A Perfect Partnership: Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall
By Alkis Karmpaliotis
Student at Fieldston High School
Founder of AppreciateOpera.org
The Vienna Philharmonic has long been considered one of the best, if not the best, orchestras in the world. This is attributed primarily to what prominent soloists and conductors call the “Viennese Sound,” a unique timbre that has culminated from centuries of tradition and a very selective entry process. To enter the orchestra, musicians are required to play for the Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera for a minimum of three years and then go through several auditions and tests. One of the most notable characteristics of the Vienna Philharmonic is that it is self-governed. Rather than have a principal conductor or director, the musicians themselves invite guest conductors to lead them on a concert-by-concert basis. For this reason, conducting the orchestra is considered a great honor.
Every year, during one of its international tours, the Vienna Philharmonic pays a visit to New York, giving three performances at Carnegie Hall, always with a conductor with whom they share a close artistic partnership. This season, they performed three excellent programs under the baton of Christian Thielemann, one of the world’s foremost conductors. Thielemann, a native German, is the principal conductor of the renowned Staatskapelle Dresden, and is one of the Vienna Philharmonic’s closest associates, having performed and recorded with them dozens of times throughout his storied career.
Their first program, performed on Friday night, consisted of Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), a tone poem for a large orchestra depicting the experience of climbing an Alpine mountain, and Arnold Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), a one-movement piece for strings. On Friday morning, I attended an open rehearsal for the concert, where I was fascinated to observe Thielemann’s close working relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic in action. Having previously rehearsed, performed, and even recorded the majority of these works, Thielemann did not bother to delve too deep into the piece, only making some last-minute tweaks and minor adjustments. “Make sure you are not late,” spoke Thielemann, with a hefty German accent, while rehearsing the Alpine Symphony, pointing to the double bass section. “Don’t do that tonight!”
Friday’s performance was a triumph, receiving praise and excellent reviews from the New York Times and New York Classical Review, amongst other distinguished music journals. The next evening, they played the Hebrides Overture and Scottish Symphony by Felix Mendelssohn, as well as Brahms’s Second Symphony, another great success. They concluded their string of concerts on Sunday afternoon, with Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, for which I was privileged to be in attendance.
Bruckner is a composer with whom the Vienna Philharmonic shares a deep connection, having premiered many of his works in the early 20th Century, including the Eighth Symphony. Although he is highly respected today, Bruckner was a controversial figure during his lifetime, particularly during his years working in Vienna as a teacher of music theory. Among his enemies was the powerful music critic Eduard Hanslick. Bruckner’s dispute with Hanslick arose from their disagreement over the so-called “War of the Romantics,” a schism between musicians in the 19th Century. At the heart of this schism were two different styles of composition: absolute music, which lacks an intended meaning, versus program music, which seeks to convey a broader artistic message. Composers such as Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann composed absolute music, while Richard Wagner and Bruckner favored programmatic music. Hanslick, being a staunch supporter of the former, found Bruckner’s music repellent.
The Eighth Symphony is widely regarded as Bruckner’s most remarkable composition — the piece in which he finally achieved the sublimity and gravitas for which he was searching throughout his career — even by Bruckner himself. Its orchestration is intricate and complex, featuring instruments such as the Wagner tuba and requiring the largest orchestra Bruckner ever used. Hermann Levi, a prominent conductor and close collaborator of Bruckner’s, said that the original score was “impossible to perform” and that the orchestration was “quite impossible.”
The completed version was premiered in 1892 to an audience consisting of supporters such as Johann Strauss and enemies such as Hanslick. The event was largely successful, the only misstep being that Hanslick angrily stormed out after the third movement. However, the work did not receive international acclaim until the late 20th Century, when it was made popular through the recordings of Herbert von Karajan and Pierre Boulez. Sunday’s performance was the orchestra’s sixth performance of Bruckner’s Eighth at Carnegie Hall in its history, after Karajan in 1959 and 1989, Karl Böhm in 1967, Georg Solti in 1993, and Bernard Haitink in 2002.
Over the last few years, the Vienna Philharmonic has been recording the full Bruckner symphony cycle under the Sony Classical label — the first such recording in the historic ensemble’s history — under the directorship of Thielemann himself, a master of Bruckner’s work. In fact, they released a brilliant rendition of Bruckner’s incomplete Ninth Symphony just a few days ago.
