Vienna Philharmonic/Thielemann – 17 September

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Overture
Die Frau ohne Schatten – Symphonic Fantasia
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Christian Thielemann

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Cue Christian Thielemann for the second VPO concert. Unlike Mariss Jansons, Thielemann conducts from memory (which doesn’t mean he knows the music any better) and prefers antiphonal violins, cellos left-centre, basses behind them – the positioning that Mendelssohn and Strauss wrote for. Whereas Jansons tends to lean too heavily on music’s flow, Thielemann builds over bigger spans. Jansons’s more spontaneous gestures give the impression of freedom; Thielemann’s long baton and ’I’m in charge’ gestures suggest something more didactic – but opinions are formed through the ears not the eyes.

Mendelssohn’s miraculous overture didn’t get off to a good start with uncertain woodwind chording and less than unanimous string playing in a less than elfin presentation of the violins’ mysterious scamper. Later sections were heavy-handed. Thielemann’s intervention comes with distending the tempo, which he did touchingly when taking the slower sections to a heightened state of rapture.

Die Frau ohne Schatten, composed during the First War, has claims to be Strauss’s greatest stage work. The Fantasia he concocted late in life reduces its stature. Indeed, its galumphing and emoting is tiresome. Still, who better than the VPO to reveal it in the most favourable light. Allowing that Gerard Schwarz and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic also made a strong case at the Proms this year the VPO played wonderfully – a noble trombone solo from Ian Bousfield (ex-LSO) being a highlight – and Thielemann found all the cross-fertilisation of texture that he could.

Heldenleben was glorious too, a wallower’s delight, which is not to say that Thielemann indulged it. His Solti-like energy and Karajanesque soundworld was tempered by the long-term discrimination of a Böhm or Kempe. Yet he sign-posted the arrival of the battle music, which took a little time to find itself, and then delayed the return of the hero’s music too long. The wallowing was in the VPO’s sound – rich, ripe yet miraculously clear; just like the VPO used to play! Thielemann’s allegiance to German conductors of the past brings an interesting, if not always convincing, return to authoritarianism. Rainer Honeck, one of the VPO’s four concertmasters gave a vivid and absolutely secure account of the long violin solo, effectively a portrayal of the composer’s wife in all her moodswings.

The best Strauss, four minutes worth, came with the encore, the ’Moonlight Music’ from Capriccio, ravishingly played.

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