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Ionarts at Large: Strauss with Thielemann

The first thing that impresses the ears in an orchestral concert is – ideally – the sound. Especially so when the piece being played has as impressive an opening as Richard Strauss’ Don Juan. Christian Thielemann can get that sound and the Munich Philharmonic, his principal toy for Germanic, late-romantic musical excursions (does he do any other ones?) can deliver it.

And so they did in this run of all-Strauss concerts, the first to be conducted by Generalmusikdirektor Christian Thielemann this season and the last before the Orchestra goes on their Japan tour.

Preparing for a tour also means having an encore ready, and so the Munich audience was treated to this rare event.

Wagner’s prelude to Die Meistersinger snarled and caroused about to the delight of the crowd. Thielemann too, enjoyed himself visibly, conducting with passion, tender care, and ebullient energy. He seems to fall in love every time he conducts Wagner, though whether with himself or the music, I cannot tell.

But before Wagnerian frivolities could begin, there was work to be done. And this came in form of Don Juan, Tod und Verklärung, and Also sprach Zarathustra. The aggressive and abrupt opening of Don Juan had the angular, tight, and clear cut ’pang’ that Thielemann is great at giving Strauss. There was nothing muddled here, details were clearly audible, and the structure wasn’t lost under rounded edges or a flabby musical midriff.

This is not to say that Thielemann is averse to luxuriating and basking in the sumptuousness of the score. The boldly impressive Don Juan offered all that, too. Thielemann’s extreme fluctuations of tempi never seem obvious or gratuitous with the rallentandi being well hidden within the diminuendi. Even though he and the Philharmonic seemed somewhat more cohesive - or at least impressive - when the music got quicker and louder, many of the slower and calmer passages benefited tremendously from Thielemann's stubborn and determined refusal to let the orchestra's energy slacken at any point.

Whenever a 'resting phase' was just temporary, there was always a bit of tension and restlessness in the undercurrents which allowed the players to catapult themselves into the next climax with ease. I suspect few smiles went into the making of this Don Juan, but many came out of it, as far as the audience was concerned.

While the trumpet work was outstanding in Don Juan, a glaring trombone glitch here and other, minor, infelicities later in the concert suggested that it was probably a good idea to play these pieces through a few more times before taking them on tour.

Tod und Verklärung sounds more like the work of an old(er) man, not a 24 year old Strauss who had not even finished his first opera (Guntram). I cannot help but wanting to hear in it some of the wisened efficiency and tautness of Metarmophosen, or the condensed ethereal yet whispy nature that the 25 year old Schönberg created with Verklärte Nacht. But consiseness is not yet a virtue of Tod und Verklärung which errs on the side of sprawl and can be a tad maudlin at times. Especially if the tension slackens , as it did here, the mind is quickly elsewhere. This was a performance beautiful in detail, but with room for improvement as far as the long lines and cohesiveness go.

Also sprach Zarathustra, burdened by one of the three most famous openings in classical music, fascinated early on (the first notes of the excellent double bass section sounded like hovering helicopters) with its gradual ratcheting up of tension. The violas and cellos accompanying the first violin solo ("Of the Great Longing") made a beautiful articular, harmonium-like noise. The entry of the strings in the "Song of Science" - from bottom to top, assisted with assorted woodwinds - felt like watching a haunting silent film of a slow-motion ballet of an extinct species. Then the Philharmonic gently (and not always as impeccably as in Don Juan) waltzed into the Dance- than the Night-Song sections that foreshadow most of the Rosenkavalier's language.

The - sometimes interminable – "Night Wanderer’s Song" (which Nietzsche later changed to ”The drunken Song”) and its non-ending was very nicely done but could not hide the fact that Also sprach Zarathustra is probably not the most entertaining of Strauss' tone poems, and certainly not the most shameless one. (Which is why we love them so much, in the first place.)

The constant tension between two keys (B Major and C Major, depicting Man and Nature, respectively) makes for that subtly uneasy feeling. That irritating, waiting, expecting (and never quite getting) last chord, however, is vicious genius. But if Strauss didn't give us the tonic, that's just what Thielemann and his orchestra provided for the Strauss-loving crowd in Munich.

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