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Christian Thielemann

Natural Born Provocateur and Sensualist

Yes, he’s the one behind the staging of Hans Pfitzner’s opera Palestrina in Nuremberg (doubly controversial because of Pfitzner’s apparently virulent anti-Semitism and the fact that Nuremberg was the location of Hitler’s notorious party rallies). And yes, he is a member of the inner circle at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. Yes, too, he does proudly describe himself as a Prussian. And so on. Christian Thielemann: undoubtedly an international class conductor, perhaps indeed the very best contemporary Wagnerian. But, I imagined, very likely a feisty, formidable and forbidding character. Did a tough encounter lie ahead on this latest edition of Talking Germany? 

So it was a quite a surprise when the very dressed-down Mr. Thielemann arrived at the studio and we launched into our first topic of conversation: his shoes! A quirky selection: sporty going on spacey – “a by-product of the aerospace industry!” Then we moved on to music and, as I was keen to recommend a book that I’ve just been reading about 20th century classical music (Alex Ross “The Rest Is Noise” – magnificent!), I asked him whether he spent much time reading about music. A veritable explosion of opinion: “NO! Because you can’t write about music! Just like food – you can’t write about food! And sex. You can’t write about sex!” 

I quickly conclude: our maestro is what the Germans call a Lustmensch – somebody who experiences the world sensually. And while he was enthusiastically tucking into the rich Talking Germany fruit selection, and refusing to be photographed in the unflattering light of the makeup area, the dressed-down conductor turned next to the vexed question of – wait for this – why it’s always girls who bare themselves in the yellow press – why not men? Why don’t we get more men? Surely that would also be good for business? Well! How did we get on to this, I asked myself? 

Where on earth did he get it from – all this boisterous, overflowing energy? His parents? No, he shot back, not my parents: “I was born this way,” he asserted with sheer conviction. OK. And, I must say, this might have been a very opinionated guest, but a very likeable one. By the way: Pfitzner’s opera, says Christian Thielemann, has a “narcotic” musical beauty; you can, he argues, take Wagner’s music and leave his politics (“Wagner is devil and god” he was recently quoted); and, he would insist, there’s also a gloriously rational and enlightened Prussian tradition (Kant, Leibniz, Schinkel) that he unabashedly subscribes to. All this is Germany, too.


June 5, 2009