Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Worth the wait ! Thielemann Mahler 3, Dresden Staatskapelle

Thielemann, Garanca, Dresden Staatskapelle, photo : Matthias Creutziger, Dresdner Neueste Nachtrichten
Christian Thielemann conducted Mahler Symphony no 3 with the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, broadcast on last night.  He hasn't conducted much Mahler in the past, so this was a big event.  Thielemann is one of the great conductors of core Austro-German repertoire, a specialist in Wagner, Strauss, Bruckner and more, so any perspective he might have on Mahler would be significant.  In many ways, it is a point in his favour that he has not rushed to conduct Mahler because everyone else seems to do so, whether they have anything to say, or not.  A while back, Haitink was attacked for not conducting Shostakovich.  If only more conductors had that kind of integrity. We all do some things better than others, so why shouldn't conductors do what they believe in, as opposed to pandering to market forces.  So I listened last night to Thielemann on NDR, not knowing what to think. A few minutes in, I realized that this was no routine performance. Thielemann really does have insights.  So I came briefly "up for air" before plunging in to listen as intensively as possible.  I hope NDR has archived this,m since it is a performance definitely worth further listening.

First, let's consider what Thielemann has actually said about Mahler.  Significantly, this quote was made during the Mahler anniversary year in 2010, when  there was so much hype - often uninformed - that it's hardly surprising that someone should steer well clear on jumping on the celebrity bandwagon.   "Mahler’s music lends itself most to those conductors” Thielemann reflects, “who know how to hold back, who are good at understatement. That doesn’t exactly accommodate my conducting style; I’ve not been terribly successful at that yet. The music of Mahler is already so full of effects, if you are tempted to add anything, you only make it worse. I admire those conductors who achieve that certain noblesse—which is what I desire to achieve, eventually. Not always to enhance something. I’m currently trying to wean myself off that in Strauss, actually…” Thielemann thus continues a solid three minutes on his fallibility as a conductor in Mahler, about trying to break habits and improving—a touching, beautifully honest moment. (source HERE) 

Thielemann's actual words suggest that, far from being anti-Mahler, he had a far more accurate understanding of the composer than most. "Understatement" and "noblesse", as opposed to the kind of overwrought over-excess that became fashionable in the 60's and 70's, and has ever since dominated the way some audiences expect to hear Mahler. "Neurotic Mahler", shaped in part by Bernstein, Karajan and Ken Russell movies is valid in itself, but it is certainly not the only way to approach the composer.   It's an audience thing.  Conductors in the past, most of whom knew the background from which Mahler came, didn't subscribe to this image.  Nowadays, thanks to the research of Professor Henry-Louis de La Grange, we know much more about Mahler's personality and creative processes, which has an impact on performance practice.  "Understatement" and "noblesse" are a whole lot closer to Mahler than the self-indulgent image created in the 60's.  If only audiences could learn to hear Mahler from these perspectives ! There is a whole lot more to Mahler than wham and bang.

Thielemann observed the subtle progressions that give the long first movement structure, and form the bedrock of the whole symphony.  This movement does evolve like a panorama, each vista yielding to another, peak after peak on a vast horizon.  Anyone's who has ever hiked and biked in the mountains as Mahler did will comprehend the sense of progression, and also the open-air expansiveness that Thielemann brought to it : the sense of freedom and endless possibilities, a purer, more rarified atmosphere, unpolluted by venal concerns.  Strauss' Alpensinfonie, completed 18 years after Mahler 3 has that sense of adventure, but not quite the almost Brucknerian spirituality which Thielemann finds in Mahler. The previous evening I'd been watching Arnold Fanck's Der heilige Berg (1926) which merges Bergfilm with esoteric mysticism. The skiers achieve great feats on the snow, while the dancer Diotima (the Eternal Feminine) represents artistic ideals.

The Dresden Staatskapelle is a superlative ensemble, sleek and wonderfully agile. Beautifully judged details, well integated into the whole so the flow felt natural and organic. Big blocks of sound we can hear anytime, but less often this poetic sensibility.  It's more difficult to achieve this kind of genuine purity than to blast away.  A very authentic post horn, like you hear in the mountains.  Geuine warmth, too, the music moving as though propelled by summer breezes.  Thus the Pan Erwacht moments, when Spring rushes in, bringing change and revitalization, even the hint of wacky, Pan-like disorder.  Thielemann brought out the contrast in moods from the elegance of the minueto to the vigour of the scherzo, reinforcing the sense of flow. 

 Elīna Garanča's voice is a little light for the "O Mensch" gravitas, but her singing was moving, nonetheless and fitted well with the Dresdner style.  I had been listening, eyes closed, when the Children's Choir of the Semperoper Dresden began to sing, and suddenly my screen burst into light and shook me - an uncanny but very appropriate moment ! And perhaps most impressive of all, the final movement, which had grandeur and transcendence. Definitely an intelligent and well-thought-through approach to this symphony, and to Mahler.  Although we only heard Mahler 3, this performance connected to the deeper ideas in Mahler 2 and 4, and even to Mahler 9 : nature, and triumph, through creativity over struggle.


Batschi said...

I was present at the performance, in the concert hall, but I did not have a very good seat from an acoustic point of view.
My impression was that Thielemann gave his best as much as he could at this very first attempt, but that he has not yet scratched the surface of what he can do with Mahler. He has all the necessary ingredients in his toolbox as a Kapellmeister and as a musical genius, but he needs to calm down and find the expanse that he is capable of at the right moment, come what may, the way he can find it with Wagner, simply because of experience. Even so, his expanse, as it was presented on Tuesday last week, was much more developed than that of many of his younger colleagues, so what I am saying here is a question of degrees and very high standards. But he seemed nervous and unfocussed in the first movement and a lot of the gravity, pace and depth in the brass therefore went amiss; again, I am speaking at a very high level of performance here. By the end of the first movement Thielemann had settled down and could do what he is best at: subtle, lovely, fairy-like music-making. Most people, I believe, have misunderstood Thielemann for a long time. He is not at his best when playing monumental passages of "Wagnerian" character, but he excels beyond many of his colleagues when playing quiet and introvert passages, because he manages to imbue them with a sincerity and personal honesty that is unique. It is almost as if he is speaking in very personal words. I would say the only one even more impressive at this is Haitink. In my view, the loud bits play themselves, unless you rush them, which Thielemann is not generally prone to, except on Tuesday he was.
The last movement was wonderfully played and came close to what I would liked to have heard, but yet again, it is by far not all Thielemann can do. I felt at times he could not forget he was standing on a podium and he could not enter the state of "flow". I do not blame him at all, since this is surely the most difficult state to find at will and only comes with much experience and perhaps grace. And we can all have an off-day, perhaps distracted by personal circumstances.
Having said all this, I am acutely aware that any criticism leaves a nasty aftertaste, since who are we to criticise such a wonderful performance in the first place. In this manner, I would like to finish by saying that I hope Thielemann will continue his engagement with Mahler 3 and show us in a few years what true genius he is even at Mahler, whom he rightly respects as one of the most difficult composers to play. I would claim much harder than Wagner.

Doundou Tchil said...

Thank you so very much for your message, Batschi ! It means a lot to me toi discuss these things intelligently ! Constructive, well informed thinking is so much better than the mindless hate. I think CT understandss GM better than a lot of conductors and audiences. But he has conducted so little, and needs to get used to it. Dresden is a good orchestra though they don't have a Mahler tradition, like, say Amsterdam, so maybe they'll develop. It's much better that CT takes the trouble to explore something different. Some conductors only seem to care about noise and hysteria, which pleases the fans but doesn't develop true understanding of the composer