Chetana Nagavajara

The Konzertrhausorchester Berlin


I must confess that I went to the Konzerthaus again on 19 September 2012 in the hope of hearing Mitsuko Uchida live for the first time. She fell ill and could not make it to Berlin. A young American pianist, Jonathan Biss, (aged 32) stood in at a very short notice at the recommendation of Uchida herself. He did not play the C minor Piano Concerto (K 491) by Mozart which Uchida had intended to perform, but replaced it with the E flat major (K 491) , which most probably he had played before or had prepared for another concert. It turned out to be the right choice. The audience, which strangely enough consisted mainly of elderly people who packed the Konzerthaus on this special occasion to pay tribute to the late East German conductor, Kurt Sanderling, was certainly of a different breed from that of the previous concert on modern American music on 9 September or from that of the Philharmonie (on the other side of the now demolished Berlin Wall), which could fill the hall 3 times with the same programme. The elderly of the Konzerthaus gave the young American pianist a stormy ovation, calling him back onto stage 4 times, to which Jonathan Biss gratefully and gracefully responded with a short piano piece by Schumann (whose title escaped me), so serene and meditative as to silence the Konzerthaus for a few minutes of perfect bliss.

What was so special about Biss’s playing? Why could he win the hearts of those (former East) Berliners, although the rapport between the soloist and the orchestra was not perfect. Be that as it may, he must have settled with the conductor, Ivan Fischer, that his concept was that this was a work that pointed the way forward to the 19th century, not necessarily to the early Beethoven piano concertos, but to those from No.3 onwards. Uchida might have disagreed, as her (recorded) interpretations of Mozart anchor  him in the 18th century – with her emphasis on elegance, (and it is this studied elegance including her platform manners that gets on my nerves). That was why I had wanted to see her in a live performance. The critic of the Kulturradio Berlin said something nasty about Biss, for he was apparently a fan of Uchida and shared her concept of Mozart. For once, I had to warn myself not to generalize too much on “the Berlin audience”. There are several audiences in Berlin, and the audience with whom I shared the experience of K 491 should not be belittled. They were more open-minded than a professional critic.

Ivan Fischer had just taken up his appointment as the new Music Director of the Konzerthaus Orchestra, whose pre-, pre-, predecessor had been none other than the much – revered Kurt Sanderling, who spent more than 2 decades at the helm of this orchestra. As a very young man,
in his capacity as Assistant Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra, Fischer came to Bangkok with the British Orchestra on 26 May 1983*, and I still vividly recall his interpretation of Mahler I, which was so lively as well as sophisticated. The improvised venue then was certainly not a propitious one, namely, the Thai-Japanese Sport Stadium at Din Daeng District. In the middle of the first movement, a tropical rain hit the roof so hard that Fischer stopped the orchestra for a while in order to ascertain that the noise did not come from something untoward. Realizing that there was no way to battle the inclemency of Mother Nature, he whipped his baton to lead the orchestra through a most enjoyable rendition of the Mahler symphony.

It was one of the concerts I shall never forget. Fischer must have been in his late twenties or early thirties, functioning as assistant to the young Music Director of the LSO, named Claudio Abbado. The two youthful maestros have since become recognized authorities in the world of classical music. Fischer has done much for his homeland, Hungary, as well as for Europe and America.
He remains a Central European, and the (former East Berlin) Konzerthaus Orchestra has made the right decision to engage him as its Music Director. The sound that emerged from the orchestra on that chilly night of autumn, as distinct from the demands of modern American music of the previous concert, seemed to be looking East – from the vantage point of Berlin. Let us not forget Liszt, Smetana, Dvorak, Bartok, Enesco and of course Mahler. So many great things originated EAST OF BERLIN. (I do not mean East Berlin!) Why did Beethoven and Brahms go to Vienna and never returned to their respective homes in Bonn and Hamburg? Why did Brahms enjoy writing those unforgettable Hungarian dances (some of which Dvořak gladly offered to orchestrate), based on folk tunes that he had already heard as a child in Hamburg, played by Hungarians and Gypsies coming to board the ocean vessels to America. But I must not digress too far. I simply want to remind us that the capitals of Vienna and Berlin have benefited a great deal from musical talents hailing from elsewhere.

