From 30 August to 19 September, the Musikfest Berlin rings in the city’s new concert season with 26 highly varied events. Played by top international ensembles as well as Berlin’s own great orchestras, the festival presents an exciting programme with many focal points, featuring repertoire favourites as well as rare and forgotten works.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner © Sim Canetty Clarke
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
© Sim Canetty Clarke

One of those lesser-heard pieces is Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux, a true compendium of birdsong, presented by Pierre-Laurent Aimard in late-night concert as a precursor to the official opening. The entire festival is framed by three operas, with a concert performance of Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten under Vladimir Jurowski on 1 September. It is rounded off by Antonin Dvořák’s Rusalka with Sally Matthews in the title role and Pavol Breslik singing the role of the Prince. But the festival also begins with a big opera, and a work not rarely seen on European programmes: Hector Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini. 150 years after the composer’s death, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique and Monteverdi Choir bring back this carnival opera to Berlin, where it has not been staged since its first outing in 1894. In a semi-staged performance, bel canto tenor Michael Spyres will sing the role of the eponymous goldsmith, Sophia Burgos his beloved Teresa.

The Musikfest further commemorates the occasion with a number of Berlioz works throughout the festival. His popular Symphonie fantastique, for instance, appears in different guises, both in Franz Liszt’s transcription for piano solo and its symphonic shape; François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles’ programme includes his seldom heard Harold en Italie, and the Berlin Philharmonic dedicates its second programme to his choral symphony, Roméo et Juliette. Rounding off the Berlioz focus will be excerpts from Les Troyens, along with a real rarity: La Mort de Cléopatre. Composed in 1829 as a failed bid for the Prix de Rome, Berlioz himself did not acknowledge this scène lyrique, as he called it, in his own work catalogue, and it only really began to enter programmes in the last few decades. Donald Runnicles leads the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and a small, but starry cast of singers.

François-Xavier Roth © Mark Allen
François-Xavier Roth
© Mark Allen

Besides the works of what we consider repertoire composers, the Musikfest also champions contemporary music. Either entirely dedicated to it or set in an intentional contrast with “classical” repertoire – such as a Rihm premiere nestled into a Schubert song recital – more than half of the events prominently feature new music. A particular light is shone on Olga Neuwirth, Peter Eötvös, Helmut Lachenmann and Louis Andriessen, the latter a central figure of Dutch contemporary art and one of Europe’s most eminent composers, celebrating his 80th birthday in 2019. Three performances “in honour of Louis Andriessen“ celebrate the occasion with the German première of Mysteriën, written for the Concertgebouw Orchestra on its 125th anniversary – surprisingly so, as Andriessen was part of a small group of troublemakers who once disturbed a concert by that very orchestra in protest against its seemingly anti-modern programming. De Stijl, the third part of the music theatre piece De Materie (“Matter”), shows Andriessen’s typical use of the traditional orchestral set-up in combination with electric guitars, synthesizers and amplification. Here it is combined with music by Neuwirth and Edgar Varèse. One of the three visiting London orchestras, the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo present the third instalment of the series with the European premiere of the song cycle The Only One to words by Belgian poet Delphine Decompte. Versatile singer Nora Fischer performs this piece that flirts with pop and light music; according to the composer, “It begins as a pretty song, of which not much is left at the end.”

<i>La Roue</i> © Fondation Pathé
La Roue
© Fondation Pathé

In addition to these larger programmatic features, the Musikfest includes several interesting fringe events, such as two performances offering musical and visual fare for film enthusiasts: paired with music by Bartók and Debussy, the Konzerthausorchester Berlin plays Arthur Honegger's Pacific 231, accompanying a screening of Jean Mitry’s short film of the same name. Later in the festival, the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra embarks upon a whopping nine hours of film and music at the Konzerthaus with a world premiere of the reconstructed and restored film and music version of La Roue.

Together with events such as a Critics’ Quartet discussing Benvenuto Cellini on the evening before the performance, three pieces of Japanese Noh theatre, a performance of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Karajan Academy and a concert to benefit a charity devoted to the integration of refugee children, the Musikfest Berlin offers a wide range of events to appeal to all ages and tastes of a 21st-century audience.

Click here to see all festival listings.

This article was sponsored by the Musikfest Berlin.