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The Berlin Philharmonic Story
A Film by Günther Attein
Produced by Paul Smaczny and Masaki Tazaki
Picture Format NTSC; 16:9 anamorphic; Sound Formats PCM Stereo; Languages English and German; Region Code 0 (worldwide); Disc Format DVD5
EUROARTS DVD 2051808 [60:00]

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Documentaries 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.

Systematic analysis 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.

It’s pertinent 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.

Jonathan Woolf






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