2020 May Kirsten Flagstad -1206
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Christian Thielemann

 Thielemann conducts Parsifal at his first Salzburg Easter Festival in March

By John Allison

Christian Thielemann gives every impression of having arrived in heaven. It may actually be a drizzly winter’s day in Dresden, but in his office at the Semperoper his enthusiasm is palpable, and entirely understandable. He is about to conduct a revival of Lohengrin, his first Wagner opera at the Semperoper since taking up his post last autumn as Chief Conductor of the Sächsische Staatskapelle, and is preparing for this month’s new production of Parsifal at his first Salzburg Easter Festival. Two plum jobs, one of the world’s greatest orchestras and some of the repertoire closest to his heart: what’s not to like?

‘I am in paradise. I enjoy this orchestra immensely. They have the sound one needs for this repertoire and a tradition going right back to those gentlemen behind you [neatly-framed pictures on the wall of past music directors], so to Heinrich Schütz, through Weber and Wagner to Fritz Busch and Karl Böhm, und so weiter. This really is something! It’s hard to define, but the players have it in their blood, and it’s an awareness of this wonderful tradition. It’s all about identity, but an identity without arrogance. And look at the photo of Ernst von Schuch. He was the one who, in the premieres of Salome and Elektra, famously got the orchestra to play so softly.’

I ask Thielemann how he would define the orchestra’s uniquely cultivated sound. ‘It’s typically soft, and never brutal. There are several reasons for this, and the main one is that they play opera. Playing opera means that you have to react—and a good opera orchestra player has to listen to what the soprano or tenor is delivering each evening. If they realize that, say, tonight the singer has no breath or little voice, then even if the score is written forte they will probably play only mezzo forte. It’s a flexibility which you won’t find with purely symphonic orchestras. The Dresdeners are trained, as with the Vienna Philharmonic, to play a different opera every evening, and it’s a test of flexibility. If the right conductor is in front of them, you can get many things you won’t manage with a symphonic orchestra. With a symphonic orchestra, even a world-class one, a forte in the score means forte. “Why should we play softer? There is no accelerando, so we stay in tempo.” But sometimes a singer needs time for a breath, and you have to follow.’

In theory, Dresden should also allow Thielemann a chance to catch his own breath, though this is a relative thing for a figure in demand at the world’s smartest musical addresses: his regular circuit includes the Berlin Philharmonic, Bayreuth, Salzburg and Vienna in addition to Dresden, an itinerary equalled in the past only by his mentor, Herbert von Karajan. (Like Karajan, too, he has enjoyed a warm relationship with the
Philharmonia in London, but scheduling has meant we haven’t heard him here for several years.)

After a tumultuous decade that has seen the ever-controversial conductor fall out with the managements of the Deutsche Oper Berlin (where he was Generalmusikdirektor from 1997 to 2004) and Munich Philharmonic (Generalmusikdirektor, 2004-11), Dresden, with its calmer musico-political air, seems like a good place for him.
Calm, that is, until about five minutes after our interview ended. Walking back to Dresden’s Hauptbahnhof, with frustrating timing I received the email announcing Simon Rattle’s decision not to renew in Berlin beyond 2018.

Though an uncontroversial and unsurprising decision, the news nevertheless opened the floodgates of speculation, and whichever way you look at the situation, Thielemann is an obvious and leading contender for the Berlin Philharmonic, best placed to restore its Teutonic credentials, if that is what the orchestra wants. Whether Thielemann wants it is still far from clear, though it is hard to imagine him resisting the lure of Karajan’s old orchestra. ‘Dresden is a place where you can concentrate on art,’ he said just minutes before this news broke. ‘Berlin is about politics. I do feel the difference being here, and I’m so lucky to work in this ambience. In Berlin I hated all the supposed Barenboim-Rattle-Thielemann rivalry. I’ve never been envious of the others, because we’ve all got so much to do and we all need to say “no” ten times every day. It’s liberating to be in Dresden.’

This month’s Parsifal in Salzburg originally belonged in Rattle’s diary: since it was established by Karajan in 1967, the Salzburg Easter Festival had always functioned as a spring camp for the Berlin Philharmonic. But in May 2011, when the oligarch-backed Easter Festival at Baden-Baden made a lucrative offer, the orchestra—almost as legendary for its venality as its sound—jumped quickly and decamped to the German spa town. Such
a unilateral declaration of independence could have spelt disaster for Salzburg, but the Easter Festival’s canny Intendant, Peter Alward, moved swiftly to secure the services of Thielemann and his distinguished new orchestra. This month therefore sees the beginning of a new era for the Salzburg Easter Festival, which has also further spread its wings recently by signing a co-production agreement to take Parsifal to the Beijing Music Festival.

