Berliner Philharmoniker’s Philharmonia Quartett prepares a chamber musical menu of Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann for Hong Kong
Musicians plan a surprise ‘dessert’ encore at keenly awaited Cultural Centre performances on November 10-11
When I first contacted the Berliner Philharmoniker to speak to one of the musicians in their string quartet, the first email I received asked: “Which quartet are you talking about?”
The Berlin Quartett, Das Philharmonia Quartett Berlin, I answered, which is playing in Hong Kong on November 19.
“I had to ask, as we have eight different quartets in the orchestra,” replied the head of public relations, Elisabeth Hilsdorf. She added that there were 34 chamber music groups “which is a big number”, and that they didn’t usually know about all the bookings, which would be managed by different management companies.
Its second life as a home for chamber music could be one of the many secrets of the
Berliner Philharmoniker, which is one of the most sold-out orchestras in the world. The tickets (from HK$680 in the cheapest seats, to HK$2,980 in the best) for its Hong Kong performances on November 10 and 11 were snapped up months ago – although anyone can hear its music live from the Cultural Centre Piazza, Sha Tin Park and Yuen Long Theatre free of charge, where the performances will be relayed electronically.
“It’s important for our orchestra musicians to play chamber music and the orchestra looks for good chamber musicians, when they search for new colleagues,” Hilsdorf said.
A week later, I talked to Christian Stadelmann, the second violinist for the acclaimed, Philharmonia Quartett Berlin, on the phone from his flat in the German capital.
“I think we are the oldest of all the [eight Berliner Philharmoniker] quartets,” he said.
They formed more than 30 years ago “when we were all very young”, and three of them are still the original line-up, though their original cellist, Jan Diesselhorst died in 2009 aged 54 during what seemed to be a routine heart operation.
“We played at his funeral; it was all a great caesura, a great empty space for us when he died.”
After a little while they linked with cellist Dietmar Schwalke, who had joined the orchestra in 1994 and like Diesselhorst was one of the celebrated “12 Cellists of the Berliner Philharmoniker – which I first heard of in 1993 when I was sent a copy of their rather wonderfully eccentric string version of the Beatles, including the unforgettable Cello Submarine”.
“And we have not changed since.”
In Hong Kong, they will play quartets by Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann, which Stadelmann described rather like planning a great meal.
“We start with the Mozart String Quartet No. 8 in F; he was very young when he wrote this; he was a teenager and astonishing, though it is a light piece. It’s like a meal, you have to start with something smaller to open up your senses.”
The “main course” is Beethoven’s String Quartet Number 15 in A Minor, the “132” which is “very close to our hearts because of the slow movement especially.”
The name of this movement in German is “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” which can be translated as “Holy song of thanks by a convalescent person to his God.”
It was written after Beethoven had recovered from a serious illness, in the winter of 1824, which he thought might kill him, so he was extremely grateful.
“It’s almost choral in the beginning, and we can play it without vibrato, so it sounds almost like a monks’ choir,” Stadelmann said. “The tonality is like in a church – it’s not major or minor in our normal sense, it’s something in between.”
Then it is interrupted by something faster and full of optimism, which reflects how an ill person, getting better, feels a new power surge inside.
“And then it comes back to the choral, and this time the elements blend softly with each other and the choral parts become more optimistic and the faster parts become more holy, if I can say it like that. It’s a fantastic composition and if you have ever been ill, then in it you can feel all those feelings you have when you get healthy again.”
The final piece in the Hong Kong programme is Robert Schumann’s String Quartet No. 3 in A, which is planned to build up the complexity and thoughtfulness of the evening, in a piece that was very much influenced by Beethoven.
On the meal analogy it’s more a third course than a dessert, Stadelmann said. “The dessert is the encore, and I will leave that as a surprise”.
One reason there can be so many chamber ensembles in the Berliner Philharmoniker, Stadelmann said, is because it is a huge orchestra so there are always some musicians who are not needed. “We are 120 players in total. But if you play a Brahms symphony only about 80 are needed; there are always some people free.
This is why the four of them can leave the Philharmonic tour of Asia in November for a couple of days while the orchestra is in China, and return to Hong Kong’s City Hall to play a programme of Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann quartets.
“If you’re a small group like us, you have freedom. The chamber group that has to be really organised is the Twelve Cellos because the orchestra cannot play without them.”
Fifteen years ago, Stadelmann cofounded the Vincent Trio, a piano trio named after Vincent Van Gogh, whose cypresses painting adorned their first album, of trios by Rachmaninov.
Van Gogh is one of the group’s favourite artists but also “it can be quite hard to find new names for chamber groups with so many around,” Stadelmann said drily.
He wanted to be part of a trio for two reasons. Partly because he enjoys the repertoire. But mostly, he said, because: “Look at it like this. I’ve been playing the second violin in the orchestra for 30 years; I’ve been the leader of the second violins; I play second violin in the quartet. I thought that, just for once, I wanted to be first violin.”