The 12 Cellists of the Berliner Philharmoniker
Annette Dasch, Till Brönner
The 12 Cellists of the Berliner Philharmoniker are a prominent institution on the international music scene – and have been for 40 years! The ensemble is now celebrating its birthday with a tour through its successful history with works by Julius Klengel, Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Astor Piazzolla and Ennio Morricone.
In 1972, resourceful radio producers in Salzburg invited the cello section of the Berliner Philharmoniker to play the forgotten Hymnus für 12 Violoncelli by cello virtuoso, teacher and composer Julius Klengel. Together with eleven of his students, Klengel dedicated this serenade to the then chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Arthur Nikisch, on the occasion of his 65th birthday in 1920.
The response to the Salzburg performance by the Berlin musicians was so positive that they decided to continue this project, the only one of its kind in the world. Since then, the 12 Cellists of the Berliner Philharmoniker have gone from success to success, performing original compositions and arrangements, including jazz, tango and the avant-garde. No matter what genre the musicians turn their hands to, their performances are a unique chamber music collaboration by twelve soloists, who through years of practice together are well-attuned to each other – on 48 strings, from low C to harmonics high above the stave. In their birthday concert, they are joined by the Berlin soprano Annette Dasch, whose sparkling top register has brought her international recognition, amongst others, for her performances of Mozart.
40 Years of the “12”
An autumn day in 2009. The 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic are due to give a concert this evening at the Stuttgart Liederhalle. On the way to Tegel airport in Berlin, the musicians learn to their dismay that the destination airport has been closed until further notice owing to an emergency landing. Their flight is rebooked to Frankfurt where the players dash to catch a connecting train, arriving in Stuttgart with only moments to spare. It’s already 8.25 pm. They quickly change clothes in a Liederhalle corridor, rush on to the platform, play their concert and fall into bed. The next morning their alarms go off at 4.50 am – they must be on the first flight back to Berlin to make a 10 o’clock orchestra rehearsal in the Philharmonie.
The 12 Cellists have achieved cult status. Everyone wants to hear them. There’s only one problem: the dazzling dozen can only appear when the Berliner Philharmoniker happen not to have any concerts to prepare or perform. The timing has frequently been very tight – each musician could tell hair-raising anecdotes. “Strangely enough, we all still always want to be on hand at every chance to perform,” reports principal cellist Ludwig Quandt. The musicians derive at least as much pleasure from these concerts as their listeners, because their work in the ensemble offers them brief but exhilarating breaks from the Philharmonic routine. “In the orchestra one is inevitably other-directed – no one is meant to attract any more individual attention than absolutely necessary,” explains Götz Teutsch, who in 2007 became the last founding member of the 12 Cellists to retire. “Every form of chamber music is a release valve, an opportunity to break away from the pressure of the group and to test one’s own limits.”
It all began with Hymnus for 12 cellos, composed by the virtuoso Julius Klengel in 1920 for the conductor Arthur Nikisch on his 65th birthday. Half a century later the score of this occasional work falls into the hands of an ORF producer in Salzburg – and because the Berliner Philharmoniker then have exactly 12 cellists in their ranks and will be staying on in Salzburg for the Easter Festival, he suggests they record the piece. On 25 March 1972, decides Rudolf Weinsheimer – aka Cello No. 7 – the official “birth” will take place at the Mozarteum: “With this group, whose ages were also ideal, something just had to happen, even if only with this single original composition!” By chance, shortly thereafter he picks up a hitchhiker in Berlin who turns out to be the daughter of the composer Boris Blacher. Weinsheimer immediately ask him to write a piece for the “12”. Inspired by the success of Rumba philharmonica’s premiere, Blacher writes two further movements for the Cellists. Then a Salzburg composer named Helmut Eder gets in touch to offer a piece. Together with arrangements of the Suite in D major by David Funck and Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Bachiana Brasileira No. 1, the formation finally has enough material for a full-length programme. The debut concert takes place on the Monday after Easter in 1974, again in Salzburg. Seated in the audience is Herbert von Karajan, who constantly shakes his head. Afterwards, to their great relief, he informs the anxious musicians: “I simply couldn’t fathom how you could play these incredibly difficult pieces so perfectly without a conductor. Now, at last, I know what I can demand of you.”
