No commander of an orchestral army is more imperious or more temperamental than Christian Thielemann, held to be the greatest German conductor of our time, indeed the only one of international standing. That state of affairs provokes defensiveness in a country long the reserve of the great conductors. Given the current scarcity, much rides on Thielemann’s campaigns here and abroad.
The fifty-two year old is a local Berlin boy. He got his start here as a teenage repetiteur at the Deutsche Oper, returning to take up the directorship in 1997. He left that job in a huff seven years later after making a stink about the preferred treatment and grander budgets given the competing opera house in the former East Berlin—the Staatsoper—and its director Daniel Barenboim. More recently, Thielemann stormily resigned his command of the Munich Philharmonic last year to take up his current commission as music director in Dresden, a post presided over in the past by the likes of Richard Wagner, Fritz Reiner, and Karl Böhm.
With short straight hair untroubled by a single AWOL strand, an unsmiling face, and a proud posture, Thielemann looks every part the iron-fisted general. His grave, unyielding manner evokes that of another perfectly coiffed maestro—Thielemann’s conducting hero, Herbert von Karajan. Karajan was a Nazi party member and opportunistically adopted the aestheticist position that music and politics are independent from one another. Thielemann seems to hold the same philosophical view, one that allowed him last year to lead the Berlin Philharmonic in dubious works by Richard Strauss: the Festive Music for the City of Vienna, premiered in 1943 to mark the fifth anniversary of the Anschluss; and the Festival Prelude infamously performed in 1943 by the Berlin Philharmonic in celebration of Hitler’s birthday. Karajan had also done the piece with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1979. It’s no surprise that many criticize Thielemann for his apparently uncritical engagement with Germany’s intertwined musical and political past.
This past weekend Thielemann marched into town to lead the Berlin Philharmonic for his latest guest appearance. The first objective was an assault on French lines: Debussy’s Nocturnes followed by Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi. Before he deigned to start, however, Thielemann stared down a pair of latecomers shuffling towards their seats. Discipline extends beyond the parade ground to the grandstand.
Noted for his mastery of the German repertoire—especially the works of Beethoven, Strauss, and Wagner—Thielemann increasingly tries to expand his territory. Unfortunately, the wraith-like minions of the Debussy fantasy outflanked the stiff German, his head buried in the map of the score. Even if directed by an aerial drone with a baton, the remarkable Berlin orchestra would still be a marvel of musical expressivity. But Thielemann couldn’t inspire his troops to the kind of precision that could in turn yield the alluring feints and pulses of Debussy’s symphonic impressions, especially in the arabesques and evocations of the final movement, Sirenes, shimmering with the seductive vocalizations of the women of the RIAS Chamber Choir.
Nor could Thielemann penetrate the more astringent, yet simultaneously more mystical bastion of Messiaen’s songs. Retreat was already signaled by Thielemann’s peremptory announcement that he would cut five of the nine numbers, “Otherwise we’ll be here till almost eleven at night.” The audience must be back in the barracks before lights out.
Thielemann’s reading of those songs seemed more like an exercise than an interpretation. The rigorous theoretical system that underpins the Poèmes creates a neo-Platonic atmosphere in which the composer’s feelings for the dedicatee, his first wife, are suffused with yearning for the love of Christ: marriage as miracle, sensual and sacred. Resisting Thielemann’s rigidity and perhaps resentful of having half of her songs cut, the soprano Jane Archibald kicked off her long pointy concert shoes and let her voice soar into this ethereal realm with Thielemann beating time back on earth and occasionally looking up towards the heavens, little bothered by what he was missing above.
After the intermission came another non-Germanic work, but one anchored firmly in the symphonic canon: Tchaikovsky’s swan song, the Symphonie Pathètique. Its four movements are filled with volcanic emotions, perhaps fertile ground for Thielemann’s turbulent character and well-matched to his oft-declared obsession with the molten sensuality of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. By his own account, Tchaikovsky emitted sobs, sighs, and outbursts while writing this epic.
For Thielemann’s foray across this emotion-scarred landscape, I was sitting on the open seating benches at the back of the orchestra facing the conductor and just behind the percussionists—two players charged between them with the cymbal, tam-tam, and bass drum—so close that I could have grabbed a mallet and could read their music with its endless stretches of inactivity. Counting rests is a skill one has to develop to be an orchestral percussionist. A few feet to my right was the timpanist—a guest with the Berliner Philharmoniker by the name of Stephan Cürlis. His usual gig is with the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra based in Hamburg. Sitting in with the Berlin Philharmonic is like doing a few tricks with the Blue Angels: you had better know what you are doing.
