Wednesday 31 December 2008

Christian Thielemann

Christian Thielemann


Christian Thielemann, German conductor. Born 1959 in Berlin.
This post will focus on Christian Thielemann´s work in opera.

Education: After studying viola and piano in Berlin, in 1978 Christian Thielemann started as korrepetiteur and conductor at smaller German opera houses as well as working as an assistant to colleagues such as Herbert von Karajan (from 1981 in Berlin and Salzburg) and Daniel Barenboim (Bayreuth in the 1990´s).

1985-8 Thielemann was guest conductor at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein before becoming Musical Director of the Nürnberg Opera 1988-92, at which point the Nürnberg Opera chose not to renew his contract due him allegedly spending too little time in Nürnberg. Whether true or not, Thielemann´s international career did take off during these years with several important debuts such as his American debut 1991-2 with Elektra in San Francisco and a much-praised Metropolitan Opera debut with Rosenkavalier in 1993, returning several times to the Met, most notably with a much-celebrated Die Frau ohne Schatten in 2001.

1997-2004 Christian Thielemann served as Musical Director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, which he left after a much-publicized controversy over funding to become Music Director of the Munich Philharmonics in 2004, a post he held until 2011, where he stepped down over equally much-publicized disputes regarding funding and choice of soloists. From 2012 he will become chief conductor of the Sächsisches Staatskapelle Dresden.

The major events in Christian Thielemann´s operatic career until now have probably been his triumphant 2000 Bayreuth debut with Meistersinger as well as the 2006 Bayreuth Ring and his universally acclaimed performances of Tristan (2004), Parsifal (2006,8) and Meistersinger (2008) at the Vienna State Opera.

In recent years Thielemann has collaborated extensively with Renée Fleming, resulting in several recordings such as Rosenkavalier (DVD from Baden-Baden 2009) and an album of Strauss songs (2008).

Christian Thielemann is an exclusive recording artist with Deutsche Grammophon and currently performs with all major orchestras, most frequently with the Vienna Philharmonics resulting in a DVD-released complete series of Beethoven Symphonies (2010-11).

Thielemann has polarized audiences as few other conductors, but he is without doubt among the most talented conductors today, and many considered him the worlds foremost Wagner conductor together with Daniel Barenboim.

Christian Thielemann has a reputation as an outspoken cultural conservative, based on his opposition to advanced Regietheater as well as his dislike for political correctness, keen historical interest as well as committing himself to a very narrow repertoire of German romantic composers.

Christian Thielemann on certain aspects of Regietheater:

"It is very interesting that in the word regietheater there is no mention of music. Obviously it is not necessary. There is too much happening on stage and it is so interesting that you forget there was an aria, or you say, 'Oh my God, she is singing!"

In many modern stagings you are not sure what piece you see. Often you could play Sommergäste, Wozzeck, Anna Bolena or Labiche´s Sparschwein in the same staging.
However, some aspects of Regietheater, he finds essential:

"This move [hiring Schlingensief and Lars von Trier to stage Parsifal and The Ring in Bayreuth] proves that Wolfgang Wagner is cunning. He has understood that provocative iconoclasts like Peter Konwitschny and Hans Neuenfels come a point at which their work is repetitive. Now it is time for someone to pursue new ideas, to place Wagner in new contexts. And perhaps it is even good that Schlingensief and von Trier do not come from the opera world. I am sure that both will proceed very conscientiously and with great reverence."

Thielemann on society in general and his image as a "conservative":

"The luxury of freedom is a major problem" .." we have to remember values and boundaries. We find ourselves in a spiral, leading to nowhere. In television or in Regietheater everything is now possible. What is then to follow? Everything not prohibited by law has been done. But why?
What does it mean to be conservative? Conservative means to conserve. And that I am happy to these fast-paced times, many people need to belong. To have a home. Me as well. That doesn´t mean that you are reactionary.
We live in very politically correct times. How counterproductive is that for the art? It is counterproductive, if you are afraid of daring and subsequently marginalization.
I am as non-ideological as possible. Ideologies do not interest me.

Privately, he "collects books on Prussian architecture and art. Also etchings and engravings. And I would also like to have the time to see the Prussian palaces and parks". Thielemann is very historically conscious especially regarding German history with an particulary interest in Friedrich the Great, whose portrait hangs in his office: "His toughness, sense of duty, but also his sensitivity fascinates me"."These are the exact qualities a conductor needs".
In 2000, Christian Thielemann was involved in a rather unpleasant controversy surrounding the Berlin opera houses, in which he was rumoured to have characterized the potential departure of Daniel Barenboim as "the end of the Jewish mess in Berlin" (exact words: Jetzt hat die Juderei in Berlin ein Ende ).
The combination of Christian Thielemann´s unease expressing himself in interviews with his above-mentioned private and musical interests, led to rumours of nationalism and antisemitism. However, Christian Thielemann has vehemently denied these accusations, as well as accusations of nationalism, even taking the accusators to court.
Says Barenboim: "I believe Christian Thielemann as long as there is no concrete evidence against him. We are not rivals. I care much about him". Christian Thielemann has never publicly been quoted for anything remotely nationalistic.

