22 August 2020, Grosses Festspielhaus

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Christian Thielemann conducting Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony at this year’s Salzburg Festival was always going to be something to wait for. And so the second of his two morning performances in the Grosses Festspielhaus proved. Critics like to take issue with his Bruckner, accusing him too often of admiring the landscape at the expense of structure. I’m not so sure. Put him in front of the big European orchestras with which he identifies closest  – Dresden, Berlin, Vienna – give him one of the major canvasses – the Fourth, Seventh, Eighth Symphonies – and, pretty much guaranteed, you’ll  end up with an all-encompassing, all-involving, all-illuminating  experience.

Thielemann’s Bruckner is like the passage of a day. Dawn, dusk, brightest noon, darkest midnight, define the cardinal points. Winds and clouds, flowers and streams, cliffs and mountain peaks, glimpse the minutes. Prayers and chorales, songs and dances, toll the human bell. Uneasy though they might be for some, his granite rock-faces and conquering cathedrals of sound, the intensified magnificence of his climaxes, the operatic drama of his hushed ruminations, his sense of pliant speech, nuance and colour as emotional ley-lines, sit comfortably with me.

He’s not in the business of updating or cleansing Bruckner. Rather he sees, feels, communicates him as palpably a man of 1880, citizen of an empire long ancient. No Prussian general giving orders, directing Bruckner is for him a deeply spiritual journey. Come the final release, baton held high, emotion draining from his face, eyes flickering back into reality, body tremulous than still, he waits for the notes to fade into nothingness, suspending  silence and orchestra for an infinity. Fearful to affront the moment, we wait with him.

Thielemann’s Bruckner puts me in mind of Max Graf’s post-war book Composer and Critic (find a copy if you can). As a young man in Vienna, Max sat at Bruckner’s table, the first “musical genius” he’d ever met. An “aged saint”, “his face [taking] on a magnificence that was reminiscent of the busts of old Roman emperors.” “The concept of God descending from Heaven is the final vision in [his] symphonies and the meaning of the climaxes, sounding the voice of eternity in celestial splendour of sound, soul, and song.” “High pillars, bold arches, rich windows, glowing altar.”

Timings with Bruckner, given the variability of cuts and editions, are unreliable. Suffice that most conductors come in at around the sixty-four-minute mark – Barenboim, Haitink, Horenstein, Karajan. Kubelík. Abbado, Böhm, Blomstedt, Furtwängler, Gergiev, Inbal, Jansons, and Wand are slower, heading towards seventy minutes and beyond. In Berlin in 2012 (recollecting Celibidache’s notably measured Munich performances at around seventy-eight minutes albeit with a differently ratioed Finale), Thielemann averaged seventy-five. The present Salzburg reading (the 1878/80 version) ran out at seventy. Flamboyance, agitation, doesn’t come into his reckoning. His gestures are controlled, often small, sometimes ungainly, his body language occasionally repressed … stooping low to make a point, arms sweeping pendulum-like, rising to full-chest height to emphasise or personalise a fortissimo. Relying on an arsenal of physical techniques and mannerisms that have changed little over the years, particular ones for particular situations, he’s an artist outwardly content to establish the pulse, set the tempo of paragraphs and chapters, and leave the music to its destiny – all, truth be told, that a seventh-generation super-pedigree orchestra like  the Vienna Philharmonic (which premiered the work under Hans Richter in 1881) needs: together with Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler and Richard Strauss, Bruckner is  resolutely these players’ psyche and life-blood.

Powerful audio and visuals aside, there was much to take from this performance. Letting events move apace, for instance, developing a near-Beethovenian thrust, almost terpsichorean in character. Climactically, the heavy brass spoke in the stentorian voice of northern gods, the mighty unisons of the Finale cutting through like planets in tectonic turmoil. Incandescent strings, lyrically opulent phrases, sensually sprung, full-throated pizzicatos. A Scherzo in brazen cry, offset by a Wienerwald Trio of aching simplicity, painted without exaggeration, Franz Rumpler style.

True, there were transient fallibilities, not all was note-perfect. No matter.  With the VPO at full crowded strength, digging deep, monumental greatness in a grand acoustic, pride and nobility, was the unmissable message of the occasion. The onward surge, tidally inexorable, the high theatre, the unstoppable force and motivic spirals before us, was extraordinary. Thielemann must have been well-pleased. He got a rapturous ovation.