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Lead book review

The old-fashioned greatness of Christian Thielemann

My Life with Wagner is the conductor’s perceptive and impassioned account of his lifelong devotion to one of the world’s greatest — and most controversial — composers

15 August 2015

9:00 AM

15 August 2015

9:00 AM

My Life with Wagner Christian Thielemann

Weidenfeld, pp.267, £25

Christian Thielemann (born in 1959) is a self-consciously old-fashioned figure who makes rather a virtue out of his limitations. As a conductor, he stands out in a profession increasingly given to the eclectic, and to performances of music outside the western canon. The practitioners of art music have almost all surrendered to the requirement to reach out, to experiment with the new and the non-European, and to mesh their endeavours with conscious gestures of social improvement.

Thielemann could hardly be more out of sympathy with the prevailing mood. He is noisily devoted to musical excellence at all costs, and to long apprenticeships rather than flashes of stardom. There have been conductors in the past who limited their repertory even more drastically than Thielemann has — notoriously, Carlos Kleiber. But Thielemann has gone beyond a youthful training in which he conducted more or less anything to a professional practice in which he rarely ventures outside the core German repertory of Wagner, Brahms, Bruckner, Beethoven, Richard Strauss and the occasional Mozart piano concerto.

This is now unusual, to say the least; also unusual is the particular form of excellence that Thielemann has cultivated at the Dresden Staatskapelle. He has made the sound of this orchestra overwhelmingly sumptuous and rich — a homage to Karajan’s 1970s style, perhaps. Advanced public taste these days prefers — at least in Beethoven — something a little more bony and direct.

Thielemann’s name was recently bruited about for two very important German jobs. It seems astonishing that he was being seriously considered for the post of music director at the Berlin Philharmonic after Simon Rattle steps down in 2018. If the Berlin orchestra is the most glamorous in the world of international music-making, it is also an orchestra of its city — a city of argumentative liberal values. It is a tribute to Thielemann’s qualities that the orchestra was prepared to consider him at all. But the likelihood of them finally uniting behind a maestro unapologetically devoted to heiliger deutsche Kunst — as Wagner puts it in Die Meistersinger — was always quite low, and they opted instead for Kirill Petrenko.

The curious thing is that Thielemann’s practice does follow on from an aspect of Karajan’s reign in the city; added to which, he is himself a Berliner. That a childhood in the tragic uproar of 1960s Berlin produced a man with a haircut like his and a mind of such musical — and apparently political — conservatism, just goes to show that some people are more stubborn than others. In the event, Thielemann probably threw away his chances in multi-Kulti Berlin in an apparently conciliatory press interview about the right-wing Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) protestors permanently encamped outside the Dresden opera house. He sweetly observed that ordinary Germans ought to try to understand the Pegida movement’s anxieties about, for instance, immigration.

A performance of Parsifal at the Salzburg Easter Festival, 2013, conducted by Christian Thielemann
A performance of Parsifal at the Salzburg Easter Festival, 2013, conducted by Christian Thielemann

The second important German job he has now landed — as music director of the Bayreuth festival. This book, which was first published in Germany in 2012, is effectively an application for that post — a position perhaps in Thielemann’s mind even more important in the German musical world than the Berlin Philharmonic. The Bayreuth festival is one of extraordinary cultural purity, performing just ten of Wagner’s operas, in the theatre the composer himself created.

Thielemann can reflect that nobody but a Wagner has ever held this position before. (By contrast, the Berlin Philharmonic hasn’t had a German in charge since the Wall came down; Petrenko, its new chief conductor, is Russian.) In heading his magnificent Dresden orchestra (founded in 1548) and in running the purest and most sacred statement of German culture at Bayreuth, Thielemann sees himself following in the idealistic German tradition. He believes that performers of Wagner, both conductors and singers, will fail ‘unless they have mastered the German language’ and says of himself in youth: ‘If I had been woken at four in the morning and asked: what do you want to conduct? I would have cried: “Wagner!” ’

This book is a curious production, and in some respects exceedingly valuable. Thielemann is fascinating on the thought processes and working practices of a musician coming to terms with Wagner. Anyone interested in the composer will want to hear about the very particular challenges presented by the unique construction of the Bayreuth festival theatre and how a conductor must alter his usual approach. Thielemann’s engagement with the music is profound and intricate; characteristically, he observes that he always conducts the prelude to the third act of Lohengrin ‘three per cent more slowly at Bayreuth than in an open pit, so that the music will still be distinct.’

It is enchanting to discover, too, that the acoustics of the theatre are such that chorus and orchestra will ideally sound slightly out of sync to the conductor; if things are going wrong, assistants checking up in the auditorium during rehearsals can phone the conductor on ‘an old-fashioned grey telephone, with a little red light that comes on’.

Encouragingly, Thielemann is open to directorial innovation in Wagner so long as it’s respectful of the music. He devotes a good chunk of the book to plot summaries, but while he is insightful about the music, he does not have a lot to contribute with regard to the drama. ‘Isolde is a tremendous role (like Ortrud, Brunnhilde and Kundry), there is no doubt of that’, he pronounces; and, ‘To my mind, Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger is one of the greatest of all operatic roles.’ Much of this seems directed towards a mythical figure, one who is interested enough in Wagner to buy a £25 hardback about him, but not interested enough ever to have listened to his operas. (I could produce a dozen otiose chapters from different books to match Thielemann’s own curious one explaining how ‘beginners’ should approach Wagner.)

These passages seem to me to have a kind of veiling function — of orthodox statements of the sort of things Wagnerians are supposed to say. But occasionally Thielemann gives us a glimpse of a much more impassioned, private, even tormented engagement with the operas. What to make of this — on Tristan und Isolde — where he sounds less like a practical performer and more like a trembling debutant in the gods?

The harmonies of Tristan arouse feelings in me that I can hardly describe: sensuality, excitement, watchfulness, the wish for enjoyment…. Jump, Wagner whispers in my ear, trust yourself, it’s only one last little step. And already I see myself standing on top of the Radio Tower in Berlin, staring longingly at the depths below.

All in all, this is a book with flashes of great insight, in which connoisseurs of the unsaid will find a good deal to ponder. Thielemann lets us into some private aspects of his professional life (like the grey telephone) and occasionally — and unexpectedly — into the agonising Sehnsucht of his inner raptures when the Tristan chord starts up. But he is not going to venture beyond that — to give an honest account what it is like these days to be a blameless but highly conservative German musician, or to describe any aspect of his famously mysterious personal life.

His book is beautifully translated by Anthea Bell, the doyenne of translators from German, and there are some technical aspects that must have tested her. I would question one point, when Thielemann is made to say: ‘Eight double basses out of 32 stringed instruments are not very many.’ There are a lot more stringed instruments than that in Wagner’s orchestra, a specified 64. Did he compare the number of basses with the number of violins?
Otherwise this is a lucid and compelling rendering of an occasionally cryptic account of an obsession. I must say, impertinently, I would love to read Thielemann’s private diaries.

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