Wagner conductor Thielemann: ′Now or never!′ | Music | DW | 12.06.2013
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Wagner conductor Thielemann: 'Now or never!'

Christian Thielemann has been called the the world's foremost living Wagner conductor. In Dresden, he spoke with Hans Christoph von Bock about Wagner as a "healthy drug" and whether musical keys can be politicized.

Stardirigent Christian Thielemann kommt am 22.05.2013 zu einem Sonderkonzert zum 200. Geburtstag des Komponisten Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883) im Festspielhaus auf dem Grünen Hügel in Bayreuth (Bayern) auf die Bühne. Foto: David Ebener/dpa (zu dpa-lby Bayreuth feiert 200. Geburtstag Richard Wagners vom 22.05.2013)

Dirgent Christian Thielemann

DW: May 22 was Wagner's birthday, and you pulled off a mini-marathon to celebrate:  a concert in the Semperoper on the 21st and another one in Bayreuth's Festspielhaus the following day. It seems as if you just can't get enough of Wagner, can you?

Christian Thielemann: You can never get enough Wagner! You just have to make sure you have the energy for him. But after all, a 200th birthday only comes around once.

Maybe there will be some kind of medical miracle, but in 50 years - when I'm over 100 - I may no longer be around for the 250th birthday. So I thought to myself: It's now or never! 

What does it mean to you to conduct on this occasion onstage in Bayreuth's Festspielhaus?

It has immense significance to me because it's an authentic place. What's different about it this time - and I didn't even think about this before I did it - is that you bow for the audience and stare down in that strange, empty orchestra pit!

Hans Christoph von Bock is seen interviewing Christian Thielemann in Dresden Co:DW

Feet up and a relaxed atmosphere for the interview

How did you arrive at the program for the birthday concert?

On one hand, you have to show the wide arc that Wagner's music takes. Nothing is better suited to that than the first act of "The Valkyrie." It's just so intoxicating! Plus I couldn't think of an act in another opera that would be relatively uncomplicated to perform, with just three soloists.

So what to do after the break? We wanted to continue in the same very intense, longing and absorbing vein, but with something gentler at first: the Prelude and "Love Death" from "Tristan and Isolde." That added a very reflective element to the evening.

Then there's some very nice interlude music that people are familiar with: "Siegfried's Rhine Journey" and the "Funeral March," certainly the most famous funeral march after Beethoven's. But not wanting to end Wagner's birthday concert with a funeral march, we opted for a sharp contrast with the "Mastersingers" overture. It just had to end with the "Mastersingers!" There is not a single prelude by Wagner that is so joyful, in a sense so harmless, that hopefully lets sends the people off in a brilliant mood.

The "Mastersingers" overture is certainly a wonderful piece. But can one conduct and listen to it today without thinking about how this music has been abused? Or doesn't that play a role for you?

The very fact that this question is posed so often plays a role. My answer is: I don't have anything else to say. It's a done deal. We know the facts, and "The Mastersingers" are "The Mastersingers." It's a rather nasty habit to try and ruin someone's fun on a day like this. If you have decided to play - or listen to - this music, then that says everything you need to know about the choices you make.

That's not to say that I'm unaware of what people can do with a piece of music. But music cannot be politicized. That is the great misunderstanding of every age. You cannot win over D major or C major for a certain political cause. That's the good thing about it.

Conductor Christian Thielemann and the DW team (c) DW

Conductor Christian Thielemann and the DW team

"Tristan und Isolde" is another work that is exceptional in every way. Some feel very drawn to it, others are overwhelmed. How does "Tristan" make you feel?

I have to say that it does get to me sometimes. But I have to see how long I can endure it. If the music gets too strenuous, I have to take a step back from it. But I think there's something wonderful about things that take you to the limit. "Tristan" is pure intoxication but not harmful to your health - in contrast to alcohol or other drugs.

That goes more for the listener than for the conductor, since I have to steer the whole thing. But if you hear a successful "Tristan" performance, you enter a state of intoxication. And that's definitely Wagner's intention. But you can handle it. Wagner is probably the only drug that is actually good for you!

If Wagner's music intoxicates and overwhelms, that's great for audiences, but what's it like for the conductor? Do you have to conduct the whole time with the "emergency break" pulled back? Can you set the intoxication aside?

No, that's impossible. But as the conductor, you can't give in to it as much as the listeners. You have to try and stay aware of the alarm that says: 'Watch out! You're about to run off the rails!' You've got to gently keep control of the whole thing but still be able to let loose. That's hard. But it's also the reason why such music has a conductor in the first place.

But that's true of all works - including a violin concerto by Brahms or a piano concerto by Tchaikovsky: the higher the waves are crashing, the cooler the soloist or conductor has to remain - you could even say calculating. It's like at the pharmacy: morphine in small doses can help, but in large doses, it can be deadly. That's true also of Wagner: An overdose of feeling can put everything out of order - and that's not what I want.

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