Barenboim in Berlin, Rattle in London...

Martin CullingfordFri 18th August 2017

The great significance of the relationship between conductor and orchestra

Daniel Barenboim brought his Staatskapelle Berlin to July’s opening weekend of the BBC Proms to perform Elgar’s symphonies. For those who heard the recent Decca recordings and have added them to their collections, this was a chance to hear the combination of maestro, musicians and music live, whether in the Royal Albert Hall itself or through broadcast. 

A speech Barenboim gave during the concert has already garnered much media comment, so instead I want to reflect on something else he discussed, at a small press conference to promote the orchestra’s London visit and the imminent reopening of the Staatsoper’s historic Berlin home. He talked about forthcoming performances, about how successful his Elgar advocacy had been in changing international audiences’ perceptions of the composer (the answer: not as much as he’d like!) and also about how his relationship with the Staatskapelle Berlin has grown and changed over the past 25 years. A quarter of a century nudges it into the upper tier of lengthy conductor/orchestra relationships, a smallish group in which the tenure has become a very substantial segment of the lives of the conductor and, in some cases, even the ensemble itself. 

When Barenboim took over the orchestra in 1992, Berlin was just emerging from decades of division in which the Staatsoper was on the Soviet side of the Wall. As Barenboim recalled, aspects – both musical and bureaucratic – needed to change, something which he appears to have done with characteristic diplomacy and understanding. A quarter of a century on, the result is a wonderful musical partnership that continues to enrich everybody.

That relationship between a conductor and an orchestra provides the bedrock of so much of the music-making we cover. When we interview conductors – as we do Gerard Schwarz this month – such relationships with orchestras naturally assume the weight of chapters in a life. There are few better ways to take stock of those chapters than through recordings; and nothing offers a focus quite like symphony cycles. This month’s Editor’s Choices feature two such cycles. Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s Mendelssohn with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe charts an ever-strengthening bond, but the COE is a unique ensemble without a chief conductor, so doesn’t quite fit the mould mentioned above. Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony’s Brahms symphonies, however, very much do: a long-established, esteemed ensemble and a young maestro forming an impressive partnership. Whether it will last as long as Barenboim and the Staatskapelle, only time will tell. 

Speaking of conductor relationships, September sees Sir Simon Rattle officially take over the London Symphony Orchestra. Whether or not the weight of expectation is a good thing, the profile it will afford the orchestra and classical music in general surely is. The LSO certainly isn’t shying away from it: ‘This is Rattle’ is the name of a 10-day series of events to celebrate his arrival. It’s great to see that something as simple yet fundamental as a conductor opening a new chapter in his career is really grabbing the wider public’s attention.

martin.cullingford@markallengroup.com

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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