But how different will things feel with the Dresdeners at Salzburg? ‘The combination is very different. Now you have an experienced opera orchestra, with an experienced opera conductor.’ So much for old rivalries having been buried. ‘Our credo for the programme of the upcoming Easter Festival is a healthy mix of the intellectually stimulating and the entertaining, neither of which must be allowed to dominate the other. If we are too highbrow then we will frighten off audiences, while too much froth undermines the high artistic standards which the festival has maintained over many years. Of course, the musical profile of the Staatskapelle fits rather well with the festival ethos of presenting brilliant opera and concert performances.

\'Here the Staatskapelle is in its element. We doff our caps to one former Kapelle conductor, Richard Wagner, in his birthday year with Parsifal, while the Romantic core repertoire—the bread and butter of the Staatskapelle—is represented by the music of Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler. Furthermore, the programme comes bang up to date with works by our Capell-Compositeur, Hans Werner Henze. I’ll try to do both the new and the old: what Goethe said in Faust, “Wer vieles bringt, wird manchem etwas bringen”, was very clever. You have to bring many things to reach many different people. It doesn’t make sense to have the most sophisticated programme if the hall is half full.’

Advance bookings for this year’s Easter Festival were boosted by the prospect of Thielemann taking the helm, and as the German-speaking world’s most idolized conductor, with a loyal audience just down the Autobahn in Munich, he is certain to take the audience with him. Parsifal will also be televised live, something that would have never have happened in the Rattle era. ‘I’ll try to offer the best singers I can find in pieces the audience wants to hear. These will include Italian opera [Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci are rumoured for 2015], which I know will work with the public. Next year we’ll play Arabella there for the first time, in honour of the Strauss year and with Renée Fleming. People will come for these voices and this orchestra—the orchestra that premiered the opera. We’ll bring exhibitions too, one for the Strauss year showing Dresden’s incredible connections with the composer, and one on the history of the orchestra since 1548.

\'It’s not the oldest orchestra in Germany—Mannheim and Heidelberg are older—but no one else has this unbroken tradition going back to the Sächsische Hofkapelle. It’s played constantly through every war, even World War II, doing both operas and concerts.’ But it has sometimes played in splendid isolation, and the Staatskapelle’s international reputation is still greater than its actual international exposure. Thielemann sees Salzburg as the ideal showcase for his new orchestra. ‘They can present everything they do—opera, symphonic and chamber music—in the space of a week.’

In Salzburg it will be hard, of course, not to make the connection between Dresden and Parsifal. ‘Yes, Wagner may have been born in Leipzig, but he grew up here and later always said that in his young years he’d already found the idea for the ranked choruses [in Parsifal] in the Frauenkirche, not to mention the Stimme aus der Höhe.’

But on most people’s minds will be the extent to which Thielemann can trace his view of Parsifal to his apprenticeship with Karajan. ‘I now have my own way of approaching it, but I remember some of his tempos and the whole atmosphere he used to create. When I was his assistant I thought that I could jump right in and do it as well as he. But when I finally did my own first Parsifal, I realized what a challenge it is. I found that slow tempos are much more dangerous than fast tempos, and that you have to be very careful—if it’s too slow, with too many Luftpausen, it can be so boring. But for me, slow music is much more interesting than fast music. I love slow tempos. The tension in Act 1 lasts for two hours, and to hold the audience in a sort of trance you need to know where the dangers lie. I’ve done Parsifal enough to feel a “red alert” going off in my head before there is a problem, saying, “be careful, this might be too slow”.

‘More important than the experience with Karajan, I must say, was my only year of Parsifal at Bayreuth, in 2001. I jumped in for Eschenbach, who had a back problem, and I have never forgotten the rehearsals with Wolfgang Wagner, who encouraged me to be bold with this piece. And I learnt immensely from the acoustics at Bayreuth, which give you the feeling that the music has to go somewhere. I had also learnt from hearing Levine’s Bayreuth Parsifal—he had a very happy, glorious time with the orchestra. He was in his prime then, and he really got it with the slow tempos. It was his piece. Some people can do it. Others can’t. But I know I learnt more about this in Bayreuth than in any other theatre.’

