Tight-fisted and autocratic, Benjamin Bilse was the conductor who unwittingly caused the Berlin Philharmonic to be formed. In 1882, 54 players from the Bilsesche Kapelle orchestra he’d founded 15 years earlier lost patience with their employer’s mean nature and set up their own ensemble, initially called the Philharmonische Orchester.
Hans von Bülow (1887-1892)
A major champion of Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Wagner – even after the latter had run off with his wife Cosima – von Bülow secured both the reputation and the future of the Berlin Phil in his five years as its conductor. Under him, performance standards were raised and a number of prestigious guest conductors, including Brahms and Grieg, were engaged.
Arthur Nikisch (1895-1922)
Very much the pioneer, Nikisch’s spell as conductor saw the Berlin Phil establish itself further afield with tours and some of the first recordings ever made. The Hungarian also broadened the orchestra’s repertoire, particularly in his beloved Bruckner and contemporary composers such as Mahler, Sibelius and Richard Strauss.
Wilhelm Furtwängler (1922-1945)
Furtwängler’s achievement in maintaining the Berlin Phil’s high standards through the Nazi era should not be underestimated. Having initially resisted the Nazi regime, his decision to remain in Germany meant that he later became associated with it – his own explanation was that he had stayed to protect German music against those who might misuse it for propaganda. His many recordings, particularly of the German Classical and Romantic repertoire, reveal a conductor whose interpretations ranged from subjective to plain idiosyncratic but who at his best could muster astonishing power and depth of emotion.
Leo Borchard (May-August 1945)
Put in post by the Soviets after the German surrender in May 1945, the Russian-born Borchard’s anti-Nazi activities during the war made him an obvious choice to succeed Furtwängler, who had fled to Switzerland in 1944. His time as principal conductor was short-lived, as he was mistakenly shot dead by an American sentry guard just three months later.
Sergiu Celibidache (1945-1952)
His famed refusal to enter a recording studio makes Celibidache’s Berlin Phil legacy hard to judge. The Romanian’s performances that we can enjoy on disc today – often marked by very slow tempos – were recorded in concert and arguably miss the point: he was concerned only with creating a transcendental moment for those experiencing the music first hand. But his spell in charge saw the orchestra re-accepted into the international fold.
Wilhelm Furtwängler (1952-1954)
A brief return for the great maestro, who was appointed conductor for life. His death was followed by the man he loved to hate…
Herbert von Karajan (1954-1989)
Loved the studio as much as Celibidache shunned it. Embracing every advance in technology, from stereo to the dawn of the CD, his meticulously prepared recordings set new standards. With his own image carefully honed, both he and the orchestra enjoyed the superstar status that in the latter case persists to this day. Plying their trade in the new Philharmonie hall, built in 1963 within view of the Berlin Wall (which fell within months of his death), they became a symbol of not just West Germany but of Western culture itself.
Claudio Abbado (1989-2002)
A very different character from Karajan, the reserved, thoughtful Abbado led a period of stability for the orchestra at a time of massive change in post-wall Berlin itself. Hugely popular with players and public alike, the Italian stepped down in 2002 for reasons of ill-health.
Simon Rattle (2002-2018)
Has made it his mission to bring the Berlin Phil into the 21st century while keeping mindful of
its history and tradition – not an easy task. As well as involving his players in significant out-reach programmes, he has pioneered the digital concert hall project, that allows concerts to be enjoyed live online.
This article first appeared in the October 2009 issue of BBC Music Magazine