BRUCKNER Symphony No 7; WOLF 5 Songs
Stunned silence greets the conclusion of Christian Thielemann’s inaugural concert as principal conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden. With the closing bars of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony echoing around the resonant acoustic of the Semperoper, the audience seems reluctant to break the music’s spell, but when eventually they do, Thielemann is called back again and again, his manner growing more excited and exuberant with each return to the rostrum. Within the space of a couple of minutes he is transformed from a masterful maestro to an excited child, cueing his orchestra members to rise and smiling gleefully in appreciation.
And he certainly earned the adulatory applause. A sequence of Hugo Wolf songs (plus Strauss’s deeply moving ‘Befreit’) featuring Renée Fleming proves Thielemann to be the most sensitive and responsive of accompanists, anticipating or reflecting his soloist’s every phrase. Fleming is in glorious voice, especially in such masterpieces as Wolf’s ‘Anakreons Grab’ and ‘Mignon’, both orchestrated by Wolf himself, and both sung with total conviction.
One of the most memorable aspects of Thielemann’s Bruckner Seventh is the sense that every player is alert to what his or her neighbour is doing: for example, the solo flute and clarinets near the start of the finale, all three of whom lend a lift to the rhythm. Thielemann’s approach allows for maximum textural transparency, the Scherzo’s Trio being a good case in point, and he can broaden the line without allowing it to sag, as he does in the first movement’s coda and towards the very end of the work. Less idiosyncratic than Barenboim with the Berlin Staatskapelle (DG, 7/12) and less marmoreal than Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic Bruckner from the Sixties through to the Eighties (DG), Thielemann favours a brand of flexibility that recalls, in approximate terms, both Jochum and Furtwängler, and his new orchestra does him proud.
As to Karajan’s 1962 Vienna Philharmonic Seventh from the Royal Festival Hall, the swiftest we have from him (as Richard Osborne observes in the booklet-note), the combination of keen forward momentum and that unmistakably matured VPO sound more approximates Furtwängler than any other Karajan Bruckner performance in circulation. The playing is simply superb: as with Thielemann’s Seventh, the Scherzo’s Trio proves a telling place to sample, as does the broad arch of the first movement’s coda and the same movement’s mighty closing pages. Both conductors opt for the Haas edition, which means an Adagio topped by cymbals and triangle, and although ICA’s respectable mono sound can’t compare with Opus Arte’s sophisticated digital production (with its surround-sound option), it’s good enough to focus a gripping performance. Even so, I’m tempted to nominate Karajan’s Jupiter Symphony from the same concert as the CD double-pack’s musical highlight, principally for the profound insights that Karajan brings to the Andante cantabile, its lunging basses and breathlessly chattering violins especially, and a finale that goes off like a rocket and holds the tension right up until the symphony’s triumphant conclusion. A little too much to resist, that – just about the best of Karajan’s Bruckner and the best of his Mozart, all on one double CD. Don’t hesitate.