Visiting Germany, and Berlin in particular, has been great, not least because I've been able to tick so many items off my list of things I want to do some day. I've heard the Berliners play twice before, of course, once at the 2006 Edinburgh festival and once at the 2004 Proms, but seeing them on their home ground is something else.
The Philharmonie is an extraordinary building. Yellow and angular it, like so many others on the Berlin skyline, looks amazing. In fairness, it does look a little too yellow for my taste, but come 8pm and time for the concert to start and it takes on a much more pleasant golden hue.
They don't seem to go in for the British system of having a separate counter for ticket collection, with all the tickets already printed out ready to hand over, yet the wait wasn't long. Then, the tickets are checked by the ushers using a very hi-tech looking barcode scanner. Perhaps this will pave the way for a nice green solution which would allow me to use my iPhone screen as my ticket.
There are several nice installations in the foyer, made up of a series of coloured discs, which appear to be lit from behind. It is a veritable maze of staircases, yet they are so well signed that we found our seats with relative ease, if they were nowhere near where I had imagined them to be from the diagram when booking. The interior of the hall is roughly rectangular, if a somewhat deformed and angular rectangle, with the seats all grouped efficiently into blocks served by separate doors and staircases. It's also more or less a concert hall in the round, meaning that even some way back, you don't feel as far back as you do, say, at the back of the Usher Hall. The eagle-eyed will spot the surprisingly small cameras which move around by remote control to capture events for the digital concert hall.
It's a stunning hall to look at inside, and if the music ever got dull, you'd always have that. Fortunately that wasn't a problem. Of course, at this point you may reasonably be thinking that a picture is worth a thousand words and wondering why I haven't included one. The short answer is the number of signs and message forbidding any photography. While plenty of people seemed happy to flout this, I'm just too conscientious. I've dropped the Berlin Phil a line asking for some press photos, so hopefully I can add some that are better than I would have taken.
What, though, of the music; the aesthetic merits of the concert hall would matter little if this wasn't up to scratch. Jiří Bělohlávek began his programme with some Janáček, a composer who is a speciality for him (he has made a highly regarded recording of Broucek). He had selected a suite by František Jilek of music from the opera From the House of the Dead, a wonderful score which isn't performed nearly as often as it should be. Jilek had chosen well, with a nicely representative half hour of music, in three movements, that had a nice flow to it. Bělohlávek proved himself an able interpreter, drawing a rich sound from the orchestra and finding plenty of turmoil in the music. He ensured that the many details and complexities of the orchestration didn't get lost. Of course, it helped that he had one of the best orchestras in the world whose stunning playing more than justified their reputation. Similarly, the acoustic of the hall proved wonderfully clear and detailed. I wonder if Berlin would notice if we stole it.....
They were then joined on stage by Pierre-Laurent Aimard for the Schoenberg piano concerto. This proved a compelling piece, growing on me and drawing me further in as it progressed. The rhythmic changes as it went through were particularly interesting. Aimard proved as able and lucid a soloist as we have come to expect from his regular Aldeburgh appearances. Behind him, the orchestra provided beautifully textured accompaniment. As is often the case when I hear a piece I don't know, I found myself wanting to hear it again. Fortunately I can as it will soon be available in the digital concert hall. When it came to bringing the piano onto the stage, the Philharmonie was once again ready to show off. The piano had been there since the start on a lower platform between conductor and audience, this rose up, the podium was moved back slightly, and they were ready to go very quickly.
After the interval came yet another Brahms 4 (at least my fourth in the last year, five if you go back a few more days). Don't get me wrong, it's a lovely piece, but it does seem to be coming up a little too often (Jordan and the Philharmonia last April, Metzmacher and the DSOB in September, Jansons and the Concertgebouw in December and Bychkov and the LSO last month). And as if that wasn't enough, Manze is doing it with the BBC SSO next season.
So how did Bělohlávek's account stack up? Well, it may be coincidence, but my favourite recording is with the Berliners and Furtwangler. Certainly Bělohlávek is no Furtwangler, yet he drew a wonderfully rich sound from the orchestra - the sound of the pizzicato playing is something I will never forget. He also brought plenty of the drama and sense of yearning that, to my mind, marks out the best performances of Brahms. The climaxes, and the third movement, were suitably frenzied and the slow movement was beautiful. In short, it was probably the best of the bunch. Of course, in large part this was done to the playing of the orchestra - I've never heard Brahms sound quite like this before - yet I've heard accounts from them on disc that have failed to engage me, so Bělohlávek's contribution mattered.
In short, while hearing the Berlin Philharmoniker anywhere is great experience, visiting them on their home turf is something quite special. On the way out, I briefly toyed with the idea of a memento, but €39 for t-shirt seemed a little steep, and while the mugs were more reasonable, they were a slightly odd shape (I must look elsewhere for a new work mug - feel free to make recommendations in the comments below). In a sidenote, they wanted over €20 for some of Rattle's single disc recordings. This chimes with my visit to Dussmann's superb classical department - CDs here are massively overpriced compared to the UK (though for some things Amazon.de can be cheaper). Those with a digital concert hall subscription should make sure they catch this concert.
Those in London can catch the Berliners at their two BBC Proms with Rattle in September. I myself will next see them in February 2011 when they come to London for their hotly anticipated and already sold out four day residence.