When the Munich Philharmonic raffled off tickets to their performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under Christian Thielemann in July of this year, only about two thirds of winners bothered to show up and make use of their free tickets. Half a year later, with the same program for the two New Years concerts and tickets selling at a premium, the Philharmonic Hall at the Gasteig was packed and scores of would-be attendees with “Ticket Sought” signs had to be sent back out into the dark night with their hopes of squeezing in unfulfilled. The lesson about the relation between price and worth is inescapable.
The performance, imbued with the glow of the special occasion, was a good example that a great interpretation need not necessarily be played well. A number of individual mistakes, ensemble issues, and sub-par singing might have brought down a lesser performance. But this one – to these ears, at least – barely budged. In telling comparison with the virtually perfect performance of the Bavarian State Orchestra’s Eroica two weeks ago, this should not have been all that satisfactory, and yet the atmosphere of Thielemann’s Beethoven, the ‘mood’ of this performance more than made up for it. There was the way the different voices emerged and submerged in the first movement – each with their own character: an audibly heterogeneous multitude that came together as a harmonious whole. The execution may have been a step back from the July performance, but the interpretation was notably different – more individualistic and worked-out. And “different” with Thielemann presumably doesn’t mean “arbitrarily altered”, or “changed on a whim”, but different as in further along the trajectory of Thielemann’s quest for whatever version would be his ideal realization.
The inner movements particularly charmed me – the second movement with its tension and explosive releases beneath tenderness, the third with a warmth and radiance that sounded gentle and thrilled at the same time. Phrases were enunciated with overt attention and care, none were allowed to fly by the ears as meaningless or less important, the attention never sagged. The cello entry in the fourth movement on the “Freude schöner Götterfunken” tune – after an elaborate Kunstpause – was so soft, so finely spun, it caused the otherwise cough-happy audience to collectively hold its breath. The resulting intensity was about enough to bring tears to one’s eyes… assuming one didn’t find Thielemann’s elaborate involvement in the score overbearing or tedious.
Too bad bass Albert Dohmen was slipping and sliding through his music with a voice sounding worn well beyond Dohmen’s mere 52 years. Mihoko Fujimura and Ricarda Merbeth sang without fault but could surely have been made to complement one another better with a little more rehearsal. Jonas Kaufmann, meanwhile, is one of the maybe four singers I actually want to hear in the tenor part’s challenge (the others being Werner Güra, Klaus Florian Vogt, and Piotr Beczala). Kaufmann did remarkably well, but even he had trouble being heard above the Philharmonic Choir happily singing its guts out and Thielemann doing anything but reign in his orchestral forces. Altogether troubled, yet splendid!