New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon
Thursday, 21 June 2018
Bruckner Symphony No. 1 Thielemann
Symphony No. 1 (1868 Linz version)
C MAJOR 744608 (DVD:
Christian Thielemann has long been associated with Bruckner, and his
current discography includes 25 recordings of Bruckner symphonies, with various
orchestras and labels. But up until now he has avoided the earlier symphonies,
with only a single recent account of the Third, and none for the four that
precede it. Unlike his previous Bruckner recordings with the Munich
Philharmonic, this set with the Staatskapelle Dresden is shaping up to be a
complete set, so the time has come to address these early scores.
If you have been following this cycle, which now includes Symphonies
Nos. 1, 4, 5, 8, and 9, you’ll know what to expect. The Dresden orchestra
performs in an ideal eastern German style, with nasal horns and a woody but resonant woodwind tone, all over a lush
but timbrally complex bed of strings. Thielemann conducts from memory, and
looks completely obsessed with the music. He conducts with small, emphatic gestures,
with glancing cues and few downbeats. Even so, there is never any doubt that he
is in complete control.
The camerawork is mobile, with close-ups of the soloists—the excellent
first horn gets a starring role—and plenty of Thielemann himself. The recording
was made live at the Gasteig in Munich, not as picturesque a venue as their
home at the Semperoper, used in previous installments, but it offers good
sightlines and the audio is excellent.
My only complaint is with Thielemann’s approach, which is grand and
imposing, on the same scale as his readings of the later symphonies. The First
Symphony isn’t a small-scale work, but it is more modest than the Seventh or
Eighth, and while it shares their style of symphonic discourse, it needs a
lighter touch. Thielemann’s heavy and overtly symphonic approach works well in
some passages, particularly in the Scherzo, which has real punch, and much of
the Finale, but elsewhere feels overblown. The Adagio in particular is too emphatic, too architectural and lacking
in melodic flow—when the camera turns to Thielemann’s face, his stern
expression and furrowed brow seem to be etched on to the music.
But this is how Thielemann always approaches Bruckner, and everything
else, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Just one last grumble: If Thielemann
is going to take this approach to the First Symphony, then why not use the Vienna version? For the revisionist school of Bruckner
performance, the conductors who favor fleet tempos and light textures—Schaller,
Janowski, Venzago—the Linz version of the symphony makes perfect sense, but the
more polished and cosmopolitan later version would seem a better fit for
Thielemann’s approach. The musical world still hasn’t forgiven Bruckner for
setting aside his Ninth Symphony to revisit the First, so his final version
seems destined to remain a rarity on disc.
This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 42:1.