The Berlin Philharmonic Story (2005)

by | Aug 9, 2005 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

The Berlin Philharmonic Story (2005)

Studio: EuroArts DVD 2051807 (Distr. by Naxos) 
Video: Black&White and Color, 16:9 widescreen
Audio: PCM stereo, English and German
Subtitles: English
Length: 60 mins.
Rating: ***

In the course of one hour, we experience an intelligent, albeit
thumbnail, sketch of one of the great musical institutions of the
world: the Berlin Philharmonic – a democratic Republic of Musicians
established in 1882.  Told mainly from the point of view of both
active and retired members of the orchestra, along with vintage photos
and newsreels, the film traces the leadership of the BPO from the
historical greats Hans von Bulow, Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwaengler,
and Herbert von Karajan, to its living leaders, Claudio Abbado and Sir
Simon Rattle. Conductor Bernard Haitink, speaking in German, comments
candidly on his first impressions of the orchestra under Furtwaengler;
and we see Haitink’s superheated performance of the Brahms C Minor in a
brief except.

Curiously, as political as the counter-theme of this film is–the
history of Berlin itself and its various transformations before and
after WW I; Nazism; post-WW II; the Berlin Wall and its aftermath; and
current-day expansion and eclectic cosmopolitanism–the narrative
rarely speaks directly to the internal mechanisms of power. True, we
are reminded Furtwaengler protected his Jewish musicians as much as he
could; we hear from the first woman to join the orchestra; we see
Karajan and receive a quick sense of his personal megalomania to
control orchestra, recordings, and videos; and we several times hear
about his temper tantrums. But look at the brief newsreel of
Celibidache and Furtwaengler’s arrival in London: why or how was
Celibidache excluded from the succession to permanent conductor? We do
get a taste of Furtwaengler’s Brahms Fourth.

At several distinct intervals, we are reminded how the leadership is
elected by secret ballot by the orchestra; then we hear how much they
respect authoritarian conductors. Perhaps this is a study in paradoxes,
musical and social. Claudio Abbado, however, emerges as a real purveyor
of partnership in music, acting primus inter pares to collaborate on
music and the direction of the orchestra’s future. We see two excerpts
from a powerful Verdi Requiem under Abbado. Simon Rattle, too, seems to
be cognizant of both tradition and the need to involve the orchestra in
music’s future. For the visitor to a musical museum, this video is a
good first tour; for the connoisseur the few anecdotes and brief
musical excerpts only whet an appetite that remains unslaked.

–Gary Lemco