The first movement of Bruckner’s Eighth opens mysteriously, similar to other monumental works such as Beethoven and Mahler’s Ninth Symphonies and Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, with a quiet passage which music theorist Heinrich Schenker said sounds “like the beginning of the world.” This sequence develops toward a melodic second theme, which features the “Bruckner rhythm” — a two-against-three polyrhythm as depicted below.
The movement builds up to a dramatic tutti with the same rhythm as the opening bars, before calming back down toward a solemn C Minor conclusion in the strings. The ending is so dark that Bruckner called it his totenuhr, or “death knell.” Thielemann and the orchestra were in perfect harmony throughout the piece, complimenting each other to bring out a gorgeous cohesive sound.
The second movement, a Scherzo, opens with a dynamic five-note theme from the low strings, accompanied by a tremolo from the violins in a descending E Minor scale. This theme is revisited several times throughout the piece, in various different keys and tempi. The first climax — pictured below — appears in bars 49-52, about a minute into the piece, when the central theme is played by the brass and timpani.
In Thielemann’s 2011 recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden, he implemented a soft diminuendo during this passage, followed by a timely crescendo. However, this subtle detail was not present in Sunday’s performance, nor in Thielemann’s recent recording with the Vienna Philharmonic.
Thielemann has said that he likes to conduct the same pieces over and over again because he thinks he gets better at them, so it should come as no surprise that his interpretations change over time.
The third movement, a haunting Adagio, is one of the composer’s most celebrated compositions. It opens with an ethereal humming from the strings, before building up, through a series of escalating modal modulations, toward an invigorating climax. The movement is at once heartbreaking and soul-stirring; poignant, yet, at the same time, radiant with ecstasy. When conducted well, a single passage from this movement is enough to bring the listener to tears. Thielemann masterfully brought out the texture of the piece, and one could hear that every member of the orchestra was playing with passion.
The finale, subtitled Feierlich, nicht snell (Solemnly, not fast), is one of the most memorable in all of music. In fact, Bruckner called it “the most significant movement of my life.” The fiery opening sequence is driven by rhythmic brushes of the strings, accompanied by a belligerent melody in the brass and a Brucknerian fanfare from the trumpets. The movement contains numerous different melodies and episodes of harmonic tension, all culminating in an evocative resolution.
Bruckner was known for his use of brass instruments in his symphonies — a characteristic which was, in large part, inspired by Wagner. Part of what makes the Vienna Philharmonic’s renditions of Bruckner so special is that, rather than typical French horns, the orchestra equips the less-common Viennese horns, which possess a brassier timbre and more honeyed tone. The Vienna Philharmonic’s use of Viennese horns gives Bruckner’s music a unique tone and contributes to the “Viennese Sound” for which the ensemble is so famous. Thielemann emphasized the importance of the brass in the finale, perfectly drawing out Bruckner’s intended sound.
At the end of the symphony, Thielemann held his baton in the air for a few seconds, preventing the audience from breaking out in applause and allowing the sound to fully echo across the hall, as if to sustain the moment for as long as possible. Unfortunately, that moment was broken when an excited member of the audience prematurely yelled “Bravo!”, sparking a standing ovation.
After a few curtain calls, Thielemann unexpectedly marched back onto the stage for an encore. The piece opened with an angelic fluttering by the flutes and quickly developed into a classic Viennese waltz. I instantly recognized it as Josef Strauss’s beautiful waltz, Sphärenklänge (Spherical Sounds). This was the piece with which Thielemann concluded the 2019 Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert, so he and the orchestra certainly know it well (Thielemann will return to conduct the New Year’s Concert in 2024).
I found it curious that Thielemann, for whom a performance of Bruckner is such a sacred endeavor, chose to encore a piece as towering as the Eighth with a light waltz. Of course, I could not complain, as the piece was played marvelously. After all, the only repertoire with which the Vienna Philharmonic is more familiar than Bruckner is that of the Strauss family and their iconic Viennese waltzes.
As I walked out of the packed auditorium, still spellbound by what was one of the most cathartic musical experiences of my life, my focus shifted to the 2023-24 season, when the unparalleled Vienna Philharmonic will return to Carnegie Hall for performances of Bruckner and Mahler’s Ninth Symphonies, Ravel’s La valse, and other classics, this time under the baton of Franz Welser-Möst.
See you then.
I'm Alkis Karmpaliotis, and I'm a 16-year-old opera fan living in New York. Thanks for reading my article! I founded Appreciate Opera in 2019. You can support my work by reading my articles and interviews and subscribing.