Thielemann makes a triumphant return, leading CSO in thrilling and majestic Bruckner

Fri Oct 21, 2022 at 1:06 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Christian Thielemann led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

On the way to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert Thursday night, I ran into a veteran CSO member in the parking garage and asked him how the week’s rehearsals had gone: Did Christian Thielemann live up to advance expectations?”

“No,” said the musician. “He far, far exceeded them.”

He went on to say that the German conductor was most impressive and provided a virtual seminar in how to efficiently use limited rehearsal time without wasting a minute. 

“So, should he be the guy?”

“They should grab him,” he said. “Grab him now!”

Of course, musicians are a contentious and highly opinionated bunch and one player’s view on who should follow Riccardo Muti as the next CSO music director isn’t necessarily shared by 90 others.

But those comments were richly borne out in this most eagerly anticipated program of the current CSO season, as Christian Thielemann returned to lead a powerful and majestic performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8.

Widely acknowledged as one of the finest conductors of our era, Thielemann has largely made his career in Europe over the past two decades. Currently conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden and artistic director of the Salzburg Easter Festival from 2013 until this year, he is a regular podium guest with the top orchestras in the world including the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic.

This was Thielemann’s first CSO stand in 27 years and he faced a largely different orchestra than at his last visit in 1995.

Among the musical cognoscenti, the significance of the occasion as a de facto audition was manifest—due to the conductor’s reputation, long absence and the fact that his core Austro-German rep fits the CSO like a well-tailored glove. 

One can account for a fair number of empty seats due to the unfamiliarity of Thielemann’s name to the garden-variety concertgoer as well as a program lacking populist appeal. Yet Bruckner’s Eighth—the sole work of the evening—proved ideal for this auspicious return.

Anton Bruckner enjoyed few successes in his lifetime but the premiere of the Eighth Symphony in 1892 (performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Hans Richter) was a triumph and brought belated recognition to the aged composer that continued through the few final years of his life.

Running 82 minutes, the Eighth is Bruckner’s largest work with a slow movement that spans nearly a half-hour alone. The symphony is characteristic in its large-scale structure and slow-building drama with stentorian brass chorales alternating with pastoral episodes. The vast Adagio plumbs a degree of elevated expression unique even in Bruckner’s output.

Before Thielemann even entered the stage, one could see evidence of the conductor’s fresh approach with the orchestra arranged in a new configuration: violins split left and right—rarely seen locally in Late Romantic music—with cellos inside left and basses behind on high risers. Violas were in their usual place, as were brass and woodwinds; the four Wagner tubas were set off to the right for more distinct separation from their brass colleagues.  

For the textually minded who like to geek out, Thielemann is one of the few contemporary conductors to use the Haas edition of Bruckner’s 1890 revision of the Eighth (like Karajan and Furtwängler before him), rather than the later Nowak. The Haas incorporates some passages from the original 1887 version.

After entering to enthusiastic applause, Thielemann took his time to begin—leaning against the podium rail and waiting nearly a full minute for the audience rustling to subside before giving the downbeat.

Thielemann, 62, is a tall man with an intriguing, somewhat unorthodox podium style. Wielding a long baton, he frequently directs the music with a vertical up-and-down motion with both hands, the baton accelerating with the tempo. When coaxing a long phrase, he stands legs apart and leans his long body back so far one thought he might tip over. Fully focused from the first bar to the final chord, he often leaned into the front string desks to urge them on while occasionally taking the brass down a notch with a subtle gesture.

The first tutti of the opening Allegro moderato set the scale for the performance—rich, full-bodied sonorities with brass on top rather than strings a la Muti in Bruckner. Yet despite letting the brass off the leash there was never any blaring or raucous edge even with the ample volume. The new setup seemed to bestow a darker corporate tone and some improvement in transparency, except for a fitful lack of presence in the second violins whose instruments faced the back wall.

Thielemann combined a taut grip on the sprawling work’s architecture with a tensile power and explosive quality that made for a highly concentrated, exciting journey. He maintained firm yet flexible momentum in the opening movement through the peaks and valleys of alternating brass chorales and bucolic interludes. The solo flute peeked out to provide charming bird calls, sometimes at junctures where one didn’t realize it ever existed.

There is a potential minefield in this huge score for a performance to turn episodic and start to feel repetitive, yet Thielemann’s laser-like focus kept one along for the duration. The Scherzo went with ample weight and thrust yet there was an overall lightness to the movement, with an airy quality to the Trio’s flowing lyricism.

The Adagio felt notably spacious even though Thielemann took just 24 minutes, which is faster than many. He conveyed the strange, luminous mystery of the main theme—beautifully refined playing by the first violins, front desks especially—punctuated by the muscular brass outbursts. Thielemann judged the ebb and flow of this music with uncommon skill, unfolding the long paragraphs with a seeming inevitability, as the ascent climbed higher and higher. The climax, capped by cymbal crash and triangle, was majestic and resounding with a cumulative release of tension following the inexorable buildup. The final quiet bars of the movement—so often rushed through—provided a rare degree of warmth and consolation.

