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

October 22, 2022
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 the 1890 revision of the Eighth rather than the later Nowak; like Karajan and Furtwaengler, he modifies Haas with 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. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. cso.org


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