Jean Sibelius, the 150th anniversary of whose birth was celebrated in December 2015, is considered Finland's great composer who with his tone poems inspired by the national epic Kalevala gave the country its own sound idiom. Hardly anyone, however, would associate the composer with Berlin. Yet the German city played an important role in Sibelius' artistic career. Through texts and music, this connection is highlighted in the second Philharmonic Salon this season with its theme “Sibelius in Berlin”. Guests of the concert, conceived by Götz Teusch, include the Philharmonia Quartett and the German actor and renowned audio book narrator Heikko Deutschmann.
In Berlin as a student...
Sibelius lived in Berlin as a student between the autumn of 1899 and the summer of 1900 and was much inspired by the time he spent there. The then 24-year-old was going through a period of doubt and depression and was relatively unmotivated to create something of his own. However, he was interested in the cultural life of Berlin, of which the concerts of the Philharmonisches Orchester were an important part. In particular, the performance of Don Juan by Richard Strauss under Hans von Bülow made a big impression on him. “The greatest significance of my stay in Berlin was that I could hear so much, both orchestral and chamber music.”
... and as a conductor
Twelve years later, in November 1902, the Berliner Philharmoniker performed one of his works for the first time, the tone poem En Saga, which Sibelius himself conducted. This was followed in 1904 by Finlandia, and a performance of the Second Symphony in 1905. “The symphony is a work whose acquaintance was worth making,” as it was said in a discussion of the concert. According to the critic, the treatment of the orchestra in particular showed that "it is still possible to achieve a multitude of completely fresh, new sound effects with the classical symphony orchestra.” However, Sibelius’ works were not included in the programmes of the renowned philharmonic subscription concerts, but in the much less frequented “Novelties concerts”, under the artistic direction of Ferruccio Busoni, a friend of the composer. Not until 1911 did Arthur Nikisch, the then chief conductor of the orchestra, conduct the tone poem Finlandia as part of the main philharmonic concerts. From the 1920s and 30s, Sibelius’ compositions were often included in the Philharmoniker’s concerts, conducted by, among others, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Thomas Beecham and Eugen Jochum. In March 1941, Clemens Krauss conducted a concert celebrating the composer’s 75th birthday.
Esteemed symphonies and a popular Violin Concerto
After the Second World War, it was mainly Sergiu Celibidache and later Herbert von Karajan who repeatedly performed the works of Finnish composer with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Today, the Berliner Philharmoniker have Sir Simon Rattle, a chief conductor who is particularly fond of Sibelius’s oeuvre, and he has already included a complete cycle of the symphonies in the 2010/2011 season; this cycle was repeated for the 150th anniversary of his birth, and the complete symphonies are being released on CD and Blu-ray. The Sibelius work which the Berliner Philharmoniker has performed the most often is the Violin Concerto. In October 1905, Richard Strauss conducted the première of the new version. The soloist was Carl Halir, the then concertmaster of the Königliche Hofkapelle. “A captivating work, written with imagination and colourfully drawn,” was the verdict of the critic of the Musikalisches Wochenblatt. Many violinists have shone since then with sparkling performances of the concerto with the Philharmoniker, ranging from Franz von Vecsey, the student of Joseph Joachim and dedicatee of the work, to Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, Gidon Kremer and, more recently, Nikolaj Znaider and Leonidas Kavakos.