Music For Your Day

Ich war ein Berliner

When James Jolly was invited to report on a recording session in Berlin in 1989, he had no idea that he'd be witness to history in the making.

The story started in January 1989 when a group of music journalists was invited to lunch at the old Kempinski hotel on the Kurfürstendamm. It was the hotel – demolished in 2015 – where Herbert von Karajan would stay when he was in town and where the majority of the Berlin Philharmonic's guest conductors and soloists were also put up. 

The invitation we'd received from Erato was suitably vague. When we arrived, it appeared that the guest list was surprisingly select as we were all seated around a single table of no more than a dozen people. Our host was Frédéric Sichler, then General Manager of Erato; the guest of honour was Daniel Barenboim, who the previous evening had conducted the Philharmonic in Bruckner's Fourth Symphony and Pierre Boulez’s four (as there then were) Notations – Barenboim had made his BPO debut 25 years earlier under Boulez's baton. Also present was Peter Diamand, the former Director of the Edinburgh Festival who first persuaded Barenboim to conduct a staged opera at his festival (Don Giovanni in 1973, which was followed by Le nozze di Figaro in 1974).

The coup de théâtre of the occasion was the announcement that Barenboim and the Berlin Phil would record the three Mozart operas to librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte; Così fan tutte would be first in November that year, followed by Le nozze di Figaro in May 1990 and Don Giovanni in April 1991. The casting was supposed to be different from the norm, moving away from the increasingly inevitable 'star-studded' line-up of many opera recordings to concentrate on a younger generation of singers new to their roles. But, as Barenboim pointed out, for him, anyone who can sing well and in style is a star. In this, both he and Diamand showed remarkable foresight: Cecilia Bartoli’s name may leap out from the cast lists now (she would sing Dorabella in Così and Cherubino in Figaro), but back then very few people had even heard of her.

At lunch, I remember one German critic locking horns with Barenboim about the expense and absurdity – given the tidal wave of period approaches to Mozart operas then changing our perception of these works – of recording the Da Ponte cycle with an orchestra like the Berlin Phil. Barenboim, who clearly enjoys a spat, put up a good fight. As it happened, the critic was proved right: the recordings were astoundingly expensive to make, and generally only politely received. But this brief dramatic interlude at lunch, and the issues it raised, paled into significance compared to what would happen when I returned to witness the recording of the Cosí. 

Cut to November 9 – a cold and rather grey Thursday. The Berlin Philharmonic was assembled in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin's Dahlem district, a favourite recording venue of Karajan's before the Philharmonie became his favoured "studio". The church dates back to the 1930s and has a lovely acoustic, capable of accommodating sizeable forces (the Karajan Ring cycle was recorded here), and its largely residential surroundings provide gratifying quiet for the sound engineers. 

I joined the sessions in the afternoon and listened in while Lella Cuberli, Cecilia Bartoli and John Tomlinson sang – Barenboim was at his linguistically most agile, switching on a dime between German for the orchestra, Italian for Bartoli, French for the production team and English for Cuberli and Tomlinson. The playing of the Berlin Phil was, as always, mightily impressive, and immediately you sensed that here was an orchestra as comfortable in opera as in the standard symphonic repertoire. 

As the sessions ended, news was already circulating that the Berlin Wall was open and letting East Germans through. We returned to our hotel, the same Kempinski where the lunch had taken place earlier that year. At dinner I recall Barenboim being approached by a distinguished older gentleman, and the two of them having a conversation standing by the table. "That's Richard von Weizsäcker, the German President," my neighbour whispered to me. Throughout the meal music critics would be receiving the same brief message from their editors: "Forget you're a music critic, get out on the streets. Be a journalist!"

By the Friday morning, the streets of West Berlin were littered with abandoned Trabants, and East Berliners were wandering around fascinated at finally seeing what was, until that day, so near and yet so far. After a brief press conference, the Berlin Philharmonic and Barenboim threw open the doors of the Philharmonie to their guests and once again (and not for the last time in Barenboim's life) music played its unique role in bringing people together as only it can. Mozart's Così fan tutte Overture, inevitably, appeared on the programme, alongside two works by Beethoven – the First Piano Concerto (after which Barenboim played the Andante cantabile from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C, K330) and the Seventh Symphony. 

I remember watching the broadcast and marvelling at the East German audience totally engrossed in the music, the music-making and perhaps the realisation that something they'd once dreamt about had finally happened. If ever Schiller's words "Alle Menschen werden Brüder", so powerfully set by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony, were made flesh, this morning was the witness.

Listen to IDAGIO's "Postcard From Berlin" playlist here

James Jolly · Published
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