For part one of this two-part series, see here.
This week (Nov. 15 & 16) the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) will give two concerts at Roy Thomson Hall, under its chief conductor Sir Simon Rattle. The BPO are one of the great orchestras of the world and to hear them live is an extraordinary musical experience. In this second of two articles on the BPO, I’ll discuss the Digital Concert Hall, one of its most innovative projects and some of its most notable recordings.
The Digital Concert Hall
Within my lifetime, one of the most striking features of musical life has been the transformative effect of new technology. When I was young, much of the music we listened to came to us over the radio or on 78 rpm recordings. I can recall going into neighbourhood record stores and asking to audition the newest recordings. There were small booths provided where one could hear a new 78 recording before buying it. Since there were only 3-5 minutes per side, shorter works were more often recorded and complete symphonies required multiple discs. Then came the LPs which tracked at 331/3 rpm. This was a revolutionary step for classical music fans, allowing for extended listening without the need to change sides. In the early 1980s came digital technology and compact discs and again, a whole new world of possibilities opened up. In the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, compact disc technology has been overtaken by even more advanced computer technology that allows for streaming both audio and video onto a home computer.
All these changes have had major implications on how orchestras sell and distribute their music and all the top orchestras have given serious examination of emerging technologies a high priority. During the period when Herbert von Karajan was chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic (1955-1989), the orchestra led all others in embracing new recording systems.
Karajan had first met Akio Morita, head of Sony, in 1953, and was impressed with the company’s research into new recording technology. By 1979, digital recording had advanced to the point where it was commercially viable, and at about the same time, the compact disc emerged as the ideal delivery system. Karajan and Morita introduced the new technology at the 1981 Salzburg Easter Festival, and Karajan declared that henceforth all his recordings would be made digitally. Since nearly all his recordings at the time were being made with the Berlin Philharmonic, this decision catapulted the orchestra into a new age of recording, far ahead of all its rivals. Karajan was also a prime mover in filming concerts, first for theatrical release and then for home video. Again, nearly all these concert films were made with the Berlin Philharmonic.
Fast forward to 2016 and Digital Concert Hall, the BPO’s innovative project to make its concerts available internationally in state of the art video and sound. A few orchestras are filming their concerts for home viewing — in North America, the Detroit Symphony is the most active — but none compete in volume with what the BPO is delivering. For a monthly or annual fee — currently $22.17/month and $221.72/year — subscribers have access to everything available here. Primarily, this means live broadcasts of nearly all the concerts of the 2016-2017 season and dozens of BPO performances, dating all the way back to the Karajan era.
As one might expect, the BPO attracts all the leading conductors and soloists and under Sir Simon Rattle, offers some of the most imaginative programming available anywhere. The current season (2016-2017) offers concerts led by Bernard Haitink, Andris Nelsons, Danielle Gatti, Christian Thielemann, Riccardo Chailly, Mariss Jansons, Zubin Mehta and many others, among them Canadians Barbara Hannigan (Dec. 10) and Yannick Nézet-Séguin (June 17). The National Arts Center Orchestra’s (NAC) conductor Alexander Shelley will lead the BPO on Jan. 16. Notable programming includes Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre conducted by Rattle (Feb. 18), Puccini’s Tosca starring Kristine Opolais and also conducted by Rattle (April 22), John Adams The Gospel According to the Other Mary conducted by Rattle (Jan. 28), and the Verdi Requiem conducted by Chailly (Jan. 14). The two programs to be performed in Toronto are also available live from Berlin.
What makes these concerts so exciting is not only the quality of the music-making, but also the quality of the presentation. The camera work is simply the best I have ever seen for live concerts, and the HD video quality is ‘state-of-the-art.’ The audio quality is just as good, every bit as good as that of any compact disc recording currently available, and viewing options are multiple. One can simply stream them through one’s laptop, hook a laptop up to a big-screen television set with a connection to a stereo system, or enjoy them on an iPhone.
The Best of Berlin
The Berlin Philharmonic made its first recording in 1913 with Artur Nikisch conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 (Dutton 9784). While the sound was primitive and unsatisfying, the recording was undoubtedly a milestone. Under Wilhelm Furtwängler, the orchestra continued to make recordings through the acoustical era, into the far superior electrical age. Some of the best of them are performances of Brahms’ Third (1954) and Fourth (1943) symphonies issued by Music & Arts (4941). A searing performance of the Eroica from 1954 with Eugen Jochum conducting, is nearly as good (DG 479 6314).
In the Karajan era, the orchestra’s recording activities expanded exponentially. It is difficult to single out the best of them, but one of my favourites is the 1965 recording of the Sibelius Fifth (DG457 7482). The nobility of the trumpet playing, the range of orchestral colours and the cumulative power of this performance makes it especially memorable. Speaking of Eroica performances, there is a video of a live Karajan performance from 1982 that is as good as it gets (Sony SVD 48434). The 1973 recording of Puccini’s La Bohème, starring Freni and Pavarotti, is one of the finest recordings ever made of this opera (Decca 421 049).
For more Record Keeping, see here.
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