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Ionarts at Large: Schnittke & Tchaikovsky with Thielemann & Kremer

Out of complete darkness – just a dim spotlight on conductor Christian Thielemann – emerged the sounds of Alfred Schnittke’s MOZ-ART à la Haydn, until the lights over the semi-circle two small string orchestras (five violins, viola, and cello each, one double bass behind them) suddenly went on, timed precisely to the first tutti-entrance. The character of a game in this playful music around to solo violins (taken by the principle first and second violins of the Munich Phil) was underscored by the roving musicians who changed positions – while playing – as the music dictated different combinations among the players.

The ensuing romp is mildly humorous (it doesn’t take much to get a classical concert crowd laughing), and even Thielemann may have gotten, reluctantly, into the spirit. Mozart quotations, some blatant and some more subtle, coexist peacefully with fragmented, joyously dissonant sounds, typical of the more harmless side of Schnittke. As the music ended, the lights went out on stage again, and in reference to Haydn’s 45th Symphony the players left for the exits, the last notes emitting faintly from behind the stage.

More accurate than inspired was the Concerto Grosso No.2 for violin, cello, and large orchestra. It’s a bombastic work for 90+ players, including harpsichord, piano, a battery of classical percussion instruments, drum set, and electric guitar. Gidon Kremer and the 21-year old Marie-Elisabeth Hecker performed the buzzing, spiky solo parts, he with merry routine, she with aching sincerity. The harpsichord busily stalks through the score where lyrical ‘historicist’ passages, percussion interruptions, huge orchestral swells, flageolet wire-acts, the “Brandenburg theme” all took turns. The climax of the third movement (Allegro) sounds like two old fashioned Bach concerto performances thrown in with a Shostakovich symphony rehearsal at feeding time. Unlikely repertoire for Thielemann, who didn’t look completely at ease but led the orchestra with very economical means, great detail, and precision.

Some critics in Munich think that Tchaikovsky, too, is outside of Thielemann’s realm. The bit from Eugene Onegin he produced at the Odeonsplatz Open Air in July, however, suggested a happy relationship between the foremost conductor of German romantic repertoire and the Russian romantic of a more shallow persuasion. The “Pathéthique” bore that out. Not surprisingly, the “Parsifal” opening was audibly Wagnerian before the nutcrackerish dittiness (the flutes, especially) intrudes and creates the atmosphere of a ballet-within-a-symphony. To charm the ears (these, at least), Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony should be played with sumptuous, rich orchestral sound – but without giving into the temptation of making it so syrupy that the Bach & Beethoven reared listener goes into a diabetic shock. If treated so, there’s actually a good deal of grim thunder to be found in the Pathétique. Thielemann, who has committed the score to memory (a notable sign of how much importance he attaches to the work), did just that – and the Munich Philharmonic delivered on the sound to go with it.

Instead of delving into ‘exploitable’ moments and melodies, as Thielemann is successfully prone to do with Brahms, Wagner, or Beethoven, he never allowed Tchaikovsky to linger uncomfortably. At the same time, his tempi were of the usual flexibility so that the parts taken at a brisk clip didn’t march toward the finish line with undue haste. The brass collaborated beautifully, the softness of the last cymbal clash in the third movement was astounding, the march predictably precise without denying the frequent interjections of gaiety, the arch and tension in the fourth movement superb. This was a performance more deeply probing than I thought the music would permit – perhaps not for lovers of sugar-coated Tchaikovsky, but surely for those who suspect actual drama beneath the surface. There is clearly something in Thielemann that responds to Tchaikovsky, and it made for the finest account of the Pathéthique I have yet heard in concert.

Recommended Recordings:

available at Amazon
Tchaikovsky, Symphony No.6 (et al.), Pletnev / Russian National Orchestra

available at Amazon
Schnittke, Concerto Grosso No.2, Symphony No.6, Grindenko, Ivashkin / Polyansky / Russian State Symphony Orchestra


Anonymous said...

Will Thielemann and the Munich Philharmonic ever tour USA? They appear every season at Musikverein in Vienna.

jfl said...

I don't think the MuPhil has the reputation on this side of the Atlantic necessary to easily fill concert halls...

Which is a pity, because they are one of the very few orchestras that have a recognizable, 'old-European' sound -- in a way I've only found the Concertgebouw, Dresden (not under Luisi, sadly), and Leipzig to have. They have a cult following in Asia, esp. Japan, so far, but that has yet to extend.

Hopefully they will work on getting known better for their qualities in the US so that we can hear them (with Thielemann, which is really the only way to hear them) on the East Coast some time.

Charles T. Downey said...

Perhaps a pleading e-mail to Neale Perl at WPAS is in order? But, as you say, now is hardly the time to expect WPAS to go with an unknown quantity for American audiences.

Anonymous said...

Still, when they toured the US - in 1985 with Maazel, in 1989 with Celibidache, and in 2002 with Levine - Carnegie Hall was full. Of course, it was the reputation of the conductors and sadly Thielemann's career is mostly based in Europe, a great Frau Ohne Schatten a few years back at the Met notwithstanding.

jfl said...

As you say, Maazel (interesting - a few years later he would take over the BRSO) and Levine, neither of which are quite as good conductors or as well suited to the MPhil as Thielemann, have their local NY pull, with visitors interested in what they'd do with their "2nd Tier European Orchestra" [which is what the MPhil was thought of as, at the time and still very recently... and probably still, today, by many critics].

Thielemann hasn't so many friends in NY (despite the great FrOSch), but perhaps the stories of Thielemann's work in Bayreuth, Vienna, and Munich will make their way over the Atlantic, eventually, so that it won't be too much of a risk to book the MPhil for an East-Coast tour. Right now, WPAS, as Charles points out, could hardly be expected to bring them here without substantial underwriting from orchestra-sound loving, deep-pocketed, willing fans.

(John Rockwell's review of the MPhil in New York with Maazel)