Berlin-born Christian Thielemann returned to his home town to once again conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in an all Richard Strauss programme, featuring two almost completely unknown pieces – the Sonatina for 16 wind instruments in F major “Aus der Werkstatt eines Invaliden” and Three Hymns by Friedrich Hölderlin, before ending with the popular Rosenkavalier Suite.

Christian Thielemann and Anja Kampe with the Berlin Philharmonic
© Stephan Rabold

In homage to the passing of Mariss Jansons, who had conducted the Berlin Philharmonic numerous times, Thielemann and the orchestra played the prelude to Lohengrin by Richard Wagner. Many orchestra members were visibly touched as they gave a shimmering, ethereal rendition of the music. By a flick of his hand, Thielemann stopped any applause, instating instead a moment of respectful silence.

No wonder this is the very first time the Sonatina for 16 wind instruments, composed by the almost 80-year-old Strauss in 1943, has been performed only now by the Berliners: it requires an excellent and homogenous ensemble of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns. Even though titled “From the Workshop of an Invalid”, it is anything but a series of simple finger exercises. All three movements require constant high concentration by all musicians – not necessarily because of the level of difficulty but because of the many modulations and repetitions of the main themes. The 28-minute long work in three movements is instantly recognisable as Straussian. Thielemann gave each movement time to expand, so much so that there was barely a difference between the Allegro moderato of the first contemplative movement and the Allegro molto of the last, with its Till Eulenspiegel-like accents. The piece is infused with serene images of a never-ending creation, which are reflected in ever-new melodies and instrumental twists. Throughout, Thielemann was constantly busy teasing out the subversive volts of the score by the mature Strauss.

The three orchestral anthems, based on poems by Friedrich Hölderlin do not count to Strauss’ most popular, even though they were premiered by the Berliners in 1921, the year in which they were composed. Titled Hymne an die Liebe, Rückkehr in die Heimat and Die Liebe, the texts sound overly sentimental and heroic to contemporary ears. Anja Kampe, no stranger to Strauss, tried to elicit these emotions with her clear and soaring dramatic soprano, but had a hard time coming up against the opulent orchestral sound, with Thielemann giving her no slack, even in the Pianissimi passages. Adding to this, Kampe’s diction was practically non existent. Even so, these three songs deserve to be more present in concert programming.

The evening’s pièce de resistance was the ever popular orchestral suite in the version most likely put together by Artur Rodzinski in 1944 and published by Strauss under his own name in 1945. Thielemann visibly enjoyed this piece, jumping onto the podium and urging the orchestra on impetuously. On the other hand, he had the strings section play the presentation of the rose so sweetly and lyrically, without any allusions to false pretence or sentimentality, that any listener was convinced of the true love that springs spontaneously between Octavian and Sophie. In sharp contrast was the boisterous umpapa during Baron Ochs’ actions in the tavern, with its shrill discordancies. The recurring theme uniting the young lovers, now with the Marschallin’s blessing, simply blossomed to the enjoyment of all. The orchestra clearly relished this work just as much as Thielemann enjoyed conducting it.