Thielemann Ends Long Hiatus From U.S. With Grand Bruckner Eighth

Christian Thielemann made a long-awaited return to the U.S., conducting the Chicago Symphony in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8. (Photos by Todd Rosenberg Photography)

CHICAGO — Christian Thielemann had not conducted in the U.S. for 20 years. A long-ascendant star of European concert halls and opera houses, Thielemann, now 63, endured in the minds of American concertgoers by reputation only — a legend that resonated especially in the grandiose realms of Wagner, Bruckner, and Mahler. Until apparently at the personal and repeated urging of Riccardo Muti, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Thielemann ended his epic hiatus with an epic return, leading Muti’s Chicagoans in Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony on Oct. 22 at Orchestra Hall. The outcome was monumental, indeed.

It bears noting up front that the German conductor’s appearance in Chicago coincides more than incidentally with Muti’s impending departure as music director, a position he has held since 2010. Officially, Muti will step down at the close of the 2022-23 season, though rumors are flying that he might guide the orchestra through one more season as music director emeritus. That would exactly square up with Thielemann’s exit as principal conductor of Staatskapelle Dresden in 2024. While there is no reason to assume Thielemann will follow Muti as music director of the Chicago Symphony, the circumstances are at least intriguing. Moreover, if his grand and eloquent Bruckner afforded but one sample of his rapport with the orchestra, at 84 minutes with all hands on deck, it was a generous sample and altogether persuasive.

Thielemann and the Chicago Symphony in Brucknerian action.

Even among Bruckner’s much-reworked symphonies, the vast Eighth has seen an especially checkered history of editions or combinations of editions. A program note pointed up the work’s chameleon character: “Mr. Thielemann uses the Haas edition of the score, which is based primarily on the 1890 version but also incorporates passages from the 1887 version.” Actually, Thielemann didn’t use any printed score at all; he led this performance, with impeccable precision and fluency, from memory. He also rearranged the Chicago Symphony’s conventional seating so that the arc of strings proceeded from first violins on his left, to cellos (with basses behind), then violas, and second violins to the conductor’s right. From my usual perch in the lower balcony, just to the conductor’s right, the proximity of first violins and low strings filled Orchestra Hall with an unusually opulent sound.

Bruckner’s later symphonies might be seen as Beethoven glimpsed through the prism of Wagner. Many commentators have observed the similarity between the opening movement’s principal theme and that of the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. More generally, Beethoven’s process of building his symphonies from motivic cells is echoed in Bruckner’s construction of sonorous cathedrals from fragments combined and recombined and constantly transformed in themselves and in their surroundings. The Eighth displays a kind of deceptive simplicity, even a proto-minimalism, that becomes more remarkable, more imaginative and sophisticated at each hearing.

Four of the horn players in Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony double on Wagner tubas.

At the risk of oversimplifying the brilliance at the core of Thielemann’s interpretation, it basically came down to expressive tempos and insightful voicing. Again and again, Bruckner begins a phrase in one color, say, brasses, but finishes it in perhaps violins. While Thielemann never failed to indulge episodes of generously singing lines — throughout the third-movement Adagio and the gentle middle section of the Scherzo, for example — he was completely and critically mindful of the musical shards that must be fitted together to make whole cloth of the first movement and especially the vast finale.

The Chicago Symphony has a history with Bruckner that dates fitfully all the way back to the late 1890s but meaningfully from Georg Solti’s long tenure as music director. His successor, Daniel Barenboim, further infused Bruckner into the CSO’s fiber; in the Muti era, it has been primarily guest conductors who have carried on the Bruckner tradition. This is a Bruckner orchestra whose certification resounds in its celebrated brasses. Thielemann summoned that special resource in its full glory — the sustained fanfares that crown the Eighth were thrilling to behold — but he also allowed the French horns and trumpets to display their more subtle virtuosity. And the conductor invoked Bruckner’s proud, not to say worshipful, Wagnerian sonority from four so-called Wagner tubas.

Thielemann and the Chicago Symphony accepting the audience’s vociferous applause.

Testament to Thielemann’s mastery in connecting this sprawling work to his audience was the dead silence of the latter. The conductor paused for nearly a full minute between movements, but those were the only breaks in a performance where music of soaring lines and meticulous rigor blazed on for nearly an hour and a half. At the end, the audience exploded. Maybe Thielemann will be the Chicago Symphony’s next music director, maybe not. But clearly, he will be welcome any time to lead another Bruckner symphony. Or Mahler. There will be an audience waiting.