Symphonic sausage roll without the sausage

CLASSICAL Christian Thielemann / LSO Barbican Centre, London
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There are few things in life more uplifting than a really good Eroica. But when it doesn't work, it can be utterly deadening. Within the space of two months, the Barbican has given us examples of both extremes. At the end of March, Valery Gergiev and the Rotterdam Philharmonic gave a performance of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony that will surely live in people's memories for years. Broadly traditional in concept, it still managed to turn familiar phrases into thrilling new experiences, and to convey a sense of the whole work as an epic adventure. There were moments in the slow movement and finale where I felt my tear-ducts tingling. Questions of period style were irrelevant; one felt this was "authentic" to the core.

As for Christian Thielemann's performance with the London Symphony Orchestra on Thursday - well, if I forget it as soon as I've finished writing this review, it won't be a moment too soon. The whole thing was mannered, sententious and hollow: all surface and no substance - a symphonic sausage roll with no sausage. As with Gergiev, Thielemann's approach could be labelled traditionalist, but in the worst sense. Thielemann pulled the tempo about in the first movement and the slower finale variations in a way that superficially recalled Furtwangler. But where Furtwangler would have conveyed the impression of spontaneity, Thielemann was grimly predictable. As the first movement ground towards its dissonant central climax (not quite central here: Thielemann imperiously ignored Beethoven's first section repeat), one braced oneself for the inevitable gear-change, the strings trudging slowly then gradually, exhaustedly returning to tempo - the sort of thing that was apparently common currency in pre-war Eroicas. It came, as expected - but why? This was pure gesture, no sense of inner raison d'etre.

Let's not blame the LSO. They gave every indication of trying to realise Thielemann's ideas with conviction, as they did in the single item in the first half: Strauss's Metamorphosen. The subtitle of this work is "Study for 23 solo strings" but, as far as I could tell, Thielemann doubled every string line throughout the piece. There may be a case for doubling some passages if the piece has to be played in a large concert hall. But others plainly demand the subtle expressive intensity that only a solo instrumental voice can give. If Thielemann's Metamorphosen gained something in tone-weight, it lost far more in immediacy and intimacy; and, almost inevitably, there were intonation problems.

As a conception, it was a strange experience: intermittently impressive, but a lot of it low key, quiet passages wanly sentimental or simply impassive. Having made much of the final climax, Thielemann turned the elegiac coda into a protracted Mahlerian leave-taking - the kind of thing Strauss himself is said to have found unpalatable in Mahler's symphonies. Would Strauss have been swayed by this? I doubt it.

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