Master of the hidden message

Dmitri Shostakovich and the Berliner Philharmoniker

Dmitri Shostakovich thanks the Berliner Philharmoniker with a quotation from his Tenth Symphony, signed photo from 1969
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)

The audience certainly did not come to the Philharmoniker concert on 6 February 1928 because of the unknown composer “D. Szostakowicz” on the programme. Above all, they wanted to hear the famous pianist Arthur Schnabel and the celebrated conductor Bruno Walter. Walter, rather reticent about performing so-called “novelties”, presented the German premiere of the then 21-year-old Shostakovich’s First Symphony because he had met and come to admire the creator and his work shortly before in Leningrad. Written as a final examination work for the conservatory, the First brought the young Russian phenomenal success worldwide. Also in Berlin. “What is so pleasantly touching about the composer is that he finds the courage to be natural without falling into conventionality,” was the comment in Signale für die musikalische Welt after the concert. However, this performance of a work by Dmitri Shostakovich by the Berliner Philharmoniker initially remained a one-off event.

Part of the orchestral repertoire

However, this changed very quickly after the end of the Second World War. In July 1946 – by which time Shostakovich was leading a life between recognition and repression in the Soviet Union under the rule of Stalin – the orchestra, conducted by Sergiu Celibidache, presented his Fifth Symphony to the public for the first time, soon followed by the Seventh and Ninth. From then on, these three works became part of the orchestra’s permanent repertoire and were regularly included in programmes. Herbert von Karajan, head of the Philharmoniker from 1956, conducted the German premiere of the Tenth Symphony in 1959 – and from then on became its musical ambassador. Whenever the Russian’s name appeared on the programme at Karajan concerts, it was the Tenth that was performed. Both the conductor and orchestra loved it because the numerous wind solos typical of this work gave the musicians the opportunity to show off their individual skills.

Also unforgotten was the legendary concert in 1969 in which the Philharmoniker, under Karajan’s direction, performed the Tenth as part of their guest appearance in Russia at the Moscow Conservatory. In the audience sat the 63-year-old Shostakovich, breathing heavily and trembling with excitement – as an article in Die Welt reported. After the concert “he rises, climbs the small staircase to the stage, Karajan rushes towards him, grasps his hand, the applause becomes – however hackneyed it sounds – a veritable hurricane”. A golden moment in the history of the orchestra!

Programme for the German premiere of the First Symphony 1928
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)

Shostakovich first-hand

While Karajan conducted only the Tenth with the Philharmoniker, it was mainly guest conductors such as Dmitri Kitayenko, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Riccardo Chailly, Bernard Haitink and Semyon Bychkov who performed the composer’s other symphonies in the 1970s and 80s. From 1988 onwards, the orchestra had two guest conductors in Kurt Sanderling and Mariss Jansons who knew Shostakovich’s work first-hand through their long-standing friendship with the composer and impressed the listener with their authentic performances. In 2002, Claudio Abbado gave his last Berlin concert as chief conductor of the orchestra with a performance of the film and stage music for King Lear. Sir Simon Rattle was the first chief conductor to perform an all-Shostakovich concert: to mark the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth, he juxtaposed his first and last symphonies. Not to mention that during Simon Rattle’s tenure, the Philharmoniker ensembles increasingly focused on Shostakovich’s chamber music. The Philharmonia Quartet’s performance of all the string quartets attracted much attention.

Fitting for our time

The work of Dmitri Shostakovich is also close to the heart of our current chief conductor Kirill Petrenko, who most recently performed Shostakovich’s Eighth and Ninth with the Philharmonic without an audience in the Digital Concert Hall in the shadow of the corona lockdown. “I grew up with his music,” he revealed in an interview for the Digital Concert Hall. The ambiguity of his art, the hidden messages, the composer’s confrontation with the repressions, war and suffering of his time fascinate and move him. “Shostakovich was a humanist. He believed in people.”


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