“Daniele Gatti’s journey from the Romantic to the modern era - Transcendence, Creativity, Deconstruction”

The Berlin Philharmonic orchestra is one of the small number of orchestras of which almost everyone has heard of, yet relatively few have heard in person. My first trip to Berlin for twenty years (and my first to the former west for more than twenty-five) could not pass over the opportunity to book a ticket online to hear and see the Berlin Philharmonic playing in their home concert hall, the Philharmonie.

Just getting to the Philharmonie is a new journey: the U-bahn line used to stop at or before Nollendorfplatz. Now the line once more runs through to Potsdamplatz and beyond. The Philharmonie is a stylish modern hall and surprisingly small considering the reputation of its home orchestra. It's on the edge of the culture area of the city, sandwiched between the brashness of Postsdamer Platz and the lush woodland of the Großer Tiergarten, Berlin's city park (seeGroßer Tiergarten, Berlin - October 2014). The Berlin Philharmonic has a big presence online with its “digital concert hall” presentations so it wasn’t a surprise that there are numerous microphones and more than half a dozen television cameras on remotely operated pan and tilt heads.

The audience wasn’t wearing dinner jackets nor all in suits and I was by no means the only one in jeans. But strikingly inattentive compared to the London Proms audience, surprisingly liable to whisper in both the quiet bits and the loud stuff of the first piece. Coughs almost anytime. And relatively reticent with applause.

The first notes I heard from the Berlin Philharmonic live in the Philharmonie were the hushed start to bleeding chunks of orchestral excerpts from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. The sound grew from hushed to luscious with judicious emotion and feeling from the strings for the love music between Brunnhilde and Siegfried on the top of the mountain. But just one bit of mis-synchronisation between the brass and the strings in a fortissimo; maybe inevitable in a live performance but interestingly, the same problem as I felt I heard when I saw the Berlin Philharmonic at a London Prom. (See my review at Berlin Philharmonic Prom )

But an orchestral sound overawing in subtlety, tenderness and expression as well as massive in the fortissimos for full Wagner orchestra, and also the Berg. Sitting in an excellent seat (thanks to seat selection on the web page) sounded far better than any studio recording but just as detailed.

The English programme note made excuses that the Götterdämmerung excerpts were not mere film music but frankly this was more hi-fi demo material than challenging repertoire. It was a bumpy ride stitching together Wagner’s orchestral interludes omitting the very substantial development in the drama and music of the sung portions; the excepts ended somewhat oddly without the musical closure of the immolation finale of the opera.

After the interval - €13.50 for a glass of red wine must be some record - the Brahms variations that used to be called the “St Anthony Chorale” variations were heard to much more hush than the Wagner had been. The Berlin Philharmonic is supremely good at mid nineteenth century repertoire and my first thought was that the home audience had regarded Wagner with intentional disrespect.

Wrong! The Berg Three Orchestral Pieces were appreciated almost with reverence. There was some silent pointing at the percussion player wielding the visually impressive wooden hammer, that Berg uses as a sonic and musical terminator. The Berlin audience of Weimar days heard the premiere of two of these pieces, the entire op. 6 is now seen as the transition to mid-twentieth century musical thinking. Tonight’s audience appreciated this masterly reading with solid acclamation, Daneile Gattie was called back for three curtain calls.

The billing “Daniele Gatti’s journey from the Romantic to the modern era - Transcendence, Creativity, Deconstruction” is a bit overblown; it is hard to claim that the Götterdämmerung excerpts or the St Anthony Chorale variations are as significant in musical history as Berg’s op. 6. But in a way that’s typical commercialism of the Berlin Philharmonic that we know and admire.

Berliner Philharmoniker
Daniele Gatti, Conductor

Richard Wagner
Götterdämmerung Excerpts: Dawn, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March

Johannes Brahms
Variations on a Theme by Haydn in B flat major op.56a

Alban Berg
Three Pieces for orchestra op. 6