For anyone nostalgic about the Karajan years at Salzburg, this new era at the Easter Festival is likely to have a reassuringly familiar aura about it, while for Thielemann things must feel as if they have come full circle. It was at the Easter Festival in the early ’80s that he assisted Karajan on Parsifal and Der fliegende Holländer. He had been introduced to the maestro at the tender age of 16. ‘My piano teacher was the wife of one of the principal flautists of the Berlin Philharmonic, Dr Demmler. He heard me playing and set up the meeting. I was so flattered that Karajan listened to me, but the first piece of advice he gave was to go back and finish school. A year later he said, “Yes, you’ll be a conductor, but you’ll need to study things with singers.”

That meant opera, which felt strange at the time but was the best piece of advice he could have given. Although I was already a Wagner lover, I had put the symphonic conductor on a pedestal and hadn’t realized that the opera conductor was more important. \'A good opera conductor can in many cases be a good symphonic conductor—some may just feel happier in the pit—but it never really happens that a good concert conductor is also good at opera. It’s got to do with a lack of flexibility—let’s call it too little Schlamperei—because concert conductors are always so rhythmically trained. But phrasing in music comes from the voice, which means breathing, and that in turn comes from nature.

A year after I left school, when I was already a Korrepetitor at the Deutsche Oper, I became Karajan’s assistant. Jeffrey Tate had been his assistant but when he got important offers to conduct he was forced to say no to playing the piano for Karajan. They were without a pianist for Parsifal, so everything began from there. When he worked with singers in Berlin I played; when singers came to audition for him, I was there at the piano. Sometimes it involved day trips to rehearse in Salzburg, when no other pianists were available. I learnt a lot from him, and Karajan also taught me about another kind of flexibility—that you can never do exactly what you want as a conductor!’

Having wondered how best to raise the subject of podium dictatorship with a conductor known for being a bit autocratic and moody, I needn’t have worried. ‘It’s about leadership rather than dictatorship. You have to try to impart your ideas to others, but you also have to be open to their ideas. It’s a leadership that can be interrupted by other worthwhile opinions, which can give you new inspirations. If two or three or four personalities work together, all with strong opinions, it can be very interesting.’ We agree that in an age when the great monsters of the podium have gone the way of dinosaurs, it’s a pity that so much conductorial charisma has vanished with them and that there are few old-fashioned maestros left. ‘Ja, ja,’ he says wistfully, ‘“old-fashioned” is a wonderful word, and there is a need for it still. Conducting is not a democratic profession.’

Thielemann has relished many past controversies, but not the one in which he was accused of making anti-Semitic remarks about Barenboim. He has always denied them, and their timing—at one of those moments when the Berlin scene was in a state of flux—certainly led to widespread suspicion that other forces were at play. ‘Fortunately, and by pure chance, I found out which person had spread this terrible rumour. This led to his
dismissal.’ He remains grateful to Barenboim for taking him to Bayreuth—the senior conductor, for his part, is known to rate Thielemann’s Beethoven interpretations higher than those of any other contemporary conductor—and such remarks are unlikely to have come from one who has enjoyed a close working relationship with the Israel Philharmonic. When it comes to politics, it’s probably fair to go no further than labelling him an admirer of Frederick the Great. He is not ashamed to say, ‘I am German and I was raised with this music’, yet despite the solidly German Romantic tone of his operatic repertoire over the last decade, he is keen now to stress his wider interests.

Indeed, Thielemann spent much of his early career conducting repertoire with which he is no longer associated. ‘When people hear we’re doing Italian opera at Salzburg they seem so surprised, but this is a misunderstanding. If they looked back at what I did as a young Kapellmeister, they’d see Traviata, Trovatore, Tosca and Trittico. I did Pagliacci in Nuremberg already, but this is when I got my first Wagner opportunities and became known as the young Wagner conductor. Now if I show an interest in operetta—as in our recent Kálmán-themed Silvester gala—people seem taken by surprise that this goes back a long way. My first performances in the theatre, such things as Bastien und Bastienne and La serva padrona, were followed by a lot of operetta: Vogelhändler, Gräfin Mariza, Lustige Witwe—mein Gott, so viele Dinge!’

Born in Berlin on 1 April 1959, into what he calls ‘a normal, bürgerliche atmosphere’, Thielemann began his career aged 19 with that Korrepetitor post at the Deutsche Oper, and worked in the opera houses of Gelsenkirchen, Karlsruhe and Hanover before being appointed Erste Kapellmeister of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf in 1985. He promptly earned his first review in these pages from Christoph Zimmermann, who wrote of his handling of Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet, ‘The music with its long stretches of delicate tonal colours is fascinating—not least on account of the masterly conducting of the 26-year-old Christian Thielemann, a disciple of Karajan, who was able to extract every nuance of bliss and sadness from the score.’

