Christian Thielemann’s repertoire is broader than is often made out, but not that much broader. At its heart are the four composers most associated with late Austro-Germanic Romanticism: Johannes Brahms, Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Anton Bruckner. It’s a satisfying if rather glutinous diet, one steeped in canonical tradition, and one that on any extended basis can nowadays only really work with certain Central European orchestras.

Christian Thielemann conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden © Matthias Creutziger
Christian Thielemann conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden
© Matthias Creutziger

The Staatskapelle Dresden is one of them. After all, Wagner was its chief conductor in the 1840s, and Strauss had a particularly close relationship with it nearly a century later. Their tone has retained hues crucial to the German Romantic palette, with a rounded string sound that is lively on the service and undergirded by a hefty base, and a horn section that could come straight from a hunting part in the Wald. And they guard one of the finer Bruckner heritages of any orchestra, tended under Karl Böhm, Eugen Jochum, and Giuseppe Sinopoli.

Especially in Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony – his longest and most obviously Wagnerian – Thielemann and the Dresdeners ought to be a marriage made in late Romantic heaven. One day it might be, but here the courtship remained earth-bound and dry-eyed.

Two things make for a really fine Bruckner performance. The first is a clear view of tempo relationships between themes within movements, and between moods and themes over Bruckner’s gigantic spans. The second is rather more personal, separating the merely good from the great: an answer to the question posed by Bruckner and sidewalk kooks alike, “what does it all mean?” This might be theological, as in Gunter Wand’s recordings, or something more cosmically distant, as in Herbert von Karajan’s. It might even be something more strictly formal, as with Pierre Boulez’s revelatory recording of this work, or with Donald Runnicles’ approach. But it must be there: otherwise, much as I adore it, this music can start to sound laughable.

There was a very clear perspective to Christian Thielemann’s conducting of Brahms’ Fourth in the first of the Staatskapelle Dresden’s two concerts at Carnegie Hall this season: “impetuous, brutal, and nihilistic”, as I wrote. But if there was one to this Bruckner I couldn’t quite decipher it. Thielemann doggedly drew out details from the podium, often enlighteningly, sometimes distractingly, and at times allowing odd balances to fester uncorrected elsewhere. The Staatskapelle’s playing had a humane but ethereal quality to it, something heartwarming, but too regularly it seemed slightly timid by the extraordinarily committed standards Bruckner requires. Thielemannn still deployed the tempo shifts he had used to great effect in the Brahms, but here they did neither sowed together quite so well, nor made for a convincing hour-and-a-half whole.

The initial pages of the opening movement were promising, with Thielemann exploring the collapse of the first theme through dissonance as its lines overlapped. From then on, however, things were on Thielemann’s autopilot, even if Bruckner’s greatest moments came out with magnificent power: the cacophonous collision of the first and second themes sounded glorious, if less prophetic than it might have done. The great Todesverkündigung and Totenuhr – the annunciation and hour of death – seemed far too benign, however nicely they fell upon the ears.

The scherzo again found Thielemann underlining details, and here this paid off: particularly in the return of that material after the trio, there was something newly generative about the way he shaped and guided Bruckner’s wandering but insistent repetiations. Yet there were a few ideas too many behind the adagio, in which balances were awry and emphases rather arbitrary. Here, in contrast to the hellish first movement, everything was now hard work, including the long buildup a climax bizzarely cut short. There was instantly more at stake to the finale, although fasts felt too fast and slows too slow. While the coda was aptly massive and the drive to it sporadically thrilling, it couldn’t rescue a performance that was something of a disappointment from these storied forces.