The Finale burst in with its hard-charging main theme given daunting ferocity. Thielemann made the movement’s delayed gratification unusually compelling with each contrasting episode offering a diverting interlude rather than feeling like an annoying interruption. Eye on the long view, the conductor built patiently yet surely to the final bars, which delivered the blazing C-major peroration in a seismic and triumphant coda.

After the last chord faded away, Thielemann held the silence, baton aloft, for a good thirty seconds; to its credit, the audience held their applause for him before exploding into cheers and a tumultuous standing ovation.

The CSO musicians covered themselves in glory in this performance across every section. Especially notable was the blended strength and highly polished brass contributions led by principal horn David Cooper’s magnificent solo work. The quartet of Wagner tubas made their mellow, rounded sonority felt as well.

All business during the performance, Thielemann was recalled four times to the stage, smiling as he called out individual players and sections for bows with each reappearance. He finally made a charming shrug as if to say, “Well, I think I got everyone now!”

2024 will bring the 200th anniversary of Bruckner’s birth. A complete Bruckner cycle led by Christian Thielemann in the CSO’s 2024-25 season? One can dream.

In the meantime, there are three more performances of this program. Go, even if you’re not a Bruckner aficionado. Thielemann—and the CSO—will make you a believer.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

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19 Responses to “Thielemann makes a triumphant return, leading CSO in thrilling and majestic Bruckner”

  1. Posted Oct 21, 2022 at 2:03 pm by Anne-Marie

    Your review said it better than one could imagine! What a grand night of music making that was!

  2. Posted Oct 21, 2022 at 3:16 pm by niloiv

    Thrilling and Majestic, that’s the words for it. Even by CSO brass’s standard, yesterday’s performance is just off-the-chart good, giving all the passion and tenderness Bruckner calls for, while always maintaining a perfect balance (not just the brass but the whole orchestra)

    I don’t know if Thielemann would find his home here after Muti leaves. As a big fan of contemporary music, I would also have a mixed feeling for that. But for all that we witnessed last evening, this is every bit as good as I could expect from a live Bruckner performance

  3. Posted Oct 21, 2022 at 3:30 pm by Merritt Bethig

    On Thursday evening the CSO audience displayed the most reverent respect I have ever experienced in Orchestra Hall. During 82 minutes I heard but one cough and during pauses between movements, nobody even cleared their throat. The solemnity of the event was awesome.

  4. Posted Oct 21, 2022 at 5:01 pm by Henry and Ellen Criz

    In over 50 years of attending concerts together, my professional musician partner joined the standing ovation for the first time in my memory. That says more about the relationship between the music, the conductor, and the orchestra than any other comments I can make.

    His comment: Thielemann owns the piece and the orchestra was totally focused on performing for him. We have certainly been to concerts when neither of those comments was true. A truly wonderful experience.

  5. Posted Oct 21, 2022 at 5:58 pm by GraceAustin

    The Thielemann performance of Bruckner last night was splendid. His conducting was so powerful because he used his whole body to express the music. The most masterful conducting I have ever witnessed in my life!

  6. Posted Oct 21, 2022 at 8:27 pm by Don Law

    My wife and I were truly blessed to be in attendance at last night’s performance and all I can say is that last night was a pure gift for the Chicago audience. I have been to countless classical performances with some of the world’s finest orchestras over the years and last night easily sits at the very top of all of these performances … yes, it was that sensational of a performance!

    I sincerely hope that the Board of the CSO makes it out to these performances and hope that we are looking at the next leader of the CSO!!

  7. Posted Oct 21, 2022 at 10:43 pm by Roger

    I cannot add anything more than what has already been written and reviewed by Classical Review. As a forty-plus-year subscriber, Maestro Thielemann leading the CSO in the Bruckner 8th Symphony was, mildly put, outstanding. Brought back memories of the Gang of 5 – Solti, Guilini, Abbado, Leinsdorf and Slatkin – leading the CSO in memorable performances of Bruckner and Mahler.

    The past few seasons several performances stand out besides Thursday night’s. Hrusa conducting Smetena’s Ma Vlast and van Zweden’s Mahler 6th Symphony.

    Under Solti’s leadership I was fortunate to hear outstanding performances of the Germanic-Austro musical literature. Under Muti, the Verdi and lesser known masterpieces of Italian composers. I hope future generations of subscribers have the same privilege.

    In an earlier Classical Review article several highly respected candidates succeeding Muti were listed and all outstanding candidates. I do not wish to select one, although I do favor Hrusa and Thielemann. Hopefully, subscribers will not have to experience Ravinia comes to Symphony Center!

    Additionally, whoever is eventually chosen, subscribers should not have to wait 20+ years to experience another concert led by Maestro Thielemann!

  8. Posted Oct 21, 2022 at 11:15 pm by Howard C

    With a German conductor and the CSO’s Germanic tradition (complete with Germanic style brass instruments), perhaps this is one of the most authentically German performances of Bruckner 8 I have heard in Chicago. I could not help but feel that maybe the sound of the CSO tonight was what Bruckner imagined himself. Rather than bright and electric like the Solti CSO recording, the orchestra had a dark, sonorous sound that made the experience especially rich and deep.

