If Berlin wants a second Karajan, it’s not Thielemann

If Berlin wants a second Karajan, it’s not Thielemann


norman lebrecht

April 24, 2015

Slipped Disc editorial:

There is a strong party in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra that will vote for Christian Thielemann as music director on May 11, come what may. Many players consider him the quickest way to return the orchestra to its former prosperity and to its iconic German national status. Here are five reasons why they are wrong.

karajan dog


1 Karajan was an entrepreneur.

He saw the opportunity of turning Berlin rehearsals into recording sessions and playing corporate giants off against each other. Thielemann has no commercial nous.


2 Karajan was apolitical.

After 1945 he never consciously uttered a political preference, treating left and right with studious neutrality. Being Austrian helped him to rise above German factionalism. Thielemann, by contrast, is identified with the political right and is prone to making controversial statements that will get the orch into hot water.

karajan nazi

3 Karajan had irresistible charm.

4 Karajan was a people person.

Until the late 1970s (when he grew too rich) he was involved in players’ lives and attended their family occasions. He was never aloof, as Thielemann is.


5 Karajan conducted everywhere, all over the world.

karajan-driving seat

Thielemann has burned bridges in the US, the UK and France.



SEE ALSO: Why Barenboim would be wrong for Berlin Phil. Click here.


  • Erich says:

    Norman Lebrecht is absolutely correct (but it is interesting that his usually anti-Karajan stance seems to have softened….with age?). If Thielemann gets the job (and not Chailly or Jansons), the Berliners will surely be seeking a new music director again very soon. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Thielemann’s personality and behaviour, or who has talked to the musicians in Dresden, will know that whatever his musical qualities, they are far outweighed in a negative way by his deeply unpleasant personality and this would cause a rift in Berlin in the shortest possible time. In addition, the activities which a 21st century music director in Berlin needs to involve himself in, would be way beyond Thielemann’s capabilities. The Berliners choose him at their peril.

  • Simon S. says:

    6 Thielemann is a great conductor (at least within his rather limited repertoire), but his track record as head of any institution is rather poor. He has so far never been able to really leave his mark anywhere – he rather seems to be only interested in his concerts and performances, but not in the orch or opera company as such and its artistic development.

    7 There has always been quarrelling wherever Thielemann showed up so far.

  • Novagerio says:

    A propably the absolutely main reason: Thielemann will never dance to the tune of the Berlin Senate, as was already seen back in 2002. In Sachsen things are apparently the opposite.

  • Herrera says:

    Who says Thielemann wants Berlin? Thielemann is the only conductor today who can dominate the Austro-Germanic classical scene without having to lead Berlin. He does it with Dresden, at Salzburg, at Beyreuth.

    He is already accomplishing more on the German scene with another German orchestra than Rattle has done with the Berlin. In other words, he is already kicking Berlin’s butt.

    Indeed, taking on Berlin would create a lot of conflicts for him…does he take over Baden Baden and give up Salzburg Easter, or does he force out Dresden and reinstate Berlin?

    • Sue says:

      Bravo. Completely agree and, as I write this, he has the ‘musical olympus’ job at Bayreuth. He’s trumped the BPO, and then some.

      Who cares about his ‘personality’!!! And Karajan had few friends, despite what Norman says above. So few have spoken about him since his death; when you compare this with his protege Carlos Kleiber – whom everybody adored – this becomes very vivid.

  • Gregor Tassie says:

    ‘Karajan apolitical’ uhm …don’t think someone who joined the Nazi party twice over can be thought of as being apolitical. Neither was Karajan a man of the people , unless you mean the German Third Reich and its people. ‘Karajan had charm’, again, don’t think so, he comes across as a vane, greedy little despot who squeezed as much money out of people as he could.
    However Christian Thieleman will prove to be a very fine choice as Music Director and restore it to its true place in central European repertoire, personally I would wish he would stay with my favourite orchestra – the Dresden Staatskapelle.

    • Gianni Morelenbaum Gualberto says:

      Karajan grabbed any chance to grow under any point of view: he certainly was selfish and opportunistic, but politics for him were not a matter of ideology but of usefulness. He was married to a Jewish woman, but he discarded her as soon as he understood that she was not exactly the best card in the Nazi world. That said, he was an excellent conductor, whether we like it or not, he had charisma, he could have charm, he knew grandiously the cultural tradition he was coming from and also beyond that (his interpretations of Verdi, Mascagni, Puccini were often more than impeccable), even if today much of his approach may seem démodé.I don’t see any of those qualities in the snarling stiff upper lip of Mr. Thielemann, who’s an impressive conductor in a very limited repertoire (as far as I’m concerned, his Cav/Pag at Salzburg Festival sounded like A mixed bag of Richard Strauss and Puccini plus an extra-dose of supremely ridiculous bad taste between kitsch and schmaltz). And beyond his unpleasantness, in many public declarations he made I could distinctly hear the ring of anti-Semitism. I don’t think Berliners will fare very well with him… At least in my very personal opinion.

      • sdReader says:

        Wiki: “On 22 October 1942, at the height of the Second World War, Karajan married Anna Maria “Anita” Sauest, born Gütermann.”

        That’s four years after Kristallnacht.

        • Gianni Morelenbaum Gualberto says:

          Well, as far as I know, the story is somewhat different. It’s true Karajan married a woman burned by a Jewish grandfather, but he was always very prudent in not exposing her too much, in order not to upset Nazi officials. And it seems that after the war he got his “denazification” exploiting the Jewishness of his part-Jewish wife, pleading that he had resisted to the Reich. And some historians believe that Karajan deliberately lied in order to ensure denazification. That’s how I got the story, but I do not pretend it to be true, of course. So… don’t be so upset…

      • Max Grimm says:

        “He was married to a Jewish woman, but he discarded her as soon as he understood that she was not exactly the best card in the Nazi world.”

        As has been pointed out, he married her in 1942 and “discarded” her in 1958…

    • DLowe says:

      What a silly and predictable comment. Did you not see Norman’s “after 1945” comment.

  • Herrera says:

    Those who complain that Thielemann has a narrow repertory are not German, the core audience of Berlin, the audience that Berlin has to re-conquer, the audience that has drifted away from Rattle.

    Sure, for American or British audiences who do not have a strong traditional and historical nationalist sense of music, they’d want a versatile conductor, a jack of all trade. For the Germans, what do they care if you can do a pretty good Elgar or Wynton Marsalis Swing Symphony, if you can’t do soul-moving Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner.

    • Erich says:

      I’m not sure where you have the statistics which prove that ‘the audience has drifted away from Rattle’. From my frequent observations in the Philharmonie when he conducts, the hall looks pretty full to me. It is also noticeable how many more young people are in his concerts. It may be that the golden-oldie lovers of the 3 B’s feel that they are not being catered for suffuciently by him, but surely the fact that he has broadened the repertoire to such an extent, and that the orchestra has been rejuvenated without losing any of its quality, is his achievement. Thielemann might bring the oldies back but at a price not worth paying, in my opinion. He can always come back regularly as a guest, without endangering the orchestra in a position of authority as music director.

    • Simon S. says:

      Err, I am German and I do complain that he has a narrow repertory.

      • Greg says:

        I agree with Erich, I think another conductor would be better, and Thielemann can return as a guest. Bychkov does a wide variety like Karajan did. He does German, Italian and Russian opera. I’ve seen Bychkov conduct Mahler, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Bartok live about 4 years ago with the VPO and the three concerts were excellent. He has worked with the orchestra longer than Thielemann. I hope he gets asked.

  • Marter says:

    My vote is for Thielemann:
    1. He’s made Dresden a great success plus Salzburg, Bayreuth, etc
    2. He is considered “right-winded..” but I agree with him about xtreme-Islamism. Anyway, always better than the politica views of Dudamel (silence: “Ask Gabriela Montero…”) or Barenboim (ambiguity) .
    3. In Germany he is considered at a level of a “Pop-star”.
    4. He seems friendly with many people.
    5. He’s gone to conduct all over the world. Recently a tour to Asia.

    • Gerhard says:

      I’m impressed that you share your vote with us before May 11th, but I don’t find you in the Berlin Phil roster. In which section do you play?

  • Sebastian says:

    Well…..the brits have Simon and Magdalena, Baked beans, fish and chips. So why don’t you guys do not shut up?

    • Furzwaengler says:

      So where pray lies the connection between Rattle and fish and chips and Thielemann and Currywurst, braune Sosse, Eisbein, more braune Sosse, Sauerkraut, Iinfarktskalbs und -schweine haxen (no doubt mit yet noch mehr Sosse)?

  • Jon H says:

    There is probably the bigger problem of needing to be even more catholic in his programming. The Berlin orchestra going forward really needs someone who can give German music something special, but can also do something interesting with the rest of the repertoire – sort of reflecting the orchestra’s own abilities. Thielemann is great in certain scores, sort of like Karajan was – but, like Karajan, it doesn’t always successfully carry over into everything else. There’s nothing wrong with that – too many conductors have gone the other way, spreading themselves too thin, and are not really good at anything. So he’s a great guest conductor for Berlin – and I think we can give him a few more years perfecting his Bruckner, Schubert, Mozart, Brahms, etc. – but for the sake of the music, the guest conducting should span the globe. Unfortunately the older generation will not be with us forever, and what they’re able to do with the classics isn’t necessarily being seen in the younger generation. But pretty soon Thielemann will be the older generation, and I’m sure he’ll put down some great interpretations at that point.

  • DESR says:

    My word, Norm is going soft on Karajan in his old age….! A glowing endorsement after all these years.

    Well Thielemann does have a narrowish repertoire, but a catholic selection of guest conductors could sort that – if he agrees to be more pluralistic about that than he was in Munich.

    He would also certainly stand up to political interference on behalf of the orchestra.

    My view increasingly is that whilst he ought to be offered it, on musical and commercial groups both, he clearly has hit the ball out of the park in Bayreuth, Dresden, and now Salzburg and so should probably refuse. For his own sake, to dodge the brickbats (which would get worse), and to allow the BPO to find itself again without those noises off.

  • Robert Kenchington says:

    I still maintain that for a variety of reasons, both social and musical, the kind of conductor the BPO needs no longer exists. Karajan was THE maestro, with a powerful combination of musicality, charisma, technique and wide repertoire. A media savvy mogul who commanded both respect and total obedience from an orchestra who was prepared to waive its self-governing rights in exchange for global commercial success – albeit tinged with tyranny.

    As I have said elsewhere on this blog site, the modern conductor has become little more than window dressing while the orchestra goes its own way. Orchestra builders like Karajan need time and resources to accomplish their artistic aims – something that is not generally available to today and would ONLY be available if there was a conductor with similar commercial appeal. But there isn’t and that’s flat. Karajan made profits, Bernstein made profits and the rest cost money.

    In my view, the Berlin Philharmonic has its own style and tradition and can manage perfectly well with a regular roster of eminent guest conductors -something the Vienna Philharmonic has thrived on for some 80 years!

  • Adriano says:

    Bravissimo, Norman, these things should be said/written since a long time – and I personally agree in all points. I also guess that Karajan’s cultural knowledge was superior and broader. He had an incredibly strong aura and magnetism. In spite of his “distant” attitude, one could feel to love him and a need of approaching to embrace him to say thanks for all what he had done with music.
    Dresden, Bayreuth and Salzburg, incidentally, did not need Thielemann to become “great successes”! The Berliner should get him as a guest – just to try out how long they can stand it.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Would anyone care to translate this post into German?

    • Hilary says:

      Another significant difference is that Karajan, unlike Thielmann wasn’t adverse to modernism. In the 1960s his programmes included works by Ligeti (atmospheres), Penderecki ( before he became dull) , Messiaen and Henze.

      • 5566hh says:

        Actually Thielemann has conducted Messiaen and Henze (both in the the Digital Concert Hall) and Jörg Widmann. His most noticeable gaps are with regard to composers like Stravinsky, Bartok, Prokofiev, Berlioz, Elgar, Haydn…

  • Brian Hughes says:

    1. Karajan was an entrepreneur–toward all things Karajan.

    2. Apolitical? Norman, tell me you are kidding.

    3. Irresistible charm? Oh yes, especially when he conducted entire works/concerts with his eyes closed. As a player, I would have ignored him from the get-go.

    4. People person? If you were the right “people.”

    5. Conducted everywhere. One could certainly say the same of Gergiev, but I’d never count that in his favor.

    One would have us think that Barenboim remains the only one in the running. I certainly hope not….

    • M2N2K says:

      1. To an extent perhaps true, but it benefited his orchestra as well as listeners a great deal. 2. Can’t speak for Norman, but if you are serious, then you should give us a few examples of his political actions and/or pronouncements after 1945. 3. Looks like you have never played with him. Most of those who have were impressed by his unquestionable magnetism, particularly on the podium,(closed eyes notwithstanding). They certainly did not ignore him – quite the opposite – and the results were often superb. 4. Compared to CT, yes he was. Why would any reasonable person want to be with wrong people? 5. Again, the comparison was valid because it was with CT, not with Gergiev who is at the other extreme.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    What if Thielmann was offered the post and turned it down. what would the BPO think of him in that case for future consideration, and how would a “second choice ” conductor fell as an “also ran”?

  • klassikfan says:

    First the Feldherrenhügel, then the Reichstag…?
    Alas – a mediocre Kappellmeister and an orchestra which refuses to give conductors professionally what they want sounds like a perfect match…

  • Johann S says:

    Thielemann = boring, lacking imagination, excitement, charisma and innovation!

    Karajan = great musician, entrepreneur, visionary, inspiring, and had a super gravitas personality!

    In the era of the digital concert hall, if you look like Frankenstein, forget it!

    CHAILLY is their best choice!

  • Peter says:

    It’s funny how Brits and Americans care about this. As if Germans would care that much about who gets chief at NY Phil or Chicago. Get a life (or a classical culture), Anglo-Americans.

    • M2N2K says:

      We are talking about a great orchestra and I don’t see anything wrong with people caring about great music across national borders. If Germans don’t, then it is their problem, but I believe that they probably do more than you think.

    • Ben says:

      Actually, most American musicians I talk to couldn’t care less about who Berliner would elect.

      It’s this site’s constant posts that solicit people’s response, which may give an impression that people care.

      I am sure many people are _interested_. Most of us couldn’t _care_ less, however.

  • Laurids says:

    My, but doesn’t the music get short shrift here! All is show biz and bright lights,
    celebrites and name dropping, star gazing and wishful thinking, malice and
    silly gossip, and a hilarious lack of insight, information and common sense.
    What a judgement on the world of classical music and its hangers-on.
    Obviously, the BPO knows what they would be getting with Thielemann much
    better than anyone here, and if they choose him(rather likely)…good for them.

  • M2N2K says:

    If they choose CT, then most of those who voted for him will very likely regret it after a couple of years with him.

    • Anon says:

      This “they will regret” topos is very popular here among the CT opponents. But don’t you think after they know CT for almost 20 years as a guest conductor, they are quite able to weigh his pros and cons carefully? Every candidate out there is not the ideal one. That Übermensch does not exist. To paraphrase Churchill:
      Perhaps Thielemann is the worst chief conductor for the Berlin Phil, except for all the others.

      • Gerhard says:

        I agree that the orchestra members will know much better than anybody else what they want and need. But as a general experience it can be stated that most conductors present themselves quite differently as guest conductors than when they act in the role of a chief conductor, for better or for worse.

        • M2N2K says:

          Yes, I agree that they know him quite well, but I also agree that there is no ideal candidate for them right now, which is why I am sure that some of them (none of us knows how many) will definitely vote for him. However, I also agree that requirements that are essential for a guest conductor are substantially different from those that are crucial for a music director, which is why I made my hypothetical prediction qualifying it as “very likely”. Since I am certain that most of the Berlin Phil musicians are intelligent enough to understand those differences, I am hopeful that they are going to make a wise decision.

  • Nick says:

    Karajan was certainly a highly business-oriented conductor, but surely another factor is that he had one of the shrewdest managers in the business on his side. Ronald Wilford at CAMI was not his only manager but I believe he and his eventual lackey Gelb did succeed in considerably widening HvK’s financial horizons by securing huge fees and attaching them to additional lucrative benefits for some of the BPO’s touring. That collapsed after a very public sandal in Taiwan and Germany.

    The agent/management world has changed vastly since those days. Thielemann would not be able to wield such financial muscle.

  • Rob van der Hilst says:

    Berlin friends, invest in a younger (and r e a l) Maestro: Thomas Hengelbrock. Si simple comme bonjours.

  • Michael B says:

    Enough, please, about the Berlin Philharmoniker – what matters to us Midlanders is who is going to follow Nelsons at the CBSO?……