The programme consisted of works that Kurt Sanderling loved, and Fischer was modest enough to bow to the predilections of his distinguished predecessor. Modern technology helped to express the musical lineage passing from Sanderling to Fischer. The first work on the programme was Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn. It was an ingenious idea to project a video recording of the Konzerthaus Orchestra perform the work under Kurt Sanderling onto a large screen, but only the opening “theme”, with Fischer and the live orchestra joining in from the first variation onwards. The passage from recorded to live music may have appeared seamless at first, but it soon became clear that Fischer had his own conception of Brahms: academic austerity joining hands with inventive gusto, so that his Brahms sounded youthful and playful at times, with differentiated tone colours characteristic of each variation. (I have always combatted the myth about Brahms’s music being devoid of tone colours and did go to some length to demonstrate how Yazaki and our own Bangkok Symphony Orchestra could bring out the nuances in tone colours in the last movement of Brahms IV.) Fischer was attentive to details, and the orchestra responded very well to the conductor’a call. I assume it may not be too long before the traditional belief in the role of the “permanent conductor” is restored to the “Berlin Mitte”, (at one time the centre of musical life of East Berlin.) (The Konzerthaus itself was magnificently restored under the Communist Regime, and I went to a concert there as far back as 1987, when I crossed over from West Berlin to East Berlin everyday to do research in the Brecht Archive.)

The second half was a potpourri, I am sorry to say, being devoted to (the lighter side of) Richard Strauss, again a reflection of Kurt Sanderling’s preferences. Three works were presented, arranged in an order which did not seem logical to me. It started with the Waltzes rearranged from the third act of the opera, Der Rosenkavalier. Fischer played them as an orchestral piece, exposing the lively rhythms and the felicitous instrumentation. Not being a Viennese he did not seem to be waltzing along with it. Placed in the middle was the well-known Till Eulenspiegel, very musically executed, trying very hard to tell a story by putting emphases here and there. This was one of the most enjoyable renditions of the piece I had ever heard. Fischer wanted to show the strengths of his orchestra, especially the strings being second to no other orchestra in Berlin, although I found the horn solo too reticent. I would have put this work as the first item of the second part of the concert, for it was a showpiece, both for the composer and the orchestra. Instead the concert organizers decided to end the concert with the :”Dance of the Seven Veils” from the opera Salome. Obviously, Fischer was not at home in this music. I guessed he was not convinced that music could be a vehicle for sexiness and might have found it too vulgar, in other words, a lapse of genius. So he sought to turn it into “A Treatise on Orchestral Instrumentation”, which was altogether not  a bad idea, but it did not really capture what Strauss had set out to do in the opera. Too bad!

The concert was meant as a “Homage to Kurt Sanderling” and had to follow the repertoire favoured by the past master. Fischer will soon have to show his own strengths both as a conductor and a programme planner. There are signs that The Konzerthaus Orchestra will soon become a strong competition to the Berlin Philharmonic. One thing the Konzerthaus has is a discriminating audience which can distinguish between a good and a bad performance, alas, an audience of septuagenarians and octogenarians who will not be there for long. How can the orchestra and its conductor build up a younger audience who can cross over from the Gendarmenmarkt to the Potsdamerplatz and tell its fellow audience at the Philharmonie that they don’t really know how to listen to classical music?

The future is challenging and daunting. The road from Budapest to (former East) Berlin may not be a long one. But to convince the addicts of the “Digital Concert Hall” of the true value of live music is not an easy task. Let’s ransack history for encouraging signs. So many Hungarian musicians did conquer Central and Western Europe before. I sincerely hope Fischer can do it too.



* The exact date was kindly provided Ms. Libby Rice, Archivist  of the London Symphony Orchestra.


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