Eine kleine Nachtmusik

The chance introduction that led to some extraordinary evenings with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

‘‘Perhaps you might like to hear the rehearsal”, said the voice from a house in Teplitzer Strasse. It was 14 November 1987, a gloomy Saturday in Berlin, and Simon Rattle was about to stand before the city’s fabled orchestra that evening for the first time, to conduct Gustav Mahler’s sixth symphony. “We could meet at the Philharmonie, if you like.”

The speaker was Peter Steiner, a cellist in the orchestra, who had befriended a music loving acquaintance of mine at the Edinburgh Festival 30 years previously. “If you’re going to Berlin,” said Arfon, “you really must meet Peter. He’ll see you right.” He did, that day and often thereafter. How much I owe to that fine man, through whom I got to meet many other members of an orchestra I have heard more than a hundred times. Fewer experiences than we suppose change the course of a life. That meeting with Peter was one.

Before he died in February 2003, I found out just how remarkable a life he had lived, and how modestly he wore his colours. Born to a viola playing father, Fritz, who had played in the premiere of Alban Berg’s great opera, Wozzeck, at the old Berlin Staatsoper under Erich Kleiber, young Peter toured the hotels and cafes of German speaking Europe as part of the “musical family Steiner”. He once showed me a scrapbook, handed on from father to son. They played everywhere, as a prelude to professional careers. One brother, Lutz, went on to play viola in the Berlin Philharmonic. Another, Christian, lived in New York where he became a notable photographer of famous musicians.

In 1948, not yet 20, Peter was drafted into the reconstituted Berliner Philharmoniker, where he stayed until his retirement in 1995. By then he was the orchestra’s unofficial archivist. One evening, after dinner in Grunewald, he showed me leather bound volumes that held details of every concert the Berliners had ever performed.

Conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in London c.1930

There were photographs of him with Stravinsky and Shostakovich, and an amusing picture of Wilhelm Furtwängler, the chief conductor who did more than anybody to put the orchestra on the gold podium, sitting uncomfortably atop a camel during a visit to Egypt. Furtwängler in a fez!

On another evening chez Steiner, I asked Peter how many great, not merely very good, conductors he had played for. There were eight: Furtwängler and his successor, Herbert von Karajan; Sergiu Celibidache, the Romanian who served as “regent” between their reigns; and Otto Klemperer, the commanding Beethovenian. You could win a few bob by guessing the other four: Dimitri Mitropoulos, the Greek who worked in New York; Sir John Barbirolli, master of the Hallé in Manchester; Pierre Boulez, the ascetic composer conductor; and Carlos Kleiber, son of Erich.

Evenings in the Lion’s Head in Manhattan, the Bow Bar in Edinburgh, and the Windsor Castle in Holland Park spring readily to mind

In August 1989, the month after Karajan had died, members of the orchestra persuaded Peter to approach Kleiber during the Salzburg Festival, with an invitation to succeed the man Kleiber admired so much. “I told him ‘von Bülow, Nikisch, Furtwängler, Karajan … Kleiber, that is the tradition’. He said he only conducted when there was nothing in his fridge.” Kleiber’s biological father, I was told by another Berliner, was not in fact Erich but Alban Berg. If true, what a tale that is. 

A conductor who imagined he might join the pantheon was Lorin Maazel. After Karajan died he was so sure of his imminent anointing that he arranged a press conference in Berlin to accept the salaams of a grateful public. When the orchestra appointed Claudio Abbado instead, Maazel was left horribly exposed. Peter showed me the letter Maazel sent him, to read out to the musicians who had opted to take a different path. You can’t say they got it wrong.

Simon Rattle in full flow at a rehearsal with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

That Saturday evening in November 1987 was quite an event. Rattle, seven years into his tenure at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, had delayed his debut with the Berliners until he felt absolutely right, and he recorded a notable triumph. “I shall have to take this young man very seriously,” Peter told me afterwards. Rattle eventually took over the reins from Abbado in 2002, and when he departed in June 2018 he squared the circle, taking his leave with Mahler Six. That was a memorable evening, too.

It had been clear for some time that Rattle was the favoured candidate to succeed Abbado, who began well in Berlin, and — ravaged by cancer — ended by making beautiful music, but whose mid term struggles were sometimes painful to behold. In October 1996, when the orchestra performed a Brahms cycle at Carnegie Hall, New York became a parish of whispers. One rehearsal with the hometown fiddler, Itzhak Perlman, was nothing less than chaotic.

At the Essex House that night, after I had taken Wilfried Strehle on a tour of taverns in the West Village, it was bracing to hear players speaking so freely of their discontent. They needed clearer direction, they said, “and an Englishman has been mentioned”. From that moment, it was evident that Rattle was the favoured successor. Not Daniel Barenboim, the man who venerated Furtwängler? “He wanted it too much when we chose Abbado,” said a player. “Next time it may not be his turn.”

