Christian Thielemann may have attracted some unfavourable headlines in his time – fallings out with big opera companies and run-ins with Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim – but there’s no doubting he’s a worthy keeper of the flame when it comes to the core Austro-German repertoire. The boyish-looking 55-year-old’s new “dream job” as chief conductor of Staatskapelle Dresden is already producing treasures with this DVD set of Brahms’s four symphonies.
The live performances in Dresden and Tokyo are compelling viewing and listening with the orchestra’s famed soft and burnished sound ideal for this material. Thielemann is authoritative and punctilious throughout, setting excellent tempi and showing us how well he absorbed his work experience jobs with Karajan in Berlin and Barenboim at Bayreuth.
An added bonus is a fascinating documentary in which the conductor is a companion on this journey through the symphonies. He shows us each work’s distinctive character and points out pitfalls for the unwary. He says the third symphony is the most enigmatic, mainly because it “implodes” rather than ending in a blaze of triumph. “There’s a kind of archaic violence that emanates from Brahms… if violence can be positive then it is in Brahms,” he concludes. You may not agree with all he says, but the performances are magnificent.