> Berlin Philharmoniker EMI commemerative set [MB]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Arthur Nikisch: Music Director 1895-1922:

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Symphony No.5 (1807)
Wilhelm Furtwängler: Music Director 1922-1945 and 1952-1954:

Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Symphony No.6 'Pathétique' (1893)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Symphony No.3 (1883)
Herbert von Karajan: Music Director 1954-1989:

Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) The Hebrides Overture (1830)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Symphony No.29 (1774)
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Lohengrin Prelude to Act III (1850) / Tristan und Isolde Prelude (1865)
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957) Symphony No.2 (1901)
Claudio Abbado: Music Director 1989-2000:

Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963) Kammermusik No.1.(1922) Kammermusik No.5 (1927)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Clarinet Concerto (1791)
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901) Requiem (1874): Dies irae - Tuba mirum - Sanctus
Simon Rattle: Music Director 2002:

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) Symphony No.10 (1910)
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990) Candide Overture (1956)
Erik SATIE (1866-1925)/ Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)Gymnopédie No.1 (1888)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Hungarian Dance No.3 in F
Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904) Slavonic Dance op.46 No.1 in C (1878)
Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904) Slavonic Dance op.46 No.3 in A flat (1878)
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Ma mère l'Oye - Finale (1908)
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)/ Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Pictures at an Exhibition - The Great Gate of Kiev (1874)
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Pomp and Circumstance March No.4 (1907)
Berliner Philharmoniker
Artur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado, Simon Rattle
music recorded between 1913-2002. ADD, DDD
Bargain price
EMI 575612 2 [6CDs: 79’34, 73’12, 70.08. 67’11, 77,26, 35,20]


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 second acquaintance.

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.

Marc Bridle

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.


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