x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Battleground Abu Dhabi for Berlin's maestros

An appraisal of Berlin's top two orchestras - and their rival maestros - ahead of their impending visits to the UAE as part of the Abu Dhabi Classics season.

Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic are in the capital next week with a selection from Haydn, Brahms, Alban Berg and Brett Dean.
Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic are in the capital next week with a selection from Haydn, Brahms, Alban Berg and Brett Dean.

Could Berlin be the world's classical music capital? If so, it has its fair share of challengers - Vienna and Amsterdam's orchestras are just as admired, while the opera houses of Milan and Paris have an even higher profile. Orchestra-packed London remains the hub for the classical music business and for contemporary music, while an appearance at New York's Carnegie Hall or Metropolitan Opera is perhaps the most solid proof of career success the world can offer.

Despite such competition, though, the German capital is still pretty much at the top of the pile, offering classical music lovers a density of talent that cannot quite be matched anywhere else. Where most cities are proud if they can boast a single top opera house, Berlin has three major spaces, complemented by an incredible archipelago of concert venues dotted across the city. This is already a rich diet for a city of 3.5 million, but when you take into account Berlin's two world-class orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Berlin Staatskapelle, the city looks pretty hard to beat.

The home bases for these ensembles may lie just 15 minutes walk apart (with another opera house sandwiched in between), but in their ambitions, their sound and the personalities at their helms, they remain very different beasts.

This season, you will have a chance to compare them in person, as both orchestras visit Abu Dhabi for the first time. On November 9, the Berlin Phiharmonic performs Haydn, Brahms, Alban Berg and Brett Dean, while in January the Staatskapelle presents a slightly more traditional programme of Mozart and Tchaikovsky.

In a world where classical music's sound is becoming increasingly homogeneous, both orchestras stand out for their distinct personalities, with their chief conductors - Sir Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim - marking out notably different routes for each. In fact, when these two figures found themselves competing for the same job - chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic - in 1999, they became caught up in a debate about the future sound of the city's music.

Things could so easily have been different. When the role of chief conductor at the Philharmonic became empty, pundits and public alike expected the Argentine-Israeli pianist and conductor Barenboim to fill the post. With the Berlin Phil regularly (if controversially) cited as the world's best orchestra, the job is perhaps the best in all classical music, and as the flamboyant former child prodigy Barenboim had been at the pinnacle of the profession for decades, he seemed a perfect fit. A consummate musician, Barenboim was also a major public figure, famed beyond his musical talents as a vocal critic of the Israeli government and as the widower of the brilliant British cellist Jacqueline du Pré.

He had already succeeded in pulling the Berlin Staatskapelle, which he took over in 1991, out of obscurity and turning it into a major international force. Likewise, his creation of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra - the first ensemble comprising both Arab and Israeli musicians - had proved that classical music could still remain a culturally vital arena for international dialogue. As someone with an already intimate relationship with the Berlin music scene, Barenboim's appointment as the head of the Berlin Phil seemed automatic.

But it wasn't. The orchestra's members instead voted for Sir Simon Rattle, a younger, less well-known Englishman who, despite a superlative reputation, remained a relative outsider. So why did they make such an unexpected choice? It can't have been because of Rattle's track record of leading top orchestras. Despite many guest conducting spots, he'd never permanently headed any ensemble more prestigious than the UK's Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. What Rattle did possess, however, was - and is - a reputation as a moderniser and brilliant communicator. His Birmingham orchestra had been a provincial minor player when Rattle took over and transformed it into one of Europe's leading ensembles. He was known for pushing beyond the conventional repertoire, both backwards into the Baroque and forward into the 20th century, and for coaxing out new fresh approaches to old favourites that many orchestras felt they knew backwards.

He was likewise an enthusiast for the revival of period instruments - Rattle sometime used them not just for the Baroque period, but in his association with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, for music as late as Beethoven.

This set him apart from Barenboim, a comparative insider and a long-standing musical icon who has come out against the authentic performance movement. Barenboim's reasoning is that the technical limitations of earlier instruments do not necessarily produce better music simply because they match the period the music was written in. Also rejecting the idea that conductors should stick to a composer's original intentions in tempo, Barenboim's conducting remains closer to the 20th-century tradition of greats such as Furtwangler and Karajan (both former heads of the Berlin Philharmonic), with the sort of broad, lush sound now most associated with the late Romantic period. Dynamic and personable, Barenboim is anything but stuffy, but compared with Rattle, he could be seen to represent the old guard, less likely to push the Berlin Philharmonic in a new direction.

The orchestra's choice might have been a surprise, but the Berlin Philharmonic has always had a healthy reputation for being independent, and even a little bloody-minded. It formed, after all, as a group of rebels from another orchestra back in 1882, furious when their chief conductor attempted to transport them to Warsaw on a fourth-class train. Despite some recent maulings in the German press, Rattle seems to have vindicated the decision, as he continues to take the orchestra out of its comfort zone. While it is famous as an interpreter of the "three Bs" of the central European Romantic tradition - Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner - the Berlin Phil under Rattle is as likely to tackle the French Impressionists or Leonard Bernstein. And although the orchestra had almost trademarked its swooningly broad sound, Rattle's period instrument enthusiasm has crept into some performances, causing occasional outbursts of horror among the orchestra's traditional audience.

Barenboim's Staatskapelle, meanwhile, has long been travelling a different road. Tracing its roots back as far as the 1500s, the orchestra is the resident ensemble at Berlin's State Opera House, as well as playing concerts on its own. During Berlin's partition from 1961 to 1989, this once-great orchestra remained a shadowy presence on the international scene, kept in relative isolation by its East Berlin location.

When the wall came down, however, music buffs discovered something of a miracle - an ensemble that had preserved the sound of pre-war German orchestras, a sound that now existed nowhere else. Barenboim has championed this unique noise, which he himself describes as "intense, full of mellowness and colour", while introducing the orchestra to a more modern repertoire. With Barenboim regularly conducting them as a soloist from the piano (as he will in Abu Dhabi), they also benefit from their relationship with one of the world's finest living pianists.

While they have never had quite the stellar reputation of the Berlin Philharmonic, their maintenance of their own unique tradition helps them stand out, making Berlin's two orchestras together a double act hard to match in any city in the world.