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Christian Thielemann: Misanthropic maestro (photo: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images)

The most gifted German conductor for half a century is a hero in his own country and a shadow abroad. He has no artistic relationships beyond the German-speaking Heimatland and he is very seldom seen in London, Paris or New York. If Christian Thielemann is an important conductor, and he certainly is, the world ought to be hammering at his door. It isn’t. And therein lies a tale.

Of Thielemann’s gift there has never been a doubt. Anyone who saw him conduct Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth this summer, in the theatre or on video, will have heard in the opening chord exactly how the ending would be shaped four and a half hours later. That instinctual command of Wagner’s structure, his musical language and his inner secret are enough to appear no more than once or twice in a generation.

A musician who knew Thielemann in 1970s West Berlin confirmed to me that his mastery of a score was already evident at 14 years old. His middle-class parents had perfect pitch and his mother noted “seems to be musical” when the boy was just a year old. His teenaged talent, my informant said, was not accompanied by social grace or unusual intelligence, but these things can develop over time.

At 19, Thielemann was taken under the wing of Herbert von Karajan. He rose swiftly through German foothills, was general music director in Nuremberg at 28 and by 1997 was in charge of West Berlin’s Deutsche Oper. Signed up by the New York conductors’ Svengali Ronald Wilford, he seemed to be on the threshold of international celebrity, when things started to go off-piste.

When Thielemann was in London to conduct the UK stage premiere of Hans Pfitzner’s 1917 opera Palestrina, I noted “a certain stiffness in the air” around the Royal Opera House. Some musicians were calling him Hitler, bridling at his abruptness, allied to an unblinking faith in the German genius. His interpretative reverence exposed Pfitzner’s expressive limitations. The work died.

Back in Berlin, Daniel Barenboim, whom Thielemann had assisted at Bayreuth, threatened to sue for slander over alleged remarks about “a Jewish mess”. Thielemann denied using the J-word and the fuss blew over, though not without residue. Thielemann was the only maestro of his generation to promote German musical supremacy over European consensus. He became linked with the political Right. Lately, he has appeared to express support for the anti-immigrant Pegida movement. I say “appeared” since Thielemann’s remarks are couched in ambiguity and equivocation, a technique long favoured by the German far-Right.

Musically, his tastes are ultra-conservative and supremely German. He conducts Beethoven, Bruckner and Wagner with the deepest conviction. He shows no interest in contemporary culture.

His work history is turbulent. He quit Deutsche Oper in a huff in 2004 and the Munich Philharmonic in 2011. An administrator says he expects obedience and shares no credit. Another says he is a prisoner of his gods, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Karajan. Advised that he needed a website, Thielemann dismissed the suggestion. “Karajan never had a website,” he declared.

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Anonymous
September 26th, 2015
12:09 AM
What's so terrible about being lauded in your own country, especially when it is a country so blessed with healthy, vibrant orchestras and a deep respect for the music played? Why does everyone have to have a huge international career with multiple jobs and a constant transatlantic lifestyle? There are hundreds or un- or under- employed conductors all over the world and more are being churned out of the conservatories (especially in the US) every year. Thielemann's career would be the envy of any one of them. Indeed many amazing conductors who are fortunate enough to be employed, but not with orchestras necessarily equal to their talents and ambitions, would also gladly take his place. Get over it Norman. There are worse things to worry about in the music world, let alone the arts world, let alone.....

Neil McGowan
September 25th, 2015
7:09 AM
Thielemann has a reputation for being a very difficult and argumentative man. Moreover, he is closely connected with the far-Right PEGIDA movement in Germany. He hates modern music, he hates music that isn't German. He is not just disliked in Europe. He was passed over for the Berlin Philharmonic job - by a vote of the players themselves, who know exactly what he is like, and they didn't want to work for him.

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