Richard Strauss’s association with the Berlin Philharmonic lasted for over half a century.
The orchestra was formed in 1882 by an independent group of musicians and first played one of Strauss’s works in 1887, when Karl Klindworth conducted the 23-year-old composer’s F minor Symphony, a work which, dark and resplendent in its colouring, lacks the individuality of the Munich composer’s later output. If the performance proved only tolerably successful, the fact that it took place at all at such an early stage of Strauss’s career is remarkable. During the first three years of the orchestra’s existence, when its subscription concerts were conducted by Franz Wüllner, there were still no works by Strauss that the orchestra could have performed; and, by the time that such works did exist, Wüllner was already in Cologne, where he gave the world premieres of Till Eulenspiegel and Don Quixote with his Gürzenich Orchestra. In Berlin, meanwhile, Hans von Bülow had taken charge of the orchestra’s fortunes. He knew Strauss from Meiningen, acknowledging him as a “first-rate” conductor and an “exceptional musician” who had it in him “to assume the highest position of command with immediate effect”. And so Strauss was invited to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic. The concert agent Hermann Wolff, who was the orchestra’s éminence grise, even helped to sponsor Strauss’s appearance with the aid of an exceptional travel allowance – even as a young composer Strauss already enjoyed a certain cachet.
At his first concert with the Berlin Philharmonic on 23 January 1888 Strauss conducted his own symphonic fantasy Aus Italien. Press and public and, not least, Bülow were impressed by the atmospheric work, and Strauss was no less enthusiastic about the orchestra, describing the players in a letter to his father as “the most intelligent, fantastic and alert orchestra I know”. But there were also disagreements: in 1890, for example, Bülow refused to allow Strauss to conduct the local premiere of Don Juan and insisted on conducting it himself, comprehensively ruining it in the eyes of the mortified composer. Even so, this did not discourage Strauss, who, having fallen in love with the city, was determined to find a permanent position there, either with the Berlin Philharmonic or at the Lindenoper.
An opportunity arose in March 1894 after Bülow, already terminally ill, gave his final concert with the orchestra. Since Wolff was unable to find an eminent successor, he turned to the 30-year-old Strauss, who took over the orchestra’s ten subscription concerts during the 1894–95 season and suffered the worst fiasco of his career.
The devastating reviews took issue not only with his uninspiring appearance on the podium but also with his programmes: as was later to be the case with his own Berlin Tonkünstler Orchestra and the Lindenoper’s Königliche Hofkapelle, he conducted an above-average number of contemporary works that proved indigestible fare for the capital’s conservative middle-class audiences.
The contract was torn up prematurely, although contact between the two parties was not lost altogether. In 1908 they even undertook a triumphant concert tour of France, Spain and Portugal together. But by then Germany’s greatest living composer no longer needed to prove himself in Berlin, for he was now an internationally sought-after conductor and his symphonic poems were a regular part of the repertory. The Berlin Philharmonic’s principal conductors during this time – Arthur Nikisch and, from 1922, Wilhelm Furtwängler – were both important advocates of his work. (Furtwängler made his debut with the orchestra in 1917 conducting Don Juan.)
When Strauss moved to Vienna in 1919, his Berlin appearances became increasingly infrequent. Even so, the 1920s witnessed the premieres of two of his works in Berlin: his Hölderlin Hymns in 1921 and his symphonic studies Panathenäenzug in 1928. He himself returned to the Philharmonie podium in March 1933, and in the November of that year he shared the conducting duties with Furtwängler at a gala concert marking the launch of the Reich Culture Chamber. His dubious association with the Nazis culminated in 1936 with the first performance of his Olympic Hymn. His final concert with the orchestra took place in April 1939, when the programme comprised Don Juan, the Symphonia domestica and the Burlesque for piano and orchestra. The Strauss Memorial Concert in September 1949 was conducted by Sergiu Celibidache. During the decades that followed, Berlin’s Strauss tradition was shaped by Herbert von Karajan, whose recordings of this repertory continue to be regarded as benchmark performances.
But many of the visiting conductors who have had particularly close links to the Berlin Philharmonic have also privileged Strauss’s works in their programmes, most recently Gustavo Dudamel.
Dudamel was 22 when he first conducted the music of Richard Strauss: Don Juan with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. Since then, he has championed many of Strauss’s songs, symphonic poems and concertos, including the Oboe Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal oboist, Albrecht Mayer. With the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, he has toured South and North America, as well as Europe, with Don Juan,
Till Eulenspiegel and the Alpine Symphony, taking the entire Venezuelan orchestra up into the Swiss mountains before the latter’s performance so that they could collectively experience the atmosphere and majesty of nature which Strauss had rendered into music.
In April and May 2012 Gustavo Dudamel conducted three performances of Also sprach Zarathustra in the Berlin Philharmonie, followed by four Berlin performances of Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel in early 2013. The present release is his first audio recording with the orchestra.