Beethoven cycles have a long tradition with the Berliner Philharmoniker. In April 1914, the orchestra devoted itself for the first time to the master of the First Viennese School with a concert series over six evenings which offered a comprehensive exhibition of his work. In addition to the Coriolan, Egmont and the three Leonore overtures, the Violin, Triple and Piano Concerto No. 5, the Choral Fantasy and Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, the performances included all of the symphonies. That was quite remarkable because although Beethoven's compositions had always been part of the standard repertoire of the Berlin Philharmonisches Orchester, the master's concertos and overtures had been much more strongly represented in concert programmes than the symphonies. And of the symphonies, the Third, Fifth, Seventh and Ninth received particular attention, while the others were performed comparatively rarely.
Highlight of the Popular Concerts
And something else is astonishing from today's perspective: This first Beethoven cycle with the Berliner Philharmoniker was not regarded as a major project. It was not conducted by Arthur Nikisch, the then head of the orchestra's subscription concerts, but Camillo Hildebrand, the conductor of the Popular Concerts – and the audience fought for tickets, in particular for the performance of the Ninth Symphony. The critic of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik reported that “young students of music easily inclined towards artistic radicalism” showed particular interest in this event. The reviewer's musical verdict was that Camillo Hildebrand delighted with his “natural, uncontrived conception”, but the orchestra still had to give up some “modern nonsense” when performing Beethoven, in particular the “emergence of intrusive sounds with all kinds of subordinate ulterior motives to the detriment of the main line,” and the extreme variations in tempo. And he makes a plea for more attention to what Beethoven actually wrote. A very modern attitude! The Beethoven cycle became an integral part of the popular concerts in the following years. It was given almost every year from 1914 to 1941, with few exceptions. The conductors were Richard Hagel, Georg Schneevoigt and Julius Prüwer. Because of his Jewish origins, the latter lost all musical offices after the Nazis seized power in 1933, and was forced to lay down his baton more or less mid-cycle. Until 1941, the concert series no longer lay in the hands of one conductor alone, but of a different conductor every night.
Triumphs in Paris, London, New York and Japan
After the Second World War, it took a long time before the Berliner Philharmoniker presented a Beethoven cycle again. In April 1960, the orchestra travelled to Paris with Herbert von Karajan to play all of the master's nine symphonies, plus the Egmont and Coriolan overtures. The Philharmoniker and its chief were acclaimed by the Parisians who, according to the magazine Arts, had the opportunity to listen to the “best Beethoven possible”. Karajan's interpretation of Beethoven was a happy synthesis of the power of Toscanini and the depth of Furtwängler. “The Berliners seem to follow their conductor with a precision and flexibility that the more individualistic Vienna Philharmonic lacks,” it continued with admiration. Karajan and the Philharmoniker turned their Beethoven cycle into their “leading export”: In the following years, the orchestra took it to London, where the press hailed the tonal beauty of the interpretation, to New York, and several times to Japan. Beethoven's symphonies were the focus of Karajan's repertoire. The conductor recorded the cycle with the Berliner Philharmoniker no less than three times. And not only that: Between 1967 and 1972, the legendary cinematic records of his Beethoven interpretations were created for the Unitel company, and later, digital recordings were made by Sony. Today, the Unitel recordings are part of the archive of the Digital Concert Hall. However, Berlin audiences only had the opportunity to hear a complete Beethoven cycle with the orchestra under Karajan on one occasion: at the turn of 1973/1974.
For Karajan's successor Claudio Abbado, Beethoven's works were also an important pillar of the orchestra's concert programming. However, he only realised a complete cycle of his symphonies in 2001, towards the end of his term – and then not even in Berlin, but in Rome and Vienna. In addition to the nine symphonies, his cycle included all five piano concertos with soloists Gianluca Cascioli, Martha Argerich, Evgeny Kissin, Alfred Brendel and Maria João Pires. During the guest appearance, all Rome was in a Philharmoniker frenzy: The unanimous verdict of the press was that no comparable Beethoven interpretation had been heard in Italy for decades. “A Beethoven with the warmth of the Mediterranean and scented with spring is just what we have been waiting for” (Die Welt). And also in Vienna, where in advance of the concerts there were murmurings that in this city of all places, such a cycle was a risky proposition, the conductor and orchestra were acclaimed. Unlike Karajan, who focused on a dense, compact sound, Claudio Abbado emphasised their transparency. He played with a relatively small line-up. According to one critic, his interpretation revealed the unheard emancipatory power of this music – the energy and radical individualisation of the instrumental lines, the sharp, rhythmic dynamism of the music. This now legendary cycle is also part of the concert archive of the Digital Concert Hall.
Beethoven, the rhetorician
And Sir Simon Rattle? Berlin audiences first had the opportunity to hear him conduct a Beethoven cycle in 2001. However, it was not with the local orchestra, but with the Vienna Philharmonic, which was making a guest appearance as part of the Berliner Festwochen. Together with the Berliner Philharmoniker, he presented the Beethoven symphonies within the context of works by Anton Webern in 2008 – an unusual undertaking, and one that gave audiences the opportunity to view both composers from a new perspective. “This Beethoven is wide awake. Full of temperament, without pathos, a crystal-clear yet integrated sound. Simon Rattle puts the theatrical back into Beethoven” (Der Tagesspiegel). Seven years later, conductor and orchestra are now to perform another cycle of Beethoven's symphonies, which will also be released as recordings. Simon Rattle says: “Beethoven's symphonies together are a kind of Mount Everest for all of us to climb. And they all keep us very, very honest, because they were inventing a new type of music as they went along, and they were inventing music of a type of honesty and directness that had never been created before... It strikes me more and more, that in comparison to Mozart, who made astonishingly lyrical symphonies, Beethoven was an orator, he was a rhetorician.”