Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal has a clearly articulated mission for its 2020-21 season: to give you the widest possible perspective of what music might be. That doesn’t just mean world premieres of the weird and wonderful – although there’s plenty to satisfy the most hardened contemporary music devotee. With 150 planned concerts spanning 500 years of music from multiple genres, there can hardly be a concertgoer who would fail to have their horizons expanded.

Daniel Barenboim at the Pierre Boulez Saal in February 2019 © Peter Adamik
Daniel Barenboim at the Pierre Boulez Saal in February 2019
© Peter Adamik

At the heart of the programme, unsurprisingly, is founder Daniel Barenboim’s Boulez Ensemble. Their speciality is the pairing of Classical or Romantic works with music from the 20th and 21st centuries and seven of their nine concerts are devoted to this (there are also two 20th-century-only concerts, of Ligeti and Schoenberg). As well as Barenboim himself, they are playing with a roster of invited star conductors: a noteworthy guest is Lahav Shani who will conduct and play piano in a concert on 6th February which matches Mozart and Strauss to a world premiere from German composer Isabel Mundry. Barenboim himself conducts violinist son Michael and cellist Kian Soltani in a pair of concerts contrasting works by Schubert and Pierre Boulez.

In another perspective, ten concerts are devoted to jazz and other improvised music. Chick Corea has been delighting and challenging jazz fans for over half a century: his “Vigilette” trio visits the hall for a pair of concerts on 12th March (baroque lovers take note that one of their standout numbers is a Scarlatti keyboard sonata). Other jazz stars include clarinettist Louis Sclavis and pianist Florian Weber. On 12th June, pianist Uri Caine (trained in both classical and jazz) teams up with drummer Kate Gentile and the Lutosławski Quartet.

Waed Bouhassoun © Peter Adamik
Waed Bouhassoun
© Peter Adamik

The hall is part of the Barenboim-Said Akademie: given the Edward Said connection, it can be relied upon to present music from the Arab and Persian worlds. Persian classical music is represented in two concerts by Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian on 10th January and 1st June. The yearly set of Arabic Music Days have already run in September, but look out for 27th February with the return to the hall of Syrian oud player and singer Waed Bouhassoun: those new to Arabic music but familiar with that of Spain should find themselves making connections.

Bouhassoun is a long-standing collaborator of Jordi Savall, who performs two concerts in November with his Le Concert Des Nations. These aren’t the only early music concerts or, indeed, the earliest music. Fans of renaissance polyphony will have to wait until August for a treat that should truly be worth the wait. For 20 years, Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars have been working on the masses of Josquin des Prez. They will celebrate the composer’s 500th anniversary (on August 27th) with the first ever full live cycle of his masses, performed over four days. Early opera lovers also get a look in with a 16th November performance of Gluck’s Le cinesi by Les Musiciens du Louvre.

The Tallis Scholars and Peter Philips, during Edward Said Days in 2019 © Peter Adamik
The Tallis Scholars and Peter Philips, during Edward Said Days in 2019
© Peter Adamik

Four concerts focus on Russian art song: lovers of deep, sonorous Russian bass singing will be excited by Ildar Abdazakov singing a mainly Mussorgsky programme including Songs and Dances of Death on 12th November. Thomas Hampson has curated a Schubert Week for 17th-24th January, performing Schwanengesang himself and inviting a series of young singers as well as established Lieder specialists. There are more Lieder from Schubert and others on 10th April from Christoph Prégardien.

Alina Ibragimova © Eva Vermandel
Alina Ibragimova
© Eva Vermandel
Thomas Hampson © Peter Adamik
Thomas Hampson
© Peter Adamik

Violinist Alina Ibragimova performs in three different formations: in her Chiaroscuro Quartet on 11th October, playing solo Bach on 7th February, with pianist Cédric Tiberghien on 17th May.

England’s Heath Quartet promise to “explore the outer edges of what a string quartet does”, considering the Pierre Boulez Saal to be “the hall that’s going to let us stretch our legs and do something different” – look out for their Bach-Ligeti pairing on 8th April. They are also one of seven quartets taking part in Quartet Week, which runs from May 22-30.

Covid-19 casts its shadow over all classical music programmes right now and the Pierre Boulez Saal is no exception. In place of the usual facility to book tickets months in advance, they are only accepting money for concerts up to two weeks ahead (on a rolling basis): for others, they are asking patrons to enter their names onto an online waiting list to receive an email alert when it’s confirmed that the concert will actually take place.

Chick Corea's trio
Chick Corea's trio "Vigilette"
© Pierre Boulez Saal
Boulez Ensemble © Monika Rittershaus
Boulez Ensemble
© Monika Rittershaus

The list above omits a dazzling array of international stars, old and young, who feature in the season. Here are just some of the names you’ll recognise: Ax, Bezuidenhout, Bostridge, Chamayou, Fink, Gerstein, Kantorow, Kremer, Padmore, Pahud, Pappano, Peretyatko, Pollini, Schiff, Tamestit, Thibaudet,Trifonov, Widmann. If all goes as planned, Berlin will be the place to be for the coming musical months.


You can see the events at Pierre Boulez Saal here. Please note that in view of Covid-19 uncertainty, we are only publishing listings of events up to around 2 months in the future; we will publish more as we get nearer to their dates.

This preview was sponsored by Pierre Boulez Saal