The weather was still wintry. The opening of the first Easter Festival with the Berliner Philharmoniker 50 years ago took place in the cold, the snow and the rain. The great and the good of the time all turned up to the event, from ex-Empress Soraya, Liane Baronin de Rothschild, Gerd Porsche and Peter von Siemens, to the actors Nadja Tiller and Walter Giller. The festival was Herbert von Karajan’s idea: “At my age,” said the then 59-year-old conductor in an interview for the magazine Der Spiegel, “an artist has had many, many experiences; and he, of course, would also like to let others share in these”. His vision was to present outstanding performances of the works of great composers before an international audience. And he was able to inspire a number of private sponsors who made the realisation of this vision possible. It is no coincidence he chose Wagner’s Die Walküre as the first opera production, to be followed by the other parts of the Ring tetralogy in the following years. In his opinion, Wagner’s Nibelungen epic was “consistently incorrectly” staged – particularly in Bayreuth, and he wanted to present a counter-proposal: “My main concern was to interpret the music visually, because I believe that more is not necessary.” The Berliner Philharmoniker, whose chief conductor he was at that time, should also have the opportunity to appear as an opera orchestra. Karajan’s idea paid off. The Walküre production, which Karajan not only conducted but also directed, attracted a lot of attention in the press. Although his production concept was not without controversy, the musical performance received the highest praise: “The Berliners exceeded every opera orchestra I know, even the Bayreuth festival orchestra,” Joachim Kaiser wrote in Die Zeit.
Although the opera production was the most important element of the Easter Festival, it was not the only one: the festival concept also included the performance of a choral-symphonic work and two concert programmes. The first Easter Festival featured Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Bruckner’s Eighth and an all-Bach programme for which Karajan used an “Electronic” concert harpsichord with transistorised amplifier system from the Witt Mayer company as a continuo. In the following 22 years during which Karajan led the festival, the Berliner Philharmoniker presented mainly the operas of Richard Wagner, plus Beethoven’s Fidelio, Puccini's La Bohème and Tosca, and Verdi’s Il Trovatore. The symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner were the main focus of the concert repertoire. Over the years, all the major choral works were performed, including Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the Requiems by Mozart, Brahms and Verdi, Haydn’s Creation and Bach’s B Minor Mass. In 1989, a rift developed between Karajan and the Philharmoniker, and the conductor planned the 1990 Easter Festival without the orchestra. His sudden death in the summer of that year appeared to signal the end of the festival.
Fresh start with Georg Solti and Claudio Abbado
But it continued. In 1991, two guest conductors shared the artistic responsibilities: Bernard Haitink conducted Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, and Daniel Barenboim conducted the concert performances which were also mainly focused on Mozart. The following year, the Berliner Philharmoniker went to the festival accompanied by their new chief conductor Claudio Abbado – but the artistic director of the festival both this and the following year was Georg Solti, who conducted Die Frau ohne Schatten by Richard Strauss and Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff. It was not until 1994 that Abbado presented himself as director of the festival with a staging of Modest Mussorgksy’s Boris Godunov. In contrast to Karajan, who conducted all the events of the festival himself, guest conductors were also invited for the concerts: Zubin Mehta, Mariss Jansons, Kurt Sanderling, Roger Norrington, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Christian Thielemann. The style of programming of the festival changed, and now included works by Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Felix Mendelssohn, and Russian composers.
The Simon Rattle era
When Sir Simon Rattle became chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, and thus also the artistic director of the Easter Festival, the press was eager to see how the “new guy” would stand the test of the festival. In 2003, Rattle and his stage director Nikolaus Lehnhoff made the daring move of performing Beethoven’s Fidelio without dialogue – and received mixed reviews. The Salzburger Nachrichten wrote: “So, an overall gratifying yet bold beginning to his era by Rattle. This musician will take getting used to.” Apart from the fact that Simon Rattle, like his predecessor Karajan, also presented the complete Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner, new aspects of music theatre appeared on the programme with Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte, Britten’s Peter Grimes, Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande and Strauss’ Salome. The concert programmes also began to feature contemporary works. In 2013, the decision was made to move from Salzburg to Baden-Baden, where the Philharmoniker could present themselves not only in opera productions and orchestral concerts, but also with their chamber music ensembles. Mozart’s Magic Flute was the first production in the new homestead. This was followed by Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Strauss’ Rosenkavalier and Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde – and this year – Tosca. The guest appearance by Kirill Petrenko, the future chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, at the 2017 Easter Festival adds yet another highlight to the many others in the festival’s 50 year history – and at the same time gives an indication of the future path of the orchestra as well as of the festival itself.