Christian Thielemann is one of the increasingly rare maestros who came up the old way. A répétiteur at Deutsche Oper Berlin at age nineteen, an assistant in his time to titans such as Karajan and Barenboim, he has risen steadily and apparently inexorably to the top of his profession.
To say that he is universally beloved would be to bend the truth; his departures from the post of music director at Deutsche Oper a decade ago and the Munich Philharmonic this year abounded in the acrimonious accusations and counteraccusations on which reporters thrive. But on strictly musical grounds, he is not an artist to be brushed aside.
In conversation with Joachim Kaiser, the octogenarian doyen of German music critics, Thielemann speaks frankly of his consciousness of the great tradition and his ambition to take his place beside the titans. In a technologically state-of-the-art Blu-ray series of the Beethoven symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein — each symphony accompanied by an hour-long dialogue with Kaiser on the choices that distinguish Thielemann's interpretations from landmark performances of Karajan, Bernstein and Furtwängler, or from those of the likes of his contemporary Paavo Järvi — he takes up the challenge.
Opera fans will be most curious about the finale of the Ninth, taped in April 2010. Bass Georg Zeppenfeld gives a blustery, flailing account of the Handelian opening recitative, then launches bluntly into the big tune. In the starry-eyed tenor solo, Piotr Beczala — frequently an ardent presence in romantic tenor leads — seems merely businesslike. Her face ablaze, Annette Dasch scales the treacherous flights for soprano in a state of edgy, very scary ecstasy. Mihoko Fujimura sculpts the less exposed mezzo lines with real nobility. Unlike the soloists, the chorus members of the self-evidently multinational Wiener Singverein are off the book. The many faces of humanity, each lit up by intensely personal expression, reflect in wondrous fashion the millenarian spirit Beethoven tapped into in setting Schiller's "Ode to Joy." In conversation with Kaiser, Thielemann speaks of the frenzied chaos of the closing pages, which approach the unplayable or even cross the line. The chorus takes the listener into that dizzying zone, as do the instrumentalists, playing their hearts out.
Recorded live on February 13, just two months before the Ninth Symphony in Vienna, Thielemann's reading of the Missa Solemnis captures an early chapter in his incipient partnership with the Dresden Staatskapelle, where he officially takes up the reins of music director in 2012.
Krassimira Stoyanova negotiates the merciless soprano part with gleaming assurance. Written in more forgiving range, the alto's music gives greater scope for personal shadings, which Elina Garanča unfailingly supplies. Michael Schade's colorless, squeezed vocalism gives little glow to the tenor's music, but Franz-Josef Selig — looking like a somnolent Nathan Lane — infuses the bass line with dark, rich sound and welling emotionalism. The members of the Sächsischer Staatsopernchor, rehearsed within an inch of their lives, perform with impeccable instrumental precision.
The architecture and the gospel of the Missa Solemnis have mystified many. On a trajectory that ranges from driven Miltonic immensity to stillness on the verge of Nirvana, Thielemann maintains above all a sense of evolving wonder. If in the Ninth Beethoven breaks through to another dimension by exploding into song, here he does so by stripping everything down to the sound of a single violin. For the solo in the Benedictus of the Sanctus movement, the Staatskapelle's principal concertmaster, Matthias Wollong, rises unnoticed to his feet and "sings" his solo with an unadorned eloquence that stops time.
BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 7, 8 & 9: Annette Dasch, Mihoko Fujimura; Piotr Beczala, Georg Zeppenfeld; Wiener Singverein, Wiener Philharmoniker, Christian Thielemann. C Major 705204 (Blu-ray) or 705108 (3 DVDs), 157 mins. (symphonies), 169 mins. (documentaries), subtitled.
BEETHOVEN: Missa Solemnis: Krassimira Stoyanova, Elīna Garanča; Michael Schade, Franz-Josef Selig; Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden, Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann. C Major 705504 (Blu-ray) or 705408 (DVD), 90 mins.