Superb Beethoven Relayed through the Digital Concert Hall of the Berliner Philharmoniker

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven: Isabelle Faust (violin); Berliner Philharmoniker/Bernard Haitink (conductor), Digital Concert Hall of the Berliner Philharmoniker – Live Broadcast to European Cinemas – New Park Cinema, Chichester, 6.3.2015 (MMB)

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 61
Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Pastorale, Op. 68

For some years now, the Berliner Philharmoniker has had what they call the Digital Concert Hall, which allows users to see and hear live or recorded concerts transmitted via the internet. You buy a ticket or a subscription and are granted access to hundreds of concert recordings and interviews with soloists. Every year, it also offers forty live concerts, which are added to their archives at a later date. The Digital Concert Hall video streams to tablets, smartphones, smart TVs or PCs. In addition, each season, a selection of concerts is broadcast live to more than 120 cinemas all across Europe.

Having used the Digital Concert Hall on my home computer with great satisfaction, I was curious to see how effective it would be in a cinema and so, was rather happy to have the opportunity of reviewing their second live cinema broadcast of the 2014/15 season.

The programme was an all-Beethoven affair with celebrated Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink leading the Berliner Philharmoniker. The concert was introduced by Klaus Wallendorf, a member of the orchestra, who plays the horn. He presented, with great humour in German and impeccable English, the various short films about the Digital Concert Hall, as well as interviews with musicians and members of the public at the Philharmonie – the orchestra’s home in Berlin. Additionally, Wallendorf greeted the public in cinemas all over Europe in most if not all the languages of the countries receiving the broadcast. It made for a very pleasant half hour before the start of the actual concert, as the films and people’s insights were fascinating and informative.

The concert started with Beethoven’s masterful Violin Concerto played by the extraordinary German violinist Isabelle Faust. She has been playing the violin since the age of five and has won many awards and accolades in a career spanning nearly three decades. Since 1996, she has played, on loan, a violin made by Antonio Stradivari in 1704, the famous “Sleeping Beauty”. In spite of being a brilliant violinist and having enjoyed a successful, distinguished career, she is perhaps less known – especially in Britain – than other star musicians who cultivate a more glamorous stage persona. Faust is an understated, focused, quiet type of musician. When she plays, she completely immerses herself in the music, taking great care in understanding it and researching the composer’s intentions.

Her performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto was simply magnificent. Her intonation is perfect; her sound pure and crystal clear. There are not many people who can effortlessly and effectively make a violin “sing” so close to the beauty of a great human voice as Faust can. I must admit that I had never heard the concerto in quite the same way before. She chose to play the cadenza that Beethoven wrote himself when he transcribed the Violin Concerto for piano. It is an extended cadenza that also employs timpani in addition to the solo instrument. I had never heard it used with the violin before but the effect is perhaps not surprisingly wonderful and it perfectly fits with the dramatic structure of the concerto, since the work begins with a series of timpani strokes. Isabelle Faust’s playing is subtle, never allowing her obvious virtuosity to interfere with the music and although her performance was outstanding, passionate and undoubtedly virtuosic, it was also focused on the music, on the composer, rather than herself as the interpreter. In a world where the cult of personality and celebrity reaches unbelievable heights, Isabelle Faust’s placing of the composer and his music in the foreground rather than her interpretation is very refreshing.

Faust deservedly received great applause at the Philharmonie and it was pleasant to see that the audience in the cinema applauded with equal enthusiasm. She returned for a brief encore of a short and moving piece by Hungarian composer György Kurtág.

Much has been said and written about the famous sound of the Berliner Philharmoniker, the wow factor, as some have labelled the quality playing of this extraordinary orchestra. This may not be immediately apparent when you listen to their recordings with a wide variety of great conductors but it will at once strike you if you ever hear them live. It is not by chance that being elected chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker is often described as the pinnacle of any conductor’s career. The quality of each member of the orchestra has almost no parallel and many of them are soloists in their own right. So, I couldn’t help but wonder how their famous sound would come across in the cinema. I must say that it is pretty good on my computer whenever I have watched a concert of their Digital Concert Hall but I feared it might be less effective in a cinema. I am a fan of the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcasts but sometimes, the sound in the cinemas isn’t the best. It vibrates or echoes or is slightly muffled, particularly for the orchestra; not so much the voices. The New Park Cinema in Chichester is a rather small, almost intimate cinema and my fears of poor sound grew as I took my seat. I am very happy to say that they were completely unfounded. The sound was simply unblemished and the glorious tone of the Berliner Philharmoniker lived up to its high standards.

Beethoven performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker is something quite special, almost unique and their performance of the composer’s Sixth Symphony – the Pastorale – was exquisitely brilliant. Bernard Haitink, now a venerable maestro in his eighties, demonstrated a great affinity with the music, leading the orchestra from memory. He said an interesting thing in the interview he gave Klaus Wallendorf during the interval: “A conductor doesn’t play anything as such. So, a conductor can only read the score. The orchestra has to do what the conductor asks them if they feel the conductor has a right to ask. When this happens, then a wonderful thing takes place.” And a wonderful thing did indeed take place. His words are all that’s needed to describe the performance of Beethoven’s Sixth that he and the Berliner Philharmoniker brought to life. Haitink’s direction was subtle, almost imperceptible and the orchestra simply responded, completely at one with the conductor. They transported the audience into the countryside itself, into the cheerful and the scary moments of the “merry gathering of country folk” that is Beethoven’s Pastorale. The music is full of pictures, showing vividly the joys of the countryside, the sun, the birds and everything associated with it. The first drops of rain and the incredible depiction of the storm were so splendidly performed I felt goose bumps on my skin. The glorious sound of the Berliner Philharmoniker was present in every bar with clarity, intensity and virtuosity but, just like Isabelle Faust, the music and the composer were in the foreground. Haitink chose a medium-sized orchestra and placed the cellos in the middle, which I always find gives a more balanced, harmonious sound. It was a great evening of music.

We, the audience, should delight in these cinema broadcasts of the Berliner Philharmoniker. They are well worth the effort but if you prefer the comfort of your home, then catch them on their Digital Concert Hall. If you go to their website you can experience a free concert and it will almost certainly get you hooked.

I enjoyed this live broadcast immensely. Beethoven performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker, Haitink and Faust was something else altogether.

Margarida Mota-Bull

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