In every concert that Claudio Abbado conducted in the Berlin Phiharmonie, he achieved ever greater artistry and enchantment. Succeeding Herbert von Karajan, he was artistic director of the Berliner Philharmoniker from 1989 to 2002, after which he frequently came to Berlin as guest conductor of the orchestra. His concerts in the Philharmonie were the highlight of every season, and in spite of health problems, no-one wanted to believe that he might no longer be able to come to Berlin. Sadly, it was impossible for him to conduct tonight’s programme as planned: he passed away on 20th January.

Berliner Philharmoniker - in stillem Gedenken © Monika Rittershaus
Berliner Philharmoniker - in stillem Gedenken
© Monika Rittershaus

So that we would remember this great man in the course of the evening, at the beginning of the concert, the violist Naoko Shimizu placed a single white Rose on the podium. At the beginning of the opening piece, the intermezzo from Schubert’s Rosamunde, the Berliner Philharmoniker played alone, with no conductor on the stage – a sight seldom seen. The Philharmoniker radiated melancholy and joy in turn; at the close of this opening work, they stood still for a silent prayer. Immediately, a part of the audience broke into loud applause, which seemed rather disrespectful in this situation, straight after such a spiritual and emotional moment. Perhaps it would have been a good idea for the orchestra to have made a short speech beforehand to prepare the audience for this moment of quiet remembrance, since the death of so beloved a conductor is a distressing loss not just for the orchestra but also for the audience.

The orchestra, still continuing conductorless, and Frank Peter Zimmermann played Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Violin concerto in G major. Under Zimmermann’s musical leadership, up to the last movement, the music sounded with such happiness as it might have done in the past with Abbado, whom one might have imagined alive. Sadly, the flow of the music was once again interrupted by loud applause at the end of each movement. The concertmaster wrinkled his brow and the soloist gave a wry smile. The audience at this concert behaved strangely: several listeners left the hall between movements, one gentleman opened a bottle of sparkling water with a loud fizz, a mobile phone rang loudly – behaviour that’s hardly appropriate to such an occasion.

In the second half of the concert, the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Principal Conductor Sir Simon Rattle ascended the podium to take over proceedings. He set a gentle tempo for Anton Bruckner’s Symphony no. 7, but still, the audience could not restrain themselves from applauding between movements. Understandably, one wants to honour this high priest of music with appreciative applause, but there are times when it would be better not to break the flow of a composition in this way. In spite of this brief interruption, this 65 minute masterpiece sounded flawless.

This memorial concert for Claudio Abbado was something special for the Berliner Philharmoniker, reminding one of the glory days of this committed Berlin orchestra. Where the audience should have been calm and reflective, they generally treated the orchestra without respect. In contrast with other concert halls, the podium in the Philharmonie’s Grosser Saal stands in the focal point of the hall, placed between the people and the musicians. This evening, rather than a coming together between audience and music, what we saw was more like a rift.



Translated from German by David Karlin