Vienna Philharmonic / Thielemann - Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 16 November 2009
An all-Beethoven programme may sound like the most conventional scheduling ever. But in London, the fear of being labelled anything less than cutting-edge means it's the last thing you're likely to hear.
No such reservations for the Wiener Philharmoniker, who are taking a whole series of Beethoven concerts around Europe with Christian Thielemann over the next few months, culminating in a back-to-back cycle at Berlin's Philharmonie next December. Mit CD/DVD tie-in (alleged production cost - $1m) natürlich. Sadly London is not included on this particular tour - the ineradicable Lorin Maazel will, yet again, prepare our annual helping of Wiener.
Paris however was bestowed with Maestro Thielemann and Beethoven's 7th and 8th symphonies. A skinny sliver of sparkling new Jörg Widmann was to have slipped in between, but the overextended composer never got round to writing it, so the Egmont Overture it was instead.
All the better for Christian Thielemann, a Beethoven specialist and famously resistant to the lure of the new. Thielemann is on something of a high at the moment in the German media. Recently voted Germany's most popular conductor by a mile in a newspaper poll (though he'd probably pwn the least popular title too), he's also just been appointed next chief conductor of the Dresden Staatskapelle and, something of a coup, has snatched a coveted Xmas TV concert slot from the mitts of Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. All this is big stuff in Germany, a country that actually cares who runs its orchestras and how.
The artistic understanding between Thielemann and the Wieners is evident not just from the musicians' total attentiveness (and a few doggily adoring glances). Thielemann spins the music out in long, polished phrases, sculpting each section with dramatic shifts in tempo and dynamic. The orchestra breathe with him, the rapport is absolute. Each idea emerges with utter clarity.
From their London performances it can hard to fathom why the Vienna Philharmonic are often called the world's greatest orchestra, but on this showing they exceeded any reasonable expectation. Thielemann bounded on with a hypercaffeinated energy that he maintained from the con brio first movement of the 8th right to the end of the night. The one-bar jokes of the Scherzando second movement were actually funny, and the contrapuntal brilliance of the third was captured in perfectly balanced crystalline layers, in exquisite contrast to the luxurious sonic carpet the Wieners rolled out for the last movement.
The 7th became a roller coaster ride, a gem of immaculately juxtaposed contrasts. From an introductory adagio so molto it nearly ground to a halt, Thielemann launched the vivace theme of the 7th's first movement at an exhilarating pace. The second, 'slow' movement is actually marked allegretto, and that's exactly what we got, not the usual funereal trudge but something curiously evocative of a cha-cha. And it ended with a wildly driven dance - Wagner's famous words incarnated.
Among the violinists at the 7th's first performance was Ludwig Spohr, who noted of Beethoven's conducting style, "As a sforzando occurred, he tore his arms, previously crossed upon his breast, with great vehemence asunder. At piano he crouched down lower and lower to show the degree of softness. If a crescendo entered he gradually rose again and at a forte jumped into the air." Thielemann would be the last to follow the emaciated 'historically-informed' school, but I did wonder if Spohr's well-known words influenced Thielemann's gymnastic gesticulations on the podium, at variance with his usual Thunderbird puppet style. Whatever it was, it worked.