All of the above points towards the same conclusion: That Christian Thielemann may be a cultural conservative, but nothing further, though perhaps not even extensively conservative, all things considered.

Christian Thielemann - on conducting:
I admire colleagues such as Welser-Möst, who may run an orchestra in the US as well as the Vienna State Opera simultaneously. I couldn´t do that.

I conduct 70 evenings a year. That is enough. I also have a private life and other interests. I don´t want to only make music.
I am very much a rehearsal conductor!

The life of an artist is a dogs life.
No, conducting has nothing to do with power. It is a tremendous responsibility, in which it may be hard find flexibility. And, of course, it is tremendous fun. But it is not about power.

I don´t want to surprise at all. I would like people to accept me as I am.
[Furtwängler´s] Beethoven Nine in 1942 with the Berlin Philharmonic cannot be bettered. Either you have to give up conducting or you have to acknowledge that someone has done it in a near-perfect way.[biggest wish for the future]: Good nerves. The further you get, the bigger the pressure of the expectations. You have to be able to handle that.

[Heinz Tietjen] was a man who didn't worry too much about his appearance. Poker-faced, austere, almost pallid. At the same time, he was an incomparable rogue. That fascinates me..I would like to be just a bit like that. So that I wouldn't get so upset.

[on attending Christoph Schlingensief´s Wagner-rally in the Ruhr-district]: No, Christoph send me an SMS asking if I´d come, but unfortunately I didn´t have time. As far as I know, the first prize was a ticket for the Bayreuth Festival - and there I already have a rather good seat.


When you hear a Wagner opera for the first time at the age of 13-14 and are blown away, it marks you for life. When I wanted to conduct such operas, when I was 20, the Intendants said: "But, Mr. Thielemann, that is for the older colleagues". Eventually, I was allowed to take over the Tristan in the Berghaus-staging in Hamburg and from this moment I was repeatedly offered Wagner. I have to admit, that my fascination with Wagner has not diminished. There is something narcotic in this music. And then, as I am virtually the only in my generation who conducts so much Wagner, I was affixed with a Wagner-label, which has remained. I can live with that.

During the 1990´s, Christian Thielemann worked as an assistant to Daniel Barenboim in Bayreuth (Tristan and Isolde), making a triumphant debut at the Bayreuth Festival in 2000 with Meistersinger. Since then, Christian Thielemann has appeared every year in Bayreuth, conducting Meistersinger 2000-2, Parsifal 2001, Tannhäuser 2002-5 and a much praised Nibelungen Ring (2006-11). Christian Thielemann had looked forward to the collaboration with Lars von Trier on the 2006 Bayreuth Ring visiting Trier several times in Copenhagen: "His concept evolved around the ultimate reduction. That appealed very much to me". In the end von Trier cancelled, and Tankred Dorst directed.
In 2012 he will conduct the new production of the Flying Dutchman 
As part of his prepatations, Christian Thielemann meticulously researches the background of the works he conducts. From the Director of the Richard Wagner National Archive in Bayreuth:
Christian Thielemann was here very often because he is somebody who deals very seriously with the musicological world. He sometimes looks into the handwritten scores to compare the printed score he uses for conducting, to check that it is correct. For example, when he conducted Tannhäuser, I suggested to him that he could include a special English horn solo which has never been performed before, because Wagner eliminated it from the score before the printing. Thielemann was fascinated by this solo, and he used it.
Christian Thielemann on the various editions of Wagner´s scores:

The complete edition of Richard Wagner's works has a decisive disadvantage: you have to turn way too many pages. I've ordered some old Schott scores, three from the 1930s, from before the war, and one from the postwar period. Those are real editions! Have you seen the new one? Greyish notes on yellowish hectographed paper with a chemical smell! Appalling! The annoying thing is that all of the Festspielhaus scores were stolen in 1945. I'd give a lot to be able to work with Heinz Tietjens' notations.

