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.
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