I thought I didn’t know this orchestra until I learned it launched in 1952 as the Berlin Symphony Orchestra whose great period was under Kurt Sanderling (1960–77). In 1984, they moved to Berlin’s glorious 1821 Schauspielhaus, which in 2006 became the Konzerthaus and they became the Konzerthausorchester Berlin. Its subscriber base of 12,000 is claimed as one of the largest in Europe, but it may be the only way to get tickets for the 1,400 seat Großer Saal. On this occasion every seat was empty, but not because no-one wanted to be there.

Joana Mallwitz
© Martin Walz

I assumed the performance of Schubert’s Great C major symphony had begun, but after the first bars Joana Mallwitz turned to the camera and began a pre-concert talk – in German without subtitles. Though I have little German outside Schubert’s songs or Wagner’s libretti, it was clear this was more analytical than most live programme notes. Mallwitz showed Schubert’s way with a rhythmic cell that appeared across movements, and his occasional obsessiveness (“hypnotischer bekommt”). The lyrical use of the trombones (“cantabile Posaunen”) and a reminiscence of Beethoven’s recent Ninth got a mention too. With the orchestra providing live music examples, non-native speakers could get some of it at least. After an interval there followed a full performance of this truly Great C Major.

Joana Mallwitz conducts the Konzerthausorchester Berlin
© Martin Walz

More than full perhaps with an exposition repeat in the first movement, but no-one would have minded hearing again the precision of those exchanges between the strings and the horns and woodwinds. The opening introduction was alla breve of course (a young conductor might never have heard the old printed four rather than the manuscript’s two in a bar). There was no unmarked slowing down for the second subject, and a desire to keep things flowing was a feature throughout. The Andante con moto especially benefited, as there is no point trying to give Schubert’s Ninth a slow movement when the composer didn’t. The excellent principals, especially oboe, clarinet and horn, shone at each opportunity, and as a wind choir they carolled delightfully in the Trio. Hard sticks gave the timpani presence and the large empty hall gave solidity in the Scherzo’s opening to the small string section (four basses, six cellos). Mallwitz put a mischievous ‘comma’ before the last note of that first theme as Adrian Boult did. A joyous finale – cantabile trombones and all – capped a memorable account of a joyful work.

This performance was reviewed from the Konzerthaus Berlin video stream