On conducting in Bayreuth:

It's such a tremendous honour to conduct the "Ring" at Bayreuth. What can possibly follow that: The Ring in Bayreuth!
Thielemann is a close collaborator of Katharina Wagner, with whom he made a successful bid for Bayreuth Festival leadership, effective from 2008. The role of Thielemann in Bayreuth is uncertain as of now, though he may in effect serve as music director of the Bayreuth Featival:"That I shall have a more important function than that of mere guest conductor is certain. What this function shal contain, we shall see" . For future Bayreuth seasons he plans to conduct the new Flying Dutchmann in 2012 and a new production of Tristan and Isolde in 2015. He will not, by his own admission, conduct the 2013 Bayreuth Ring celebrating the bicentennial of Richard Wagner´s birth. The current Bayreuth Nibelungen Ring is to be released on CD in 2009.
Apart from Bayreuth, Christian Thielemann has only conducted opera in Vienna (the aforementioned Tristan and Parsifal as well as Meistersinger, all triumphantly received) in recent seasons. Both the Tristan and especially the 2006 Parsifal performances were released on CD (see below), and are among the finest in history.

On Parsifal:
What really happens in the first Act (of Parsifal)? Nothing - an it takes 1 hour and 40 minutes. The action: A dead swan is carried across the state and we see some old men suffer. On TV this would have been covered in 10 seconds. But in opera we are forced to go through a physical-spiritual process of concentration.
On Tristan:Wagner can become toxic. You really have to give yourself up the music. But what happens afterwards? That's why I've decided to decline all "Tristans" for the time being. I can't endure the piece any more, it just wears me out. I have to avoid things that bore right into me. That's why I'm having so much fun with the "Ring:" It bores in, but not only that.
Prelude to Tristan and Isolde, Vienna Philharmonics 2003:

Christian Thielemann concentrates on a very narrow range of romantic-late romantic German composers, in particular Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner, Pfitzner, Bruckner, Brahms and Beethoven, composers of which several are associated with Nazism.
"When I first conducted Palestrina in Nürnberg, someone said, 'This is a nationalistic piece of shit.' This score, this beautiful, beautiful piece. What has C sharp minor to do with fascism? Nothing. Does Meistersinger have anything to do with politics? Can a tonality be political?"

"If you had a Russian conductor and he conducted Russian works, you wouldn't say a word. Why do people say a word when a German conductor conducts German works ?"

"I am rooted in German culture, why should I fight against that ?"
"If people say that because you have a certain choice of repertoire, it has to be connected with your political view, it s is a sick thing. I choose the scores because I like them, and I conduct Hans Werner Henze in the same way as I do Pfitzner and Beethoven. I have done many contemporary pieces. I am not interested in what composers have eaten or what their political beliefs were. Music doesn't get better because one person was better than another person."
"Life is much too serious to be nihilistic. That is why I'm more at home with Richard Strauss than with Mahler. As I've said, I like these brilliantly playful figures who never get lost in the House of Agamemnon, but instead find their way back, as far as I'm concerned, to the lederhosen idyll of Garmisch-Partenkirchen."
Christian Thielemann sees himself as continuing the Austro-German conducting tradition of the likes of Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch, Böhm and Herbert von Karajan: "For me this is the highest of all possible honors" ."This sound, which set the standards of the past, the width and power has always appealed to me".Today we're familiar only with the rudiments of the tradition, or else with ill-intentioned defamations of it. Who has the confidence nowadays to use pathos, who even knows what pathos is? When the orchestra really lets it all out it very quickly sounds just loud or empty.
"I was raised in this ambience. I heard these wonderful concerts; people gave Furtwängler recordings to me and I felt at home with them, just as every Italian growing up with Italian opera feels at home with it. But you have to build the tradition anew, not just carry it on."

With the Munich Philharmonics, Christian Thielemann primarily conducts the aforementioned composers, with a current emphasis on Richard Strauss and Pfitzner.
On the podium, Christian Thielemann conducts in a very individual way (see clips below), which tends to draw attention to himself, whether intentional or not.
In my opinion, the often-quoted comparison between Furtwängler, Karajan and Thielemann is inacurrate as Christian Thielemann creates a distinctly different sound-world: Thielemann is far more glittery and with ample space than the heavy string-rubato of Furtwängler or the dense sound-world of Karajan. Occasionally I may personally feel that Thielemann aims to create superficial beauty at the expense of emotional depth. But what beauty...
No doubt, Christian Thielemann is a conductor of the Austro-German tradition. And one of the best in the world.
Final of Bruckner´s 7th symphony, Munich Philharmonics:


From 2012 he will assume his position as Chief Conductor of the Staatskapelle in Dresden.