    Again, the CSO’s stellar woodwinds and brass carried the day. Special cheers to the principal horn, David Cooper and Daniel Gingrich for his solo Wagner Tuba playing!

  9. Posted Oct 21, 2022 at 11:28 pm by Andrew C

    I couldn’t imagine anything more transcendent than van Zweden’s handling of Mahler 6 in the spring, but tonight (Friday), Thielemann’s execution of Bruckner 8 with the exquisite CSO took me to new heights. Bravo Maestro! Bravi CSO!

  10. Posted Oct 23, 2022 at 6:32 am by Tod Verklärung

    I did not hear the concert but have heard Thielemann on five occasions, including both his CSO debut and a Bruckner 8th in Carnegie Hall about a decade ago.

    Before one gets too excited about the prospect of his possible installation as Muti’s successor, you might wish to look at the Dresden orchestra’s programs for the remaining part of the current season. Every Thielemann concert at home and one tour includes the music of one composer: Mendelssohn, Bruckner, Richard Strauss, Beethoven, and the Mahler #3. The latter was a surprise to me as he isn’t thought of as a Mahler aficionado.

    It would take a far wider repertoire for me to welcome him taking a permanent role with the CSO. Does he ever conduct even such 20th-century composers as Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich?

  11. Posted Oct 23, 2022 at 9:58 am by david m novak

    I seem to be a minority of one, but I found the first movement soft rather than granitic, the second smooth rather than jaunty, the third simply too fast; no comment on the finale, which pace Bruckner should have been omitted. Karajan had the measure of the music.

    The orchestra played well, but the brass was too dominant, producing a disjointed performance. I also sensed a bit of harshness in the trumpets that reminded me of the often painfully shrill Solti-Herseth combination. I should note that I have been a regular attendee of the CSO since opening night in 1966. Muti in Prokofiev about two weeks ago had the CSO sounding its best ever (and wiping out the Clevelanders in their opening
    night Mahler 2 at the very end of September). Let’s wait a bit before anointing Thielemann.

  12. Posted Oct 23, 2022 at 12:23 pm by antoine martin

    The repertoire of Thielemann is far larger (cf Tod-Verklarung ): with Berlin Philharmonic a French music night with the Requiem of Faurè; also a very nice concert of German music of the thirties (Hindemith; a beautiful “Tages zeiten” by R Strauss, magnificent piece for male chorus and orchestra). Clever and interesting conductor.

    Sorry for my English as I am French!

  13. Posted Oct 23, 2022 at 12:35 pm by Michael Browne

    It was obviously a remarkable performance that will be remembered for many years by those lucky enough to be there. Lucky Chicago!

    In the right hands Bruckner 8 can be a profoundly affecting work; I will never forget Carlo Maria Guilini and the Philharmonia in what Guilini himself said was the finest performance they had ever given of the Eighth, in the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham (UK) on 19/09/1983. (The London performance a few days before in the Royal Festival Hall was recorded by the BBC and was available on CD–find it if you can.) A performance to remember, as was Guilini’s fond little wave to the grateful Nottingham audience as he departed the stage…..

  14. Posted Oct 23, 2022 at 1:50 pm by Denkler

    Very good article. I would love to be able to hear them play.

  15. Posted Oct 23, 2022 at 7:59 pm by Bob Callahan

    Perhaps worth noting: Thielemann conducted this vast work from memory, without a score.

  16. Posted Oct 23, 2022 at 10:42 pm by Maureen

    On a visit from the Los Angeles area I was more than anticipating Thursday’s Bruckner 8th. I was riveted.

    David Cooper certainly deserves the high acclamations noted in the review. Phenomenal horn playing….. an evening to remember.

  17. Posted Oct 26, 2022 at 3:27 pm by Douglas Paige

    Thank you very much Lawrence for your well-written review. I also enjoyed reading all of the comments! (The earlier Mahler 6th, and the recent Prokofiev 5th Symphony concerts were also riveting, indeed.)

    I also attended Thursday’s concert and was very impressed by the conducting, all of the orchestral playing, and the audience was attentive and respectful. I decided to attend again on Tuesday night. Yes, David Cooper, and Daniel Gingrich were outstanding! The music is still swirling in my memory. It seemed like a symphony for organ performed by an orchestra.

  18. Posted Oct 29, 2022 at 1:31 am by Michael McRae Doyle

    A beautifully written essay on the performance. What cities in North America are blessed with intelligent and articulate reviewers as this? Few to none. Not Toronto, for several decades and counting. No reviews of concerts anymore, despite being the size of Chicago.

    I did not attend the concert, but I felt I did.

    Hope to see and hear some excerpts on youtube.

  19. Posted Oct 30, 2022 at 3:44 am by Alan Hammer

    I share the concerns expressed by others about narrow repertoire. I too love Austro-Germanic repertoire but
    there’s nothing in his past scheduling to suggest that he would expand it now, aside from a few token exceptions.

    How about principal guest conductor, like Boulez, to focus on a particular part of the repertoire and somebody else like Chailly to be the music director?

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