposition of the first movement; yet the return to it is tame and a similar ‘second time’ journey ensues – better to have carried on.
Otherwise, there is much to relish in the sense of Thielemann’s identity to a ‘golden age’ of musical performance, except that he cannot quite emulate his great predecessors, this performance not generating quite enough combustion, momentum or intensity. It is though eloquent and forceful (beautifully and responsively played, too), and minutiae is anything but overlooked. When the ‘motto’ returns in the triumphant coda, Thielemann introduces it with elongated bombast; it is, depending on your point of view and whether Brahms’s notation is to be trusted, a ghastly or a thrilling moment! (But it’s no more ‘ghastly’ than Barbirolli and Bernstein managed in their respective Vienna Philharmonic recordings!)
But Thielemann’s standpoint is distinctive; very much at odds with the spruce, slimmed-down Brahms performances that strive for some kind of ‘authenticity’ (some will welcome Thielemann’s anti-‘period’ stance with open arms, and ears); maybe such ‘historically informed’ aims are spurious (Paavo Berglund a wonderful exception, on Ondine); maybe Thielemann’s links to Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch, Abendroth, et al, and their ‘tradition’ is actually closer to what the composer heard in his inner ear (sonority-wise) and expected in terms of wavering of pulse. Ultimately, while also not completely challenging the magnificent recorded accounts by Boult and Klemperer, Thielemann’s version is well worth hearing – and taking a view on.