Arabella, Metropolitan Opera 1995 (DVD)
Parsifal, Vienna State Opera 2006 (CD) Astonishing performance from Thielemann in this live-recording from the Vienna State Opera. The beauty is ethereal and for many, this is the finest recorded Parsifal in history.
Tristan and Isolde, Vienna State Opera 2004 (CD)
Vienna State Opera Gala concert (2006 - on DVD)
Meistersinger, Vienna State Opera 2008 (DVD)
Nibelungen Ring, Bayreuth 2009 (CD)
Rosenkavalier, Baden-Baden 2009 (DVD)
Elektra, Baden-Baden 2010 (DVD)
Walküre, Bayreuth 2010 (DVD)


Richard Strauss - Four last songs and opera excerpts with Renée Fleming (2008 on CD)
Mozart Requiem, Munich Philharmonics 2006
Brahms 1st Symphony and Egmont Ouverture, Munich Philharmonics 2007
Strauss: Alpensymphonie, Rosenkavalier-Suite, Vienna Philharmonics 2001
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Die Frau ohne Schatten-Fantasie, Vienna Philharmonics 2003Richard Wagner: Ouvertures and excerpts, Philadelphia Orchestra 1998
Strauss: Lieder (with Diana Damrau) 2010 on CD


Nibelungen Ring - Bayreuth 2007 (Rheingold, Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung)
Parsifal - Vienna State Opera 2008
Beethoven and Richard Strauss concert with Renée Fleming, Munich 2008
Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Salzburg 2011


All posts on mostly opera related to Christian Thielemann
An extensive biography on Thielemann may be found via DG here.
Wikipedia biography on Christian Thielemann


Anonymous said...

A comprehensive and, I think, balanced assessment. It's a great pity there is only one opera DVD by Thielemann on the market. But he's not yet fifty, so there is plenty of time to correct this.

A few points: "Occasionally I may personally feel that Thielemann aims to create superficial beauty at the expense of emotional depth. But what beauty..."

This is precisely the accusation which was so often leveled against Karajan, particularly by American and British critics! So perhaps he is closer to Karajan than you imagine.

Also, your Bruckner clip shows how his conducting style has changed from his rather self-conscious imitation of Furtwangler's "puppet on a string technique" which is evident in his Arabella DVD from the late nineties.

By the way, I'd like wish you a Happy New Year and thank you for many interesting and entertaining postings.

daland said...

Remarkable profile indeed!

Hope you forgive me a bit of sciovinism...

In the ‘90s Thielemann has been conducting a lot in Italy: at Rome’s Santa Cecilia Orchestra (before Gatti and Pappano), at Turin and Florence Opera Houses.

He has been principal guest conductor at Bologna’s Opera House for more than 5 years. An Otello of his in ’96 is still remembered as one of the most outstanding performances there.

Anonymous said...

This is the finest Christian Thielemann profile I have read anywhere! Excellent post.

marcillac said...

Happy New Year, Mostly.

Agree with the above comments. This is particularly great profile, even by your very high standards.

In an attempt to keep it brief I'll only comment on the Furtwangler 9th (thanks also for posting the clips in you New Year's post). I'm not sure what he means by "perfect", but one could hardly call this performance that in terms of orchestral execution of the work of the soloists. However, I could not agree more that the remarkable intensity and passion of the this 9th exceed any other that I am familiar with, including Furtwangler's own at Lucerne and the Beyreuth reopening in 1951.

Horace Cope said...

The only time I can recall hearing him is in a awful RosenCavalier at Covent Garden a few years back - with Rene Fleming and Susan Graham.

From the looks Fleming was giving I thought she was going jump into the pit and throttle him !

He hasn't been near the place since ! Not entirely sure that is our loss.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for what I believe is a fair portrait on all accounts. It reminded me of a memorable time in my life when I was a member of an orchestra that Thielemann used to conduct regularly in the 90's. His musical talent was unparalleled at the time. It did not matter who he suppossedly imitated or what sound he apparently tried to reproduce, it would have still been better than the original. He made it his own. I also enjoyed a few hours of off-stage/pit converstion with him, and he was unusually self-critical, highly self-aware , down to earth, amusing, and quite simply most wonderful company. And he never once forgot to hold open a door or pick up the bill!

paul_opera said...

Concerning A's comment about the Rosenkavaliers at Covent Garden, I went to 3 of them and they were amomg the greatest performances I've ever heard. Incredibly slow in places, but never dragging. I'll never forget the way he phrased the string phrase towards the end of Act 3 just before the Marschallin's "Ja, ja" - it was utterly heartbreaking (my eyes are filling up just remembering it). Considering how often Fleming workd with him and her comments aboit him, I woudl be very surprised if she wanted to "throttle him". Wishful thinkng on the part of the dispeptic A!

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