Although it is true that EMI and the Berliner Philharmoniker
have a recording partnership stretching back almost 90 years what this
6-disc set really tells us is that EMI by no means has a hegemony over
the great performances these five music directors committed to record
with this orchestra. Yes, Nikisch only ever made one recording, of Beethoven’s
Fifth (still an incandescent performance), and yes, he made it for EMI,
and yes, Simon Rattle has always been an exclusive EMI artist, but in
the case of the three intervening music directors (excluding Celibidache
who never made a studio recording for EMI, and rarely for any other
company) their best work with the Berliners was done elsewhere, notably
for Deutsche Grammophon.
The inclusion of Rattle’s performance of Mahler’s Tenth
Symphony (a live performance) does beg the question, when EMI spent
so much money releasing a Celibidache Edition, as to why they did not
include any performances by the Berliner’s first long-term, post-World
War II music director. Revisionists will have us all believe that Karajan
was the inevitable successor to Furtwängler when in reality the
choice between Celibidache and Karajan was both much closer and much
less clear-cut than history suggests. His exclusion from this set does
EMI no favours whatsoever, especially given he was perhaps the most
inspired conductor to ever hold the top job with this orchestra. That
Rattle gets a third of the set to himself (including a disc of lollipops
previously unreleased by EMI) suggests a very odd set of priorities.
And how much better it would have been if EMI had found something really
new to celebrate Rattle’s tenure with the Berliner Philharmoniker –
a live recording he did with the orchestra of Suk’s Asrael is
uncommonly good, and tremendously powerful, and would have made this
set well worth buying.
As it is, the best performance on this set is Furtwängler’s
unmatched recording of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. Made in October
1938 it is fired by intense passion – and is by some margin his best
performance of the work (his Cairo version from 1951 being in many ways
its complete antithesis). We also have Furtwängler in a live 1949
performance of Brahms’ Third Symphony, certainly one of this conductor’s
best recordings of the work. In turns violent and lyrical (and always
sunny) it is one of the most powerful interpretations ever committed
to disc. From thereon, however, the recordings preserved by Karajan
and Abbado (excepting a brief excerpt from his most recent recording
of Verdi’s Requiem) are run of the mill performances rarely worth a
Karajan’s best work with EMI was with the Philharmonia
– highly polished, highly dramatic performances. Rarely did he match
that level of inspiration with the Berliners and EMI. The Sibelius Second
Symphony, for example, comes from 1980, a time when Karajan had all
but begun neglecting this composer. Broader, more imposing, than any
of his earlier versions it lacks the visceral impact of his best Sibelius,
preserved with this orchestra on DG. A fresh, and intuitive, Prelude
to Tristan, dating from 1975, is notable for some very felicitous playing
– and for Karajan’s strict observation of Wagner’s dynamics. Karajan,
however, was never particularly comfortable with Wagner in the recording
studio – so a live 1952 Tristan on Myto (and even better a simply blistering
Rhinegold from 1951 on Golden Melodram) better preserve Karajan’s Wagner.
Of most interest on these discs is a heavenly Hebrides Overture
played with all the opulence of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s playing
under Furtwängler. It is unforgettable for its sheerness of beauty
and tone, although that is precisely the reason why I might never return
to it again. Today, it is simply an anachronism and 40 years on from
when it was made it sounds uncommonly unfashionable.
Abbado, too, is better with this orchestra elsewhere.
The two Hindemith Kammermusik (Nos 1 and 5) from 1996 are well thought
out performances, but are not entirely recommendable. Best is his embryonic
recording of Verdi’s Requiem which I have much praised in these pages
before. Recorded in January 2001 the performance is volatile and beautiful,
certainly one of the best available.
And so we come to Rattle, given two discs. His ubiquitous
Mahler Tenth makes another appearance, although I don’t believe I am
alone in preferring the more innate beauties of his earlier Bournemouth
recording, not least in the final movement which achieves levels of
achingly intense music-making the Berliners are too frosty to project.
Neither performance is perfectly played (but no performance I know of
this symphony is) although the Berliners do make a better go of the
inner movements even though Rattle’s brisk tempi threaten to bring them
more than once to the brink of disaster.
The last disc, a random pot-pourri of showpieces, ranges
from the inspired to the shambolic. Bernstein’s Overture to Candide
is simply glittering – one of the most exciting performances I have
yet heard of the piece. In complete contrast, the performance of the
‘Great Gate of Kiev’ from Pictures at an Exhibition is simply
grotesque. Played far to slowly it simply never gets off the ground.
Its Zeppelin-like posturing is wilful and if this is any suggestion
as to how Rattle might conduct the work in concert it would clearly
be one to avoid. To put it another way, he makes Celibidache, notorious
in his later years for slow tempi, look like a sprinter in this music.
Elsewhere, his Ravel (‘Le jardin féerique’) is sublimely played,
his Dvorak Slavonic Dances (Nos 3 and 1) infectious and his Elgar noble
yet profoundly European in tone.
This set is useful for showing us how far the playing
of the Berliner Philharmoniker has changed over the past 90 years (much
less than with some orchestras), but it is hardly recommendable as an
example of its conductors’ finest work on the podium. For that you have
to look elsewhere – and no one record company is going to give you that.
Footnote: Above, I mention EMI's 33 disc Celibidache
Edition. Of course, these recordings are with the Munich Philharmonic
so would be inappropriate in this 6 disc set. However, there is non-copywrited
material from the late 1940s and early 1950s with Celibidache conducting
the Berliner Philharmoniker and EMI might have considered at least one
of these recordings. There is also a legendary Bruckner 7 which Celibidache
conducted with the Berliners in 1987 and which has never been commercially
released. Any recording would have made this a more complete set.
rider from Mark Obert-Thorn
Celibidache made at least two EMI studio recordings during
his tenure as Music Director of the BPO which could have been used in
this set: the Prokofiev "Classical" Symphony (last seen on
EMI's 1982 5-LP set commemorating the ensemble's centenary), and the
Mendelssohn E minor Violin Concerto with Siegfried Borries as soloist.
It's puzzling that in a set devoted to the BPO's music directors, his
brief reign was ignored altogether.