By Frederik Hanssen

A very special friendship

50 years of Daniel Barenboim conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker

(Photo: Peter Adamik)

The most intense, the closest phase of this absolutely extraordinary friendship can be dated precisely: it ran parallel to the wave of euphoria that engulfed Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. When the Berliner Philharmoniker spontaneously decided to invite GDR citizens to a free special concert in the Philharmonie on 12 November 1989 and asked Daniel Barenboim if he wanted to conduct, he agreed immediately. It was a moving and unique event. For all who were lucky enough to be there, the Israel tour which took place only a few months later was equally unforgettable. On the tour, which took place in April 1990, Daniel Barenboim was always close to the Philharmoniker, mentally as well as physically: he flew in the same plane as the orchestra members to Tel Aviv, he visited the Yad Vashem memorial together with them, and after the concert in Haifa he sat with them in the coach on the night-drive back to their hotel in Jerusalem. The musicians showed their thanks in their own way, remaining deliberately seated after the performances – although Barenboim had asked them to stand to receive the audiences’ applause – in order to direct all the appreciation towards the conductor. After receiving the orchestra’s Hans von Bülow medal in November 1989, the Berliner Philharmoniker appointed him an honorary member in October 1992.

Debut – first as a pianist, then as conductor

The first offer to appear with the Berliner Philharmoniker, made in 1954 by chief conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, was rejected by Barenboim’s father – because it seemed unthinkable that his son should appear only nine years after the end of the Holocaust in the country of the perpetrators. However, hardly had he come of age, the 21-year-old then came to Berlin in 1964 and impressed audiences in the newly inaugurated Philharmonie as the soloist in Béla Bartók’s First Piano Concerto. In June 1969, the multi-talented musician appeared at the conductor’s desk for the first time, presenting a very traditional programme with Haydn’s 95th Symphony, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto (with Clifford Curzon as the soloist) and Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. Barenboim’s approach to the First Viennese School pleased the Tagesspiegel critic Horst Mäder, whereas Schumann’s delicate score showed that the pianist, who had only been conducting for eight years, “had not yet overcome the problems of the beginner in this metier”. Half a century later, when Daniel Barenboim performed the same programme once again with the Philharmoniker – with Maria João Pires replacing Curzon who had died in 1982 – an artist stood in front of the orchestra who was at the zenith of his abilities. He knew exactly what he could expect from the Philharmoniker – namely intelligent music-making – and was ready to give them space for individual development during the performance.

Instinctive communication

Although the musicians at the desks have also changed since 1969, sometimes even several times, the orchestra’s spirit has remained the same; the so often instinctively functioning communication with Barenboim has in a sense inscribed itself into the DNA of the orchestra. As a guest, Barenboim has been able to make his mark on the development of the Philharmoniker more than any other living conductor. He has appeared in the Philharmonie over the decades more often that anyone else – in some seasons with up to five projects with the orchestra. Barenboim was even considered for the position of chief conductor on two occasions – in 1989 and 1999. The fact that the orchestra opted for Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle instead could not seriously affect this friendship. Because it is based on deep mutual affection.

Fruitful artistic interaction

Great evenings remain in the memory with works of the Classical-Romantic core repertoire from Mozart to Bruckner, but also with less easily accessible contemporary music by Barenboim’s friend Pierre Boulez, and with rarities such as Edward Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. The ties are so close that in 1998, the Philharmoniker even waived their days off directly after the stresses of the Salzburg Easter Festival to perform with Barenboim at his Staatsoper Unter den Linden festival. “The Berliner Philharmoniker are a very active orchestra,” was how Daniel Barenboim described his impressions on the Israel tour in an interview with the journalist Sybil Mahlke in 1990. “Their special feature is that so many musical impulses come to the conductor from the musicians themselves.” Anyone who has an open ear as a maestro to absorb these creative vibrations, and who also has a heart big enough to accept their validity alongside their own ideas, will find loyal friends in the Philharmoniker. Friends whose artistic interaction still inspires 50 years after Barenboim’s Philharmoniker debut.

1964: Daniel Barenboim made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker as pianist
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)
The conductor 1971
(Photo: Reinhard Friedrich)
1989: Concert on the occasion of the fall of the Berlin Wall
(Photo: Reinhard Friedrich)
1990: On the flight to Tel Aviv
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)
2014: Applause after a concert
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)