As open to the new as on the first day

35 years of the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin

Our video shows double bass player Peter Riegelbauer, one of the founding members of the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin, in converstaion with Gerhard Forck

The Scharoun Ensemble Berlin owes its existence to a single work: Franz Schubert’s Octet for clarinet, horn, bassoon, string quartet and double bass. In 1983, some young musicians of the Philharmoniker decided to found an ensemble in order to rehearse and perform this inspired composition. Violinist Alessandro Cappone, double bass player Peter Riegelbauer, horn player Stefan de Leval Jezierski and violinist Madeleine Carruzzo – who for this project was happy to play the viola – were still among the newcomers in the orchestra and were united in their irrepressible passion for chamber music. For their project, they were able to involve two musicians who had long been in the service of the Philharmoniker: violinist Armin Brunner and clarinetist Peter Geisler. Cello and bassoon were taken on by two “outsiders”.

Passion for chamber music

It was a courageous undertaking, because within the orchestra there was already had a well-established chamber music ensemble with the identical line-up: the Philharmonic Octet. They had to be able to hold their own against this other group. “For weeks, we did nothing but practice,” says Peter Riegelbauer. “We approached the public rather cautiously. Our first concert took place in a community centre in Steglitz in Berlin, a place that was not in the limelight.” This was followed by several private concerts, then an appearance at an event in the Max Planck Institute. Gradually, Berlin concert promoters became aware of the musicians. Then it was time to find a suitable name. That was not an easy thing. “Philharmonic Ensemble” or something like that was out of the question. “On the one hand, we did not want to live off the back of the Philharmoniker name, but to build up our own reputation. On the other hand, we were looking for a succinct term with which we could develop a distinctive profile.” However, they wanted the name to have a certain connection to the Philharmonie, and that’s how the idea came about to name themselves after its architect: the Scharoun Ensemble. “In retrospect, the choice turned out to be very beneficial,” admits Peter Riegelbauer.

From duo to chamber orchestra

Over the years, the Scharoun Ensemble has been joined by a whole range of Philharmoniker musicians. Of the original line-up, only Peter Riegelbauer and Stefan de Leval Jezierski remain. The ensemble sees itself as a flexible group – both in terms of line-up, which varies from duo and trio to quartet and quintet to chamber orchestra, as well as its repertoire, whose central pillars are formed by Schubert’s Octet and Beethoven’s Septet, but which ranges from Baroque to contemporary pieces. The ensemble has also commissioned and premiered many works. Renowned instrumentalists, singers and conductors have often worked with the ensemble, including Heinz Holliger, Thomas Quasthoff, Annette Dasch, Simon Keenlyside and Barbara Hannigan as well as Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Peter Eötvös and – long before his time as the Philharmoniker’s chief conductor – Simon Rattle. The collaboration with great composers of our time has also been particularly inspiring: Hans Werner Henze, Isang Yun, György Ligeti, Wolfgang Rihm, Matthias Pintscher, Thomas Adès, Jörg Widmann and George Benjamin. And of course the encounter with the German comedian Loriot and their numerous concerts together! The great humourist read his texts between the movements of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of Animals – a delightful memory for all the musicians who participated at that time, and a great success with the public.

In search of the ideal sound balance

To merge eight instrumentalists into a single ensemble was and is no easy task. It is important to find the ideal sound balance between the strings and the winds. The same music is often interpreted very differently by the two groups. But working on it together – as the members unanimously agree – enriches all of them. Within the Scharoun Ensemble, the rehearsals are democratic. Every interpretative approach is given serious and careful consideration. Although this working method costs time and energy, the result is ultimately rewarding. For the musicians, it is both an honour and a challenge to be able to perform with in the Scharoun Ensemble.

An ensemble with its own festival

The Scharoun Ensemble is today one of the most successful chamber music groups on the international music scene. It appears throughout Germany and tours Europe, Japan and the USA, giving on average around 25 to 30 concerts per year. It performs regularly at international festivals and can be heard in Berlin as part of the Philharmoniker’s chamber music concert series. Another artistic highlight is the Zermatt Music Festival, founded by the ensemble in 2005, where it not only gives concerts, but in the Zermatt Festival Academy, the members also pass on their experience and knowledge to young musicians and chamber music groups and show them new ways of interpretation. They also support young musical talent at the American Academy in Rome and the European Krzysztof Penderecki Music Center in Lusławice. After 35 years, the Scharoun Ensemble is as open and eager to explore new things as on the first day. There is much it still wants to discover and develop. For example, the musicians want to work even more intensively on the repertoire, to increase the artistic quality, to acquire new, unknown works and to commission works from young composers. And finally there is still the inexhaustible Schubert Octet. “In such a piece,” beams Peter Riegelbauer, “there is always something new to discover”.

The newly founded Scharoun Ensemble Berlin
(Photo: Cordula Groth)
The ensemble in the 1990s
(Photo: Archiv Scharoun Ensemble)
25 years of the Scharoun Ensemble: A concert with Pierre Boulez
(Photo: Markus Weidmann)
Recording Beethoven’s septet
(Photo: Archiv Scharoun Ensemble)
With the students of the Academy in Zermatt
(Photo: Archiv Scharoun Ensemble)
The ensemble today
(Photo: Felix Broede)