of symphonic orchestras are notoriously tricky things to get
right. How do you present, attractively and yet cohesively,
a portrait of an orchestra that is not either dusty with historical
reportage or swimming in the fat fry of contemporary trivia?
Put it another way; what did I learn about the Berlin band
that I didn’t already know?
I think you’re
ahead of me.
Made in 2001 and
thus early into Rattle’s reign this, rather like the city
it lovingly evokes, is a building site of a documentary. There
are cranes everywhere – but nothing’s going up. Fancy seeing
the famous Nikisch shots, soundless and priceless, the great
Nikisch who was, after von Bülow, the second permanent conductor
of the orchestra? Not here. Perhaps the hire fees were exorbitant;
maybe it was considered preferable to hear egghead Roger Norrington
waffle on, saying nothing.
of each conductor’s reportorial strengths and enthusiasms?
Nothing. Premieres given by the orchestra, composers with
whom it’s been especially associated, soloists with whom it
has forged partnerships? Extra features with stills photographs
of its lesser-known conductors – Leo Borchard, say, or even
Celibidache? Afraid not. Serious analysis of the orchestra’s
sound under successive conductors? Not especially though the
usual old Furtwängler anecdote is trotted out and Haitink
(thank God for Haitink) talks about its “sehr macho” sound.
Well, maybe it’s not a rigorously analytical exposition of
the sound of the band but at least it has personality behind
it – and experience (he heard Furtwängler’s Fidelio).
Or perhaps I’m
not reading the right script. The subtitle talks of “Views
of a free Orchestral Republic”. So that’s it. This is a quasi-political
documentary, one that sees in the then newly reunited Germany
an emblematic orchestra facing the same challenges as its
mother country. Maybe that’s why, idly skimming for twenty
seconds, I wondered whether I’d not stumbled into one of those
Travel programmes by mistake – City Breaks to Berlin or something.
There are interminable shots of cityscapes, street life, the
Wall, motorcars gliding through the streets, all that sort
of thing. Too much of that and not enough of the speaking
heads from the orchestra itself, some of whom had stretched
back to the Furtwängler era. At such points one pays attention.
Thärichen, the bassist, makes one listen. As does the then
leader Daniel Stabrawa.
to reflect on the greater transparency of sound that Abbado
brought to the orchestra; we see him in several extracts from
concerts. Naturally enough we also see von Karajan, though
confined to off the rostrum activities and mainly in photographs.
We hear of his temper tantrums and also of his apparently
genuine and unashamed tears on the retirement of orchestral
players. The question of his authoritarianism leads to a quizzical
little strand about the nature of dictatorial conductors,
always a tricky subject with a Berlin orchestra.
Perhaps I’m doubly
not getting it. Genial and well meaning we hear a few bits
and pieces. How Furtwängler was “protective towards Jews”
and how no one from the band was recruited into the armed
forces. How Borchard was shot by “an Allied soldier”- which
is how the sonorous American voice-over artiste elides responsibility
for his trigger-happy compatriots.
Among the anachronistic
and downright silly we get a horn gramophone playing a post-War
Furtwängler disc; how producers love a bit of fatuous atmosphere.
There’s subtitle talk of the “Berlin Phil” and the “Vienna
Phil”, rather as if these were chaps called Phil who were
known by their respective domiciles.
But in the end
I wearied of the stock film footage, the J.F.K. Berliner speech,
the Wall. What I wanted was a repertoire list, a large photographic
feature, important programmes, a discography, some evidence
of the players who’d played in the band down the years – not
that hard to assemble, surely – and things of that sort. Still,
maybe this kind of Berlin Phil Story, the one I want, is not
the kind that Euroarts has enshrined here – a kind of crypto-political
Travelogue with a bit of music chucked in.