Wagner and Bruckner are a classic concert pairing. One was a huge devotee of the other – Bruckner even studded the first version of his Third Symphony (dedicated to Wagner) with quotations from several of his operas – and they both painted on huge canvasses in their respective fields. In this Vienna Philharmonic concert at the Salzburg Festival though, Christian Thielemann, who largely built his reputation on these two composers, opened with non-operatic Wagner on a much more intimate scale, leaving the big brass guns to “Bruckner the trumpet” and a tremendous reading of the Fourth Symphony.

Elīna Garanča
© Salzburg Festival | Marco Borrelli

Non-operatic they may be, but two of Wagner’s Wesendonck LiederIm Treibhaus and Träume – were very much “compositional studies” for Tristan und Isolde. They are songs of longing, dreams and desires, offspring of the mutual infatuation between the composer and Mathilde Wesendonck. The last time I heard Elīna Garanča sing them was in recital at Wigmore Hall, where the spare piano accompaniment perhaps contributed to a cool, slightly detached reading. In Felix Mottl’s orchestrations and in the Vienna Philharmonic’s warm embrace, the Latvian mezzo turned up the sensuality dial. 

Although Garanča has advanced to heavier roles in recent years with Dalila and Eboli (her role debut as Amneris was an early Corona casualty), she maintains purity and lightness in her upper register. High notes in Im Treibhaus were beautifully shaded, while her poised reading of Träume was exquisite. But there was operatic declamatory weight behind Schmerzen, the highlight of the set. Thielemann, baton lightly held between thumb and forefinger, drew sensitive string accompaniments, especially in Der Engel

Christian Thielemann conducts the Vienna Philharmonic
© Salzburg Festival | Marco Borrelli

Bruckner symphonies often elicit responses comparing them to cathedrals or mountains, revelling in their immense scale and brass-heavy orchestration. But it was the intimate moments that told most strongly in Thielemann’s reading: the lightness of the tremolandos, the way the woodwind principals echoed each other’s phrasing, the cantabile line of the cellos. With minimal gestures, he gently ushered the orchestra along his route, a relaxed pace but still a good deal swifter than his Staatskapelle Dresden recording. There were no rough edges to the Vienna brass, noble and blended to perfection, a richness to their sound so that fortissimos were not sandblasted, as in some powerhouse orchestras, but caressed. 

The Scherzo was a marvellous showcase for the Viennese horns, full of bucolic spirits. Bruckner’s music isn’t programmatic, but it’s impossible not to conjure up a vision of the hunt as it charges across open fields, hounds baying. In the Trio section, a pause for breath from the pursuit, Karl-Heinz Schütz’s airy flute provided the pastoral balm. In the finale, Thielemann again was in no mood to burst the decibel meter, gradating dynamics with great skill. His pacing of this long movement was masterly and he even managed to elicit a long silence at the symphony’s close before the well-deserved applause broke in.

This performance was reviewed from the video stream.