Christian Thielemann and Richard Strauss: a long-standing close relationship if ever there was one. However, the conductor never follows blindly, but inquisitively investigates the dual nature of his music: “With Strauss, I try to balance two aspects which seem to be mutually exclusive: transparency and richness. I try to achieve a certain lightness and at the same time give the heavier sections their due. With all its pathos, and its tendency towards the bombastic – this music ultimately has an innocent simplicity.”
This combination of lightness and sophistication is revealed in the works chosen for this concert. For example, in the excerpts from Arabella: a stage work which combines the mellifluousness and charm of Viennese operetta with sophisticated orchestration and finely-drawn characterisation. Just how masterfully Strauss – who was married to a singer – knew what could be done with the human voice can also be heard in a selection of songs, one of which, the Gesang der Apollopriesterin Op. 33 No. 2, was given its premiere in a Berliner Philharmoniker concert in 1896, conducted by Strauss himself.
The soloists for this evening’s concert are two of the greatest American singers of our time. An early milestone in Renée Fleming’s career was the Berliner Philarmoniker’s New Year’s Eve concert in 1992, which was broadcast on television all over the world. Even then, as the Marschallin in excerpts from Rosenkavalier, the soprano demonstrated just what an outstanding interpreter of Strauss she was. Thomas Hampson is also just as much at home with the music of Strauss. Like Christian Thielemann, he appreciates the multifaceted nature of this repertoire – particularly the role of Mandryka in Arabella: “He has his dark moments, leavened with a lot of humor. His fate is complex – even when he smiles, his eyes are deep and dark.”
The two orchestral works of the evening – the Festliches Präludium and the Festmusik der Stadt Wien – are rarely performed nowadays. Strauss wrote the Festmusik by way of thanks for the prize in the Beethoven Competition in Vienna which he received from Baldur von Schirach in 1942. However, it only received its premiere in Vienna in May 1943 as part of celebrations for the “5th Day of the Greater German Reich”, an occasion for which it had not been composed. Similarily, the Festliches Präludium, which was composed in 1913 for the opening of the Wiener Konzerthaus, was also used by those in power at National Socialist events. This fate was shared by works by other composers, not only by Richard Strauss. With this performance, Christian Thielemann on the other hand, would like to focus attention once again on the musical qualities of the works: “And how wonderfully Strauss could write, even for – I don’t know – something I think he did not take very seriously. It was simply the joy of composing, the joy of making music.”