Conducting an orchestra takes a vast amount of knowledge and talent, an ability to communicate, and a certain je ne sais quoi. Try as the Cleveland Orchestra might, Franz-Welser Moest will never have the charisma and popular following of a Gustavo Dudamel. Although David Zinman might conduct circles around Christoph Eschenbach, it’s Eschenbach who has the higher profile.
And as the Italian conductor Fabio Luisi learned, he couldn’t make himself as desirable as Christian Thielemann, his successor as general music director of the Dresden Staatskapelle and the Saxon State Opera. In 2010, Luisi abruptly resigned from his post, two years before Thielemann was supposed to take over, because the administration had arranged for Thielemann, rather than Luisi, to lead the annual televised New Year’s Concert — without letting Luisi know.
Thielemann’s particular flavor of mystique is German. Now securely ensconced in Dresden, he came with his orchestra to Strathmore on Tuesday night, courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society, trailing a cloud of Deutschtum and an all-German program. Not just all-German, but all-Brahms, fitting right in with his expertise in a relatively narrow, German Romantic repertoire (Beethoven and Brahms, Strauss and Wagner, Schumann and Pfitzner). On Tuesday, he led the Academic Festival Overture, the violin concerto and the Fourth Symphony, to the enthusiastic plaudits of the crowd.
It’s hard to call Thielemann charismatic. He’s a big, solid slab of a man, with a boyish face that, as he gets older, is turning slightly beefy (he’s 54). Conductors these days can’t get away with the kind of dictatorial approach of such 20th-century greats as Toscanini or Szell, but Thielemann exudes, to an outside eye, a commanding sternness; it’s easy to label him with facile German stereotypes about authority and order, and he often elicits comparisons to Karajan.
Yet this image is something at odds with what he actually does with the music. On Tuesday, he was anything but stern and rigid. In fact, he was kind of all over the place. He conducts with a certain beauty, a certain majesty, and a certain stop-and-start variability to his tempi. When I focused on his baton, I felt slightly carsick.
It certainly isn’t predictable. The Academic Festival Overture made a snappy opening, showing off the orchestra’s ability: a softness to the strings, like spring air, with a hint of a bite to the winds, and strong dark percussion giving crisp definition to the final chords. The Fourth Symphony, the evening’s long conclusion, demonstrated the extremes that characterized the performance as a whole. Now it was elegant and lissome, holding something in restraint, and rhetorically clear so that the architecture of each movement was evident, and you’d never confuse the end of a movement with the end of the piece; there was always a sense that more was coming. At other moments, though, it was slightly raw, slightly loose-limbed, with a hint of bombast (in the third movement) or rawness (at the start of the fourth, and in the convulsive, jagged breaths of the horns and spasms of timpani toward its end). Sometimes it was quick, and often it was very, very slow.
The violin concerto was either the evening’s highlight or its dead zone. On the plus side, certainly, was Lisa Batiashvili, who played with beautiful intensity and without undue mannerism, and got a strong, warm sound out of her Stradivarius (an instrument once owned by Joseph Joachim, for whom Brahms wrote the piece). Thielemann was a responsive accompanist, with an eye to details: the slightly rough edge to the oboe in the opening of the second movement, the startled raucousness of the third. But all the details sometimes weighed the piece down; the second movement seemed one of the slowest on record. Batiashvili, alas, could not be prevailed upon to play an encore, but the orchestra did, at the end of the night, offer the Act III prelude from Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” which featured yet another seesawing tempo change and some warm and lively playing as a fitting conclusion to an uneven evening.