Raised up on a stool amongst his drums at the back of the orchestra, the timpanist stares down at the conductor across the army of the orchestra—the companies of brass, the battalions of winds and strings, all arrayed in their careful formations. There are the first lieutenants of the various units—the concertmaster and principals who may be ordered with a wave of the conductor’s command staff to charge alone out into the field of honor. Aside from such solo heroics, these soldiers must march in lock-step.
It is no coincidence that the orchestra was born under the aegis of the autocratic potentates of Enlightenment Europe, and that it was often described in military terms. Any king worth his salt had two standing armies: the one equipped with muskets and sabers, the other with violins and horns. Uniting the two domains was the percussion: the timpani evolved from military drums. If any single member of the orchestra were equipped with the big artillery to mount an instantaneous insurrection against unjust rule it is the timpanist. The supposed omnipotence of the conductor is built on silence, while nothing is more real than the power of the timpanist.
The roll of timpani is a classic signifier of terror—earthquakes or the canon’s roar. But the terror works also on a psychological level. If the conductor makes a wrong cue, no one hears the movement, but its result is all too audible. Yet, if the timpanist blows it there can be nothing more obvious.
The timpanist faces the audience in full view of the entire auditorium in a way the conductor, his back turned to the audience, does not. No stakes are higher on the battlefield of classical music. If a cue is missed, the timpanist must face the fury of the conductor glaring from his command post, as well as the shock from the seats.
With regard to these cues, Thielemann’s gestures are often domineering and quite frankly off-putting. When he wants the most distant pianissimo, he lunges into a crouch, frowning intensely, and waves his left hand frantically back and forth as if madly polishing a hub-cap of his black Mercedes. The gesture conveys disdain, even reproach, and is one I would certainly not much appreciate if it were directed at me. Undaunted, the Berliners soldiered on.
For the eponymous pathos of Tchaikovsky’s symphony, Thielemann sometimes conducted with his eyes closed and arms stilled at his side, or, in more active moments of rapture, covered his chin, lips and nose with the parted fingers of his left hand, as if he had just seen a mouse scurry in front of the podium. Thielemann conducts the symphonic war-horses from memory, which allows his movements maximum freedom—and visibility. Silent film great Emil Jannings was never more melodramatic.
Soon after the Tchaikovsky had set out on its mournful journey, I realized to my amazement that someone else was playing from memory, in an astounding display of nerve and skill—Cürlis the guest timpanist. There were no measure-counting doubts about when to come in: Cürlis was leading the charge from the rear.
Tchaikovksy’s Pathètique must be one of the greatest timpani symphonies, and without kidnapping the piece, Cürlis converted it to a covert timpani concerto. Those in the same cheap seats around me soon realized what was underway—a display of memory and masterful music-making that in its focus and intensity seemed to put the lie to Thielemann’s feckless posturings. Freed from the score Cürlis became a transcendent force, unerringly adhering to Thielemann’s beat without ever seeming beholden to it. The allegro fury that erupts out of the pained soul-searchings of the first movement seemed to be conjured by Cürlis’s mallets; the long held bass-notes that precede the return to the reprise were elevated to a tumult of anticipation by the timpani’s inexorable crescendo.
A lively presence with an expressive face given a studious touch by wire-rimmed glasses, Cürlis spurred the forced march of the third movement into abundant life. Such were the rich textures of the foreboding shadows, occasionally streaked with light, that he cast over the Adagio lamento finale, that I emerged from the immediate aftermath of its despair strangely elated at the force of Cürlis’s expressivity and downright mastery.
After the symphony died its pathetic death, Thielemann eventually directed the audience’s applause to the individual battalions and heroes in the orchestra, before asking Cürlis to stand. Immediately the timpanists’ cheap-seat devotees jumped to their feet, elated by their nearness to his breathtaking, hair-raising, death-defying feat. Cürlis’s bravery and brilliance seemed so plainly dedicated to serving the mission of the music rather than his own glory—an uplifting contrast to the personal cult of the visiting commander-in-chief.
One reveled in the magical moments when Cürlis seemed to have been conducting from the timpani. He carried the evening, and reminded everyone in the house—including Thielemann himself—of the obvious but essential truth that while the conductor’s stick traces its directives silently in air, the timpanist’s can make them thunder.