While Covid still keeps much of Germany in lockdown, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra seems to score musical and music-diplomatic successes one after the other. At the beginning of the year, they announced that Sir Simon Rattle would be its new chief conductor; indeed, he conducted the orchestra in three different programmes within a matter of days last month. Two significant conductor debuts have also dazzled audiences worldwide: a few weeks ago, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla's, then last Friday, Christian Thielemann stood on the podium in front of the orchestra for the very first time. Munich is blessed with two excellent concert halls and the orchestra regularly has the use of both of them; the BRSO website is well organised and informative and, importantly, offers its streamed concerts for free to anyone in the world. Germany’s support of the arts has always been exemplary.

Christian Thielemann makes his BRSO debut
© BR | Astrid Ackermann

Thus, the programme change (announced late and explained in the briefest of terms) for Friday’s concert was somewhat surprising. Thielemann’s momentous debut, announced as Anton Bruckner’s mighty Fifth Symphony, was replaced “for Covid-related reasons” by three musical oddities; worthy but seldom-programmed compositions by Richard Strauss and Robert Schumann, two of which were written only for orchestral sections. As a replacement for a Bruckner symphony, it felt like a poor choice.

The first item would be well-known to anyone fortunate enough to have attended any of the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual balls. The Wiener Philharmoniker Fanfare was composed by Strauss for the annual fundraising ball during the 1924 carnival season, and is performed every year since. It was written for 22 brass players and two timpanists, lasting barely two minutes, played and conducted on this occasion with precision and loud brassy sounds; well, it is a fanfare.

Christian Thielemann conducts the BRSO
© BR | Astrid Ackermann

Next came the Sonatina no. 1 in F major, one of Strauss’ several wind ensemble compositions. A curious title, given that the term “sonatina” usually refers to a short composition, which this 35 minutes work is certainly not. Equally curious are the circumstances of this light-hearted work’s composition: in the early months of 1943, both the almost 80 year-old composer and his wife were ill and World War 2 was raging around them. What an unlikely time to compose a lyrical work, here whimsical, there autumnal, which even includes an old-fashioned Romanze and Menuet as if no external calamity would have impacted at all on the composer’s inner peace. Thielemann conducted the BRSO winds through the myriad of characteristic Strauss motifs with easy-going rubato, well chosen tempi and a finely created balance between the instruments.

Christian Thielemann and the BRSO
© BR | Astrid Ackermann

For the last work on the programme, the Overture, Scherzo and Finale by Schumann, the whole orchestra finally appeared on stage together. This composition was supposed to establish – though it never quite managed – Schumann’s name as a symphonic composer. It is essentially a symphony without a slow movement, one that Schumann himself called at different times a ‘suite’, a ‘symphony’, even a ‘symphonette’, one that both audiences and publishers were slow to warm to in the 1840s, and this feeling has changed little since. While pleasant enough, even in the BRSO’s refined and sensitive performance, it impresses more with the qualities of a seldom-performed rarity, rather than a unique interpretation of a work that one should listen to with some regularity.

Thielemann’s first appearance with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra thus gave the impression of a highly professional, if not momentous debut concert.

This performance was reviewed from the BR Klassik video stream