Facing the future

By Martin Wilkening of the Frankfurter Allgemein Zeitung

Photo: Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin

The former orchestra of the Margraves of Brandenburg and the Kings of Prussia is 450 years old: A box of fifteen CDs celebrates the great Staatskapelle Berlin.

The Staatskapelle Berlin can look back on 450 years of history. In this city, with its destroyed or diversely transformed traditions, this seems a little surreal, at least less tangible than the history of the opera house Unter den Linden, which was burned down, destroyed or reconstructed over many years and was first used in 1742. It accommodated the court chapel of the Prussian king Friedrich II, and still serves as the orchestra’s ancestral home. The court choir founded in 1540 with eleven musicians, dominated by the trumpeters, has now become the largest orchestra in Berlin with 136 seats. That, however, compared to top orchestras with similar tasks as in Vienna or Leipzig, only seems particularly lavish at first glance.

The Staatskapelle is primarily an opera orchestra, but it also plays its own symphonic concerts, not just “on the side” and not only in the high-class Berlin orchestra landscape. Tours and recordings make the Staatskapelle appear today as a world-class orchestra, almost inseparable from the personality of Daniel Barenboim. He has been the artistic director of the opera house and orchestra since 1991, and he has developed both so successfully that his contract with the Berlin Senate was extended again, until 2027, last year. The orchestra, which not only owes its productive artistic challenge to his work, but also steadily growing connections, had already awarded the 77-year-old the honorary title of “Chief Conductor for Life” in 2000.

Trailer for 450 years of the Staatskapelle Berlin: Deutsche Grammophon / YouTube

Typical of Barenboim’s positioning of the Staatskapelle is how he simultaneously occupies the large, representative repertoire and sparks with the same energy from newer scores. Beethoven, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler are performed tirelessly and in massive cycles, but Berg and Schönberg, Boulez or Elliott Carter appear no less in between. After the compact cycle of all Beethoven symphonies had to be canceled this Easter, the official festival concert for the 450th birthday, which is to take place in September, shows a completely different face: Mendelssohn, Strauss and Beethoven, but also Boulez and a world premiere by Jörg Widmann. Barenboim will conduct a compact summary of the orchestral profile from past and present.

In contrast, the CD box, with which Deutsche Grammophon is now celebrating the Staatskapelle, predominantly relies on the common names of composers. The edition comprises fifteen CDs, each dedicated to individual conductors, and the recordings span a century, from 1916 to 2012, with the last CD recording a concert for Barenboim’s seventieth birthday, with Zubin Mehta conducting and the jubilee as a soloist for Beethoven’s third and Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto plays in a surprisingly successful synthesis of Mehta’s straightforwardness and Barenboim’s delight in excessive spontaneity. Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner are represented several times among the recordings, of course Bruckner and Mahler should not be missing. Pierre Boulez conducted in the Berlin Philharmonic in 2009, hyper-present in detail, yet focused on the whole in a tension arc. The concert recording of Michael Gielen’s interpretation of Schoenberg’s “Pelleas and Melisande”, which was also published for the first time, is also suggestive, even auratic, and it captivates the listener over the entire, often too long, three-quarters of an hour. Barenboim’s recording of Bruckner’s fifth symphony, on the other hand, appears more inconsistent in the overall impression, with a fairly quickly drawn adagio, but downright intoxicating counterpoint episodes in the finale. This is a production from Barenboims 2013 Bruckner sub-cycle, also released on DVD. At that time, the Staatskapelle played in huge numbers with doubled brass. Unfortunately, the voluminous booklet for the CD box says nothing about this.

Picture: Deutsche Grammophon / Universal

With the help of the composers represented several times, a small history of musical interpretation and sound recording can be traced across the CDs. This is Richard Strauss’ dry new factual, one could almost say boring, recording of Mozart’s later G minor symphony alongside the musical and spirited performance of the Staatskapelle in the C major symphony KV 338 under Leo Blech. These are recordings that were made in 1927 and 1930 and can be heard well thanks to digital processing. The legendary recording of the overture to “The Magic Flute,” with which Herbert von Karajan began his lifelong work in the recording studio in 1938, is an intense shock – here you can feel an accuracy, a seriousness, a working through of the colors and the articulation, which seem completely new. Also interesting is Karajan’s experimental stereo recording of the last movement from Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony.

Otto Klemperer’s powerful recordings from around 1930 can still inspire today with such contrasting works as Weill’s “Dreigroschenmusik” or Brahms First Symphony. Erich Kleiber’s concert recording of Beethoven’s Fifth, on the other hand, also documents powerful tensions between the conductor’s ambitious will and the ability of the performers. The recording was made in the Admiralspalast in 1955, shortly before the reopening of the long war-destroyed State Opera. At that time Kleiber had already resigned for political reasons and Franz Konwitschny was quickly hoisted into office, whose “Meistersinger” performance for the opening is also documented here. Despite inadequate technical features, Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1947 “Tristan” performance, in the acoustically unfavorable Admiralspalast, is one of the three most important opera recordings.

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