Munich Philharmonic / Christian Thielemann / Robert Dean Smith - Gasteig Munich, 31 December 2009
Leonard Bernstein said "burn it", Riccardo Muti refuses to conduct there, Mariss Jansons is campaigning for its replacement. Surprising as it may seem, there's a music venue with worse looks than the Barbican and worse sound than the Royal Festival Hall - Munich's municipal monstrosity the ghastly Gasteig and its orange clam of a concert hall, the Philharmonie.
It's the home of the Munich Philharmonic, whose New Year's Eve concert started at the early hour of 5pm to allow time for the the traditional fun and fireworks later. Christian Thielemann seemed keenest of all to get out and play with his sparklers and marzipan pigs - racing on and off the platform and visibly impatient with applause.
Thielemann's reputation led to high expectations for the all-Wagner first half, immediately dashed by the opening Lohengrin first act prelude. I can't recall when I last heard a professional orchestra play so badly. To be fair on the majority of the musicians, problems were mostly confined to a few violinists. But that hovering billow of strings, so sensitive to the least error, exposed inexcusable inconsistencies in dynamics, intonation and phrasing. Had there been any rehearsals? Some simply seemed incapable of sustaining a pianissimo; it wobbled out of its misery to a tremulous, jazz-pitched halt.
The rest wasn't quite that bad, but the assorted bits of Lohengrin, Die Walküre and Die Meistersinger never really came to life, Thielemann's undoubted dramatic sensitivity never on display. Not bleeding chunks, just bloody offal.
Ben Heppner was the originally-announced soloist, but it was hardly a surprise to learn that once again illness had snatched him from the stage, a switch made in time for the programmes to include full details of his replacement Robert Dean Smith. Smith may not be a charismatic or characterful singer, but he's musically intelligent and his technique is sound. He wobbled bravely through Lohengrin's Gralserzählung, a cruel start to any singer's evening with its punishing tessitura. Siegmund's first act monologue from Die Walküre and Walther's Preislied from Die Meistersinger were an improvement, but only the touching encore, Rienzi's prayer Allmächtger Vater, demonstrated real engagement with the text.
The second half was so much better it could have been a different orchestra. And perhaps it was - there seemed to be fewer on the platform. Had the offending fiddlers been taken behind the stables and shot?
In any case, Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture just swept me away, as if everything that was missing from the Wagner had been bottled up and unleashed. Wagner didn't care to admit Mendelssohn's influence on his music, but Thielemann lays it bare. It was an exhilarating journey, easily the greatest Mendelssohn performance I've heard all this anniversary year. Interestingly, the only other really good one was also German, from Daniel Barenboim and his chamber buddies in Berlin. Is it only in England that the criticisms of Mendelssohn as sentimental, superficial and reactionary are taken as a performance blueprint?
The two outer movements of the Italian Symphony were just as powerful, though Thielemann sometimes struggled to keep the boisterous orchestra on a tight enough leash to illuminate the dynamic contrasts. But the reflective second and third bowed under the weight of Wagnerisms, more ponderous than pensive.
New year celebrations in Munich: