In less than two weeks, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) will make one of its rare appearances in Toronto for two concerts at Roy Thomson Hall. This is the first of two articles about the orchestra and its conductors, its history of concerts in Toronto, its recordings, and its innovative website called Digital Concert Hall.
Wilhelm Furtwängler, the orchestra’s chief conductor, was to lead the Berlin Philharmonic on its first tour of North America in February of 1955. When Furtwängler died suddenly (November 30, 1954), Herbert von Karajan replaced him, and before the tour was over, the orchestra members had voted to appoint Karajan as Furtwängler’s successor, and as conductor-for-life of the Berlin Philharmonic.
During that historic 1955, 27 concert North American tour, one of the orchestra’s stops was at Massey Hall in Toronto, where Karajan conducted a program that included Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 12, Brahms Symphony No. 2, Strauss Till Eulenspiegel and Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture.
When the BPO returned to North America just a year and a half later, with Karajan again at the helm, there was another concert in Toronto (October 18, 1956). This time, Karajan led off with Mozart’s Symphony No. 35, continued with Strauss Don Juan and finished with Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. At the time, I was an usher at Massey Hall, and this concert made an indelible impression on me. I had never before heard playing of this quality or conducting of such intensity. Incidentally, the BPO also gave concerts in Hamilton, Montreal and Ottawa during this tour.
Some years later, the BPO returned to Toronto for a third time. On this occasion, the orchestra was conducted by Karl Böhm in an all-Beethoven program consisting of the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies. Although he remained head of the BPO until 1989, Karajan never returned to Toronto conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, or for that matter, any other orchestra.
After Karajan’s death in 1989, the orchestra chose Claudio Abbado as his successor. When Abbado succumbed to illness (2002) and had to step down, his place was taken by Simon Rattle. Under Nikisch, Furtwängler, Karajan, and Abbado, the Berlin Philharmonic took its tradition — i.e., German classics were the core repertoire and pieces outside this canon, and especially contemporary works, were tolerated but not celebrated very seriously. The members of the orchestra themselves chose their chief conductors.
As younger musicians came into the orchestra, attitudes began to change. Simon Rattle was hired, not only because of his enormous talent, but also because he was known for his innovative programming and concert presentation, and in hopes that he might enliven an institution that was seriously out of touch with younger concertgoers.
That said, some of the BPO’s older critics and subscribers were skeptical; they resisted Rattle’s new ideas as best they could, but he persevered. Under Rattle’s leadership, the Berlin Philharmonic became a major force for innovation, and his concerts were often unpredictable and exciting. If his Beethoven and Brahms were never good enough for some critics, that was just too bad – he did pretty much what he wanted for fifteen years. Scheduled to step down at the end of next season, he will be succeeded by Kirill Petrenko.
Among Rattle’s most innovative projects was a series of performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The piece itself was not new to the orchestra’s repertoire — Furtwängler, Karajan, and Abbado had all done it — but Rattle’s production was totally fresh. Nearly always presented as an oratorio even though its telling of the passion story is highly dramatic, Rattle felt the piece cried out for some sort of theatrical realization, and so hired director Peter Sellars to work out a staging of the piece that would emotionally engage audiences in a powerful, personal way.
Sellars was given several weeks of rehearsal time to work out the staging. Under his inspired direction, the vocal and instrumental soloists and the members of the chorus all memorized their parts and were thus able to concentrate on bringing the characters of the drama to life through text, music, and movement. Although the staging was highly stylized and understated, thereby retaining the integrity of Bach’s musical structure, the interaction between the characters was palpably moving.
The most radical departure from tradition concerned the role of the Evangelist. In most performances, he is the storyteller/pastor, the man who lays out the terrible details of the passion of Christ for the congregation, but is not himself a participant in the story. In Sellar’s version, the Evangelist often embodies the very events he is describing. When Christ is flogged, the Evangelist writhes in pain; when Judas gives Christ the fateful kiss, it is the Evangelist who receives it; and after Christ has been taken down from the cross, the Evangelist lies prone on a slab, like a corpse.
In this production, the Evangelist becomes the central figure, both as a storyteller and as Christ himself. In this role, tenor Mark Padmore was simply magnificent. That said, the entire cast was on the same high level, singing beautifully and playing their roles with total commitment. Nor could one praise too highly the contribution made by the members of the Rundfunkchor Berlin. Finally, it almost goes without saying that the Berlin Philharmonic played superbly. Sir Simon Rattle presided over the musical forces within the parameters of Sellar’s vision. That is to say, that while he was onstage throughout the drama. he managed to be both forceful and unobtrusive.
As to Rattle’s reading of the score, there were numerous deviations from the norm in matters of tempo and dynamics, but then, Bach left very few directions or markings in his manuscript about either one. Rattle and Sellars apparently made their decisions based on their understanding of how the music and the drama informed each other. Many listeners may find Rattle’s treatment of the chorales, which are generally taken much faster than has been customary, with fermatas often ignored, somewhat controversial. There are also, to my mind, some conducting miscalculations. In the great contralto aria “Erbarme dich”, for example, the violin solo — beautifully played by Daniel Stabrawa – is almost drowned out by the organ continuo. Rattle went to the trouble of including two theorbos as part of the continuo group in the orchestra. Why did he not use them, instead of the organ, to accompany this aria?
All in all, however, this was an inspired rendering of one of classical music’s great masterpieces, captured almost to perfection by video directors Daniel Finkernagel and Alexander Lück. This fine boxed DVD set also includes an illuminating conversation between director Peter Sellars and chorus director Simon Halsey.
This performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion appears on the Berlin Philharmonic’s own record label, one of a series of major releases that includes boxed sets of all the Beethoven symphonies, as well as all the Sibelius and Schumann symphonies and Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. With the collapse of the compact disc market, the major record companies cut way back on their recording projects. In the Karajan era, the BPO was one of the busiest recording orchestras in the world and enjoyed long-term contracts with both Deutsche Grammophon and EMI. Today, the orchestra makes very few recordings for the old familiar labels, and like many orchestras have started its own label.
Next week, in the second of two articles about the Berlin Philharmonic in advance of its Toronto concerts, I’ll concentrate on the Digital Concert Hall, one of the orchestra’s most exciting projects, and discuss some of the orchestra’s finest recordings.
For more Record Keeping, see HERE.
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