ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Berlin Philharmonic
PERFORMER: Berlin PO/Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado, Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: CZS 5 75612 2 ADD/DDD mono/stereo Reissue (1913-99)
This set offers a stimulating if all too brief survey of the Berlin Philharmonic’s history. The venerable 1913 recording of Beethoven’s Fifth under Arthur Nikisch (music director 1895-1922) and those led by his successor Wilhelm Furtwängler (music director 1922-45 and 1952-4) reveal the orchestra as a collective of musicians, each accustomed to bringing individuality of utterance to bear, but also expecting to be galvanised into unified incandescence through the flexible phrasing and pacing cultivated by their visionary, Dionysian music directors. Furtwängler’s famous Tchaikovsky Pathétique from 1938 is the pick of these early recordings, with its ennobling dignity and, in the finale, searing despair.
For all the fervour of Furtwängler’s 1949 Brahms Third, one suspects that part of the reason for including so scrappily played a performance in this set was to create obvious contrast with the impression made by Herbert von Karajan (music director 1955-89). Karajan, intent on making the BPO infinitely and minutely responsive, demanded a textural clarity and beauty of tone that sometimes supplanted the more direct and elemental expressiveness of his predecessors. A 1960 recording of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture marks the crossroads; here Karajan insists on his way with an orchestra not yet sufficiently honed to realise his vision completely. Numerous Karajan performances, like the 1974 Wagner excerpts, can seem overly calculated, but a 1980 Sibelius Second achieves Karajan’s ideal by combining constantly alert playing, sleek, brilliant textures and a sense of inevitable momentum.
Claudio Abbado’s leadership (1989-2002) enables the orchestra to accommodate humane stylishness in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and nearly raucous verve in Hindemith. Simon Rattle’s renowned Mahler Tenth offers finely judged textures and considerable expressive impact without consistently tapping into the inexorable, burnished dynamism that is part of the BPO’s heritage. The selection of newly recorded, Rattle-led bon-bons displays energy galore in Bernstein and Dvorák, but also picky phrasing in Brahms’s Third Hungarian Dance and stiffness in the Mussorgsky-Ravel ‘Great Gate of Kiev’. If Rattle and the BPO enjoy a lengthy relationship, however, the voice they forge together will surely become as distinctive and rewarding as those the orchestra achieved with Rattle’s predecessors.