Moving to Nuremberg in 1988, he became the youngest Generalmuskdirektor in Germany, causing a stir with the success of Tristan und Isolde there. He stayed for nearly a decade before returning to Berlin, but meanwhile began to make his name internationally, building on a Vienna Staatsoper debut in 1987 with Così fan tutte. It is hard to believe that Thielemann made his Covent Garden debut already a quarter of a century ago, in 1988 with Jenůfa (‘His interpretation was arresting in its electrical charge and sheer intensity’, wrote Alan Blyth); he has returned to the house for Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Die Aegyptische Helena (in concert) and Palestrina—Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production of the Pfitzner was also the vehicle for a Covent Garden Gastspiel at the 1997 Lincoln Center Festival.

Thielemann’s Met debut, in 1993 with Der Rosenkavalier, reflects the Straussian tone of his engagements in America. It was with Elektra that he made his US debut at San Francisco Opera in 1991, and the Met has also heard his Arabella and Frau ohne Schatten. Only Chicago bucked the trend slightly, inviting him first for Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in 1999, the year before he made his Bayreuth debut with the same work. Later in the decade he consolidated his position at Bayreuth—between 2006 and 2010 he conducted the Tankred Dorst Ring there—becoming the de facto music director and the musical power behind the Wagner half-sisters’ joint throne. He made his Tokyo debut in 1998 with Der fliegende Höllander, but key to the other aspect of his musical personality was his post as Principal Guest Conductor at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna in 1993.

While Thielemann did both German and Italian repertoire in Bologna, it’s a stark fact that he has conducted no Italian opera since La fanciulla del West at the Deutsche Oper in 2004. He rectifies that this month with Stefan Herheim’s new production of Manon Lescaut—his first performances of this work—at the Semperoper, and plans to conduct one new production of an Italian work every season; next year it will be Simon occanegra. He points out that he has also just done an all-Verdi programme with the Berlin Philharmonic (the Quattro pezzi sacri, followed by ballet music from Macbeth, Don Carlos and Otello). ‘It’s good to have a reputation for a composer, but people forget the other repertoire.’ His recently published book, Mein Leben mit Wagner, suggests that he himself may be partly to blame for this Wagner tag.

No Thielemann conversation can be complete without mention of Pfitzner, because no other modern major conductor has nailed his colours quite so conspicuously to the mast of this German zealot with a dubious Third Reich record. ‘Pfitzner—ach, wunderbar … I love Palestrina, but just because I have done some of his music [and recorded a few of his operatic preludes in a coupling with Strauss for DG], that doesn’t make me a Pfitzner expert. A long time ago I discovered Furtwängler’s live recording of Palestrina, which despite the poor sound quality is just so glorious musically. There was a Palestrina revival while I was still Korrepetitor in Berlin, and I opened my music directorship in Nuremberg with it—it hadn’t been played there for 50 years, but we had all the roles in the ensemble. Der arme Heinrich is something I would love to do—it opens magically with four solo violas—and Das Christ-Elflein is very good. Maybe we’ll do one of these in a concert version in Dresden. But not Salzburg—the public wouldn’t come.’

Thielemann’s repertoire stretches up to Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron and Henze’s Prinz von Homburg, with Henze’s music being especially close to his heart. Indeed, his first Salzburg Easter Festival was to have included a Henze premiere, Isoldes Tod, but following the composer’s death last year the plans have changed to feature his 1999 ‘air’, Fraternité. ‘I’m really a great Henze fan. He was one of my biggest inspirations—
certainly the biggest contemporary one—and a bright star in my musical life. His orchestration shows so much Handwerk, craftsmanship, and for me there was a direct line from Richard Strauss to Henze. Both had strong southern influences, and were very German too in this love for Italy. Henze’s soul mixed German seriousness with southern leggerezza, and I admired this so much. He was always so sincere.’

Thielemann readily admits that Henze’s political opinions, especially those from his youth, were in no way like his own, but flips the conversation to Beethoven. ‘A meeting with Beethoven—whom we admire for being so democratic, “Alle Menschen werden Brüder”, la, la, la—would probably show us that he was a terrible person who said horrible things about others. He wouldn’t be our hero if we met him today. But I never make any connections between a composer’s personality and his music. What matters is the music. After just the first movement of the “Eroica”, you know most of what you need to know about a conductor. After the slow movement, you can stop the performance and say, “Yes, I know what he is about”.’ If there is still something slightly inscrutable about Thielemann, even after his own loftily striving performances of the ‘Eroica’, these Salzburg seasons promise—barring any sudden departures in the direction of Berlin—to show us a more rounded musical personality than we’ve seen before.

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