Author: Benedikt von Bernstorff
ca. 4 minutes

Herbert von Karajan looking at a mixing desk.
Herbert von Karajan in the recording studio | Picture: Max Jacoby

The Digital Concert Hall celebrates its 15th anniversary in the 2023-24 season. Its launch marked a milestone within an ongoing process: upholding the orchestra’s tradition while opening it to the new communications media. This is both a balancing act and a success story. 

From its earliest days, the Berliner Philharmoniker has reached its audience in three ways: as Berlin’s home-town orchestra, as a touring orchestra, and as a media orchestra on recordings, radio and television. As long ago as 1884, a contemporary reported that “a listening booth was set up in the side rooms of the Philharmonie in Berlin where the audience could hear the pieces being played in the main auditorium by telephone”. The listeners held the telephones “as close as possible to their order not to miss a note from the orchestra”. As bizarre as this scene might seem today, there are striking parallels to the reception of concert streams on the mobile phones that we have come to take for granted. The road from then to now has, of course, been a long one.

No recordings were made under principal conductor Hans von Bülow, and only one – of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – issued from his successor Arthur Nikisch. But during Wilhelm Furtwängler’s tenure, between 1922 and 1954, the orchestra benefitted from vast improvements in technology. The Berliner Philharmoniker was heard in a radio transmission for the first time in 1924. Though Furtwängler was quite sceptical of the technology of his day, many of his performances with the orchestra were recorded. The Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings label has released those complete live radio broadcasts on 22 CDs.

Media fame under Herbert von Karajan

Furtwängler’s successor, Herbert von Karajan, principal conductor from 1956 to 1989, was a visionary of the media age. His countless LP and CD recordings with the Philharmoniker were regarded as benchmarks for decades, and sold millions of copies. The conductor was fascinated by technical innovations, and had an unerring sense of the ways in which recordings would exponentially increase the orchestra’s audience and reach.

On selected occasions in the Karajan era, the orchestra was already establishing its presence on television. Special Philharmonic activities – such as the Easter festivals in Salzburg and Baden-Baden, the New Year’s Eve and Waldbühne concerts, and the annual Europakonzert inaugurated in 1990 – became, and still remain, major media events.

The digital concert experience

Even in the context of the orchestra’s extensive media experience, the launch of the Digital Concert Hall signified a quantum leap. Since the beginning of the 2008-09 season, all of the Philharmoniker’s Berlin programmes have been recorded, and on 6 January 2009 – a special concert – the first live transmission took place. Today the Berliner Philharmoniker can be experienced nearly every week via livestream. Then, following post production, the concerts are made available in the Digital Concert Hall’s steadily growing on-demand archive. It now comprises more than 750 concerts. Along with this nearly unbroken documentation of the past 15 years, it also contains a number of historic productions.

The streaming platform also came about as a reaction to the crisis in the recording industry, caused largely by the shift in media and social communication unleashed by the internet. With the establishment of the company Berlin Phil Media, which embraces the Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings label along with the Digital Concert Hall, the self-governing orchestra took media representation into its own hands.

The Digital Concert Hall owes its founding and continuing success chiefly to the initiative of Philharmonic principal cellist and media chairman Olaf Maninger and co-managing director until 2019, Robert Zimmermann. A prerequisite that shouldn’t be taken for granted has been the enthusiasm and willingness of the orchestra and its principal conductors to take a leap of faith. Financial start-up assistance for the pioneering project was provided by Deutsche Bank.

An archive of impressive depth

Among the highlights of concerts captured in the Digital Concert Hall are recordings with important, now-deceased partners of the Berliner Philharmoniker, among them the last Berlin appearances of former principal conductor Claudio Abbado as well as of honorary members Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons and Bernard Haitink. The Archive also documents the second half of Simon Rattle’s tenure almost in its entirety – and the (almost) complete collaboration to date of the Berliner Philharmoniker with its current principal conductor Kirill Petrenko.

Like Furtwängler, Kirill Petrenko beleives that the unrepeatable concert experience is of greater significance than the production of “perfect” recordings. But it is precisely in this respect that the flexibility of the medium proves itself ideal. The online platform is not oriented towards a single highlight or event culture. Instead it forms a unique compendium which accompanies and displays all the activities of this “Orchestra of the 21st Century” (Simon Rattle). Thus the Archive of the Digital Concert Hall includes films, portraits and interviews, as well as productions from the Education department.

When Kirill Petrenko took up his post, only a few videos with him were available; by the beginning of the 2023-24 season there were already 56. In addition, the chief conductor can be seen during concert intervals conversing with orchestra members about his work. 

Crises and opportunities

Over the course of 15 years, the audio and video quality of recordings for the Digital Concert Hall has been steadily improving. The standard for picture quality is now the brilliant, high-contrast 4K-HDR format. And for two years sound reproduction has been offered in Immersive Audio (Dolby Atmos), which produces a three-dimensional spatial effect. The quality achieved in the lossless Hi-Res-Audio format is four times higher than that of CDs.

Organizations show their mettle most when faced with unforeseen crises. Such a case was the COVID pandemic, which was especially disastrous for cultural institutions. The Digital Concert Hall allowed the Berliner Philharmoniker to maintain contact with its audience during the lockdown.

The orchestra – at time reduced by official regulations to chamber-music size – assembled in the empty Philharmonie for a number of concerts which were viewed globally online. In April 2020, the Digital Concert Hall could be accessed free of charge for a whole month – an offer that attracted new classical music fans from every corner of the world. In artistic terms, it also meant that, thanks to streaming, the collaboration with principal conductor Kirill Petrenko, which had begun only a few months before, could be continued without interruption.

In the Digital Concert Hall, the Berliner Philharmoniker has realized a bold vision which reflects the vital qualities that distinguish this orchestra: moving with the times while staying true to its essential core.