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19.10.09

Ionarts-at-Large: Thielemann & Bruckner IX in Munich

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Bruckner, Symphony No.9,
Munich Philharmonic
Siegmund von Hausegger, 04/1938
Electrola (now Preiser)
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Bruckner, Symphony No.9,
Munich Philharmonic
Oswald Kabasta, ?/1943
Music & Arts
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Bruckner, Symphony No.9,
Munich Philharmonic
Eugen Jochum, 07/1983
Memories - oop, (BR archives)
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Bruckner, Symphony No.9,
Munich Philharmonic
Sergiu Celibidache, 09/1995
EMI
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Bruckner, Symphony No.9,
Munich Philharmonic
Günter Wand, 04/1998
PROFIL Hänssler
The Munich Philharmonic starts into its 2009/2010 season with a new logo, a clean new website, a new color design (bold orange-yellow instead of blasé gold), newly designed programs (in a font specially created for them), and… no chief conductor.

Well, not quite. Christian Thielemann is still here, and he did show up to conduct Bruckner’s 9th Symphony in a series of four concerts from the 15th to the 19th of October. (He didn’t, and wasn't scheduled to, conduct the season’s first concert.) But just days before his first outing the whole Thielemann-contract-renewal brouhaha cumulated in the announcement that Thielemann had signed a (pre-) contract with the Dresden Staatskapelle, settling his dramatic departure from the Munich Philharmonic, accompanied by acrimonious overtones.

At the performance on the 15th, the audience let the orchestra know which side it took in this undignified affair: The orchestra was roundly booed when it came out on stage—so vigorously that the first violinist couldn’t even tune up with his colleagues. When Thielemann came out, he was greeted by ostentatious applause and bravos. To his credit—and encouraging speculations that he will fulfill his contract until 2011—he did not exploit the situation, quickly set about conducting, and demonstratively hugged his concert-master after the performance.

The topic Christian Thielemann is inexhaustible, and the question whether he was the orchestra’s best shot at fame and an international reputation outside the few Japanese Sergiu-Celibidache-memorial-valleys alone would be worth an article, or two. The job of the orchestra meanwhile is to make music at such an exalted level that the regurgitation of this issue becomes a secondary issue until at least next season—when it will then be supplanted by succession speculations and controversies.

To call the Bruckner 9th on Sunday the 18th “exalted” would be going too far. Even without the flubs that the (unsettled?) brass produced on the 15th, that’s not quite the level at which this slightly restrained, initially cautious performance operated. But once under way—somewhere towards the end of the first movement, it became transfixing all the same. It was as if Thielemann had shifted his attention from harrowing individual moments to the longer line (not usually his specialty) which he then drove along in his usual flexible and—unusual—swiftly propelled way, right to and through the second movement. Having arrived at the Adagio, he became himself again, and the orchestra helped him to transform the slow movement into a glorious celebration of Bruckner’s man above, to whom the work is (allegedly) dedicated. One could just watch the movement rise in grandiose and superbly confident dignity before one’s eyes and ears. It brought to mind the extraordinary history this orchestra has with the work: it premiered the original version and its first ever recording was of that symphony, too.

Dignity aside, the Adagio was stretched to such lengths that it became less and less compelling, teetering on the edge of falling apart before the strings awoke again to find grit and determination for that last shatteringly dissonant triple forte climax. The lulling coda didn’t feel like a true calm after the storm. There are still thunderous times ahead for the orchestra and its conductor.