To Dapper “Willi” I owe at least as much as Peter. Principal viola for 42 years before he retired in 2013, he has never adapted his Swabian accent for Prussian ears, and remains one of the best loved (and best dressed) figures in Berlin musical life. No sooner had he retired — in Germany everybody does at the age of 65 — than Barenboim whisked him off to his Staatsoper, technically as a freelance, but really as a front desk player. 

In those early days, when Karajan was in his pomp, Willi recalled playing Bruckner’s eighth symphony and hearing what difference a great conductor can make, not only to an orchestra’s sound but also its soul. “It was a revelation.”

Dapper Willi Strehle: one of the best loved figures in Berlin music

Like Peter, who loved Karajan, Willi had no doubt about the man’s stature. That is something to bear in mind when revisionists urge us to amend his reputation. The musicians who played for him, and knew him best, did not need to be told how formidable he was. 

The larks with Strehle! Evenings in the Lion’s Head in Manhattan, the Bow Bar in Edinburgh (“what whiskies!”), and the Windsor Castle in Holland Park spring readily to mind, though, like many Germans, he never got the hang of ale. 

Then there was Rattle’s opening concert as chief conductor in September 2002, when we repaired to Savignyplatz for beers at Zwiebelfisch, the champion Berlin Kneipe. Over the road, at Diener Tattersall, the actor’s bar, we bumped into a mummer, who said he had appeared in 12 films by Fassbinder. As he supped a large pilsner for every one of those movies, it is possible he was being less than truthful. 

There were big nights in Salzburg, too, during the Easter Festival, before the Berliners pulled the plug on that annual ritual in 2012, and decamped to Baden Baden. I heard a Ring cycle there, gratis, by virtue of being a friend of the band. Excellent seats they were. For a performance of Haydn’s Creation I perched on stage, hidden from public view by the drapes in the wings. 

Fifteen Easter festivals I attended, and every egg brought forth a bird. How does one put a price on hearing the supreme masterpieces of the western canon performed by the world’s greatest orchestra in that setting? Neville Cardus, the writer on music and cricket, loved Salzburg so much he could hardly wait to see the fortress keeping watch over the city every time the Munich train crossed the river Salzach. Like a child, he threw open the carriage window to drink in the view of cupolas, meadows and mountains. I’m with Cardus. When my time is up, I want my ashes to be flung into that fast flowing, salt laden river. For music lovers, Salzburg represents civilisation.

Fergus McWilliam and Walter Küssner, like good old Willi, have enhanced my love of music, and become friends. Fergus, from Inverness, retired from the horn section two years ago, but Walter may still be found among the violas. He sent his son to Winchester where, he said, “the facilities for music are better than we have here in Berlin!”

To the men and women of this astonishing orchestra, I offer a heartfelt Vielen Dank

It was Walther who told me one windy afternoon in Potsdamer Platz, why Christian Thielemann, for all his gifts, would never succeed Rattle as chief conductor. It was sad to hear, for it was clear the orchestra was deeply divided over its view of the future, but fortunately they have put that sourness behind them. I should say, that for all their candour my friends have never disclosed state secrets; nor would I expect them to. I have always been treated as a lover of music, not a journalist. 

There have been occasional disappointments. The cycle of Sibelius symphonies at the Barbican Centre in 2015 was underwhelming, even if it gave me the chance to introduce Rattle to my pal Paul Cook, the Sex Pistols drummer: “You’re both percussionists, you must have things to talk about.” There was also an ill considered Prom when Rattle conducted a long and not terribly good piece by Messiaen. Proms audiences do not want to hear the Berlin Philharmonic play Messiaen.

But, oh, the towering nights! In May 2001, when Abbado was visibly ailing, he led the orchestra in a performance of Mahler’s strange seventh symphony which I observed from the platform, directly behind the percussionists. It was a profoundly moving experience, which served as a reminder that when musicians come together in a spirit of mutual discovery the meshing of personalities can be extraordinary.

There was something of that spirit when Rattle conducted Mahler’s fifth symphony at Salzburg; a feeling that spread throughout the Grosses Festspielhaus that we were witnessing something remarkable. There is no rational explanation for these events, nor will there ever be. 

That mood was matched in 2012 when Zubin Mehta conducted Bruckner Eight. We are leaving Salzburg, the musicians seemed to be saying, so we are going to remind you of this orchestra’s tradition, and what this work means to us. It sounded like the greatest symphony ever composed.

Yet one may sense greatness when there is barely a quorum. Shortly before Rattle stood down in 2018, I heard him conduct a rehearsal in the Philharmonie when they played Don Juan by Richard Strauss, one of the most confident declarations of youthful genius in all music. Like a mighty wave, it knocked the two dozen of us present flat on our backs. 

There are so many vivid memories of great music making, and those friends who changed my life in ways fI hardly thought possible. So, to the men and women of this astonishing orchestra, I offer a heartfelt Vielen Dank.

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