Rudolf Weinsheimer’s vision becomes reality: the 12 Cellists have long numbered among Berlin’s most important musical ambassadors. They’ve travelled with German heads of state, played for US presidents, even accompanied the piano-playing empress in Japan, as well as appearing at leading festivals and numerous benefit concerts.
What is it about this formation that is so fascinating? For one thing, there is the instrument itself. This bass violin can do just about anything: soar into the radiant heights of a violin’s range, roam through the depths of the bass, sound like a creaking door or a musical saw. Above all, the cello can sing with a voice that comes very close to the timbre of the human organ. When 12 virtuosos sound together, they can easily substitute for an entire string orchestra.
The Cellists have given the world premieres of 37 pieces. Clothes baskets are filled with the unsolicited pieces they’ve been sent but never played. Most recently, Sofia Gubaidulina dedicated a work to the Cellists, Labyrinth, which they premiered in 2011 at the Lucerne Festival. Already in the early years, the “12” were fond of playing arrangements as encores, especially of Beatles songs. From the mid-1990s, this aspect of their programmes was developed assiduously. For the Philharmoniker’s South American tour with Claudio Abbado in 2000, they brought out a CD with virtuoso tango arrangements; for their 30th anniversary, the Cellists gave themselves a jazz album. In Angel Dances they collaborated with the jazz specialist Jocelyn B. Smith, who’s also at home in gospel singing. For their next project the adventurous musicians are turning their attention to lieder by Robert Schumann. The ensemble’s newest album, entitled Fleur de Paris is a mélange of ever-popular chansons and concert favourites from the French classical repertoire. “How arbitrary the distinction is between serious and light music becomes clear when you hear these pieces,” declares Ludwig Quandt. Many of the arrangements, especially those by Wilhelm Kaiser-Lindemann, really are genuine masterpieces, widescreen images for the ear. Even the simplest melodies here are decked out in evening finery, acoustical haute couture, polyphonic and polychrome, absolutely sophisticated.
Great fun for all – although listeners acquainted with the originals may derive special pleasure because they can follow in detail the subtle tricks and dodges that ennoble popular music into art music. In addition to those classical playing techniques with Italian names, this virtuoso dozen are also masters of the scrape, rasp, and breathy bow-slide, as well as scratching, knocking, crying and overtone whistling.
Not only aurally but visually, the 12 Cellists were for many years a kind of men’s chorus within the Berliner Philharmoniker: although women began gaining access to the string sections in 1982, the low strings remained a pure “boy band” until 2007. Then came Solène Kermarrec, an intrepid Breton. If someone wants to know how it feels to be the first woman in the cello section, she answers: “I’m not some exotic creature.” Discussions of gender do not interest her. Not even the question of changing rooms when the ensemble is on tour causes her any worries: “Then we just use an open cello case as a partition.” Since autumn 2009 another female colleague has also been changing there into her concert attire, Rachel Helleur.
Which piece have the 12 Cellists performed most often in the past four decades? Ludwig Quandt doesn’t hesitate a second: “Our very first, Boris Blacher’s Blues, Espagnola and Rumba philharmonica! But we’ve also played Yesterday countless times. And The Pink Panther.” Asked after his favourite piece, however, the principal cellist needs a moment to ponder: “I think it’s Kaiser-Lindemann’s arrangement of Ennio Morricone’s “Man with the Harmonica” from the film Once Upon a Time in the West.” – “Ha, that’s your favourite too?!” cries his surprised young colleague Stephan Koncz. “We cellists tend to be melancholics,” Quandt reflects. “We need sad music to be happy.”
Translation: Richard Evidon
Annette Dasch was born in Berlin and studied at various colleges, including the Academy for Music and Theatre in Munich. Having won singing competitions in Barcelona and Geneva, she was launched on her international career in 2000 and since then has appeared at the Munich, Berlin and Dresden State Operas and at leading houses in Paris, Brussels, Tokyo, New York, London and elsewhere. In summer 2010 she gave her debut at the Bayreuth Festival interpreting Elsa in Wagner’s Lohengrin. She has also performed at the Salzburg Easter Festival, the Salzburg, Innsbruck and Vienna Festivals, the Richard Strauss Festival in Garmisch, the Haydn Festival in Eisenstadt, the Strasbourg Festival and the Graz Styriarte. She has worked with conductors of the eminence of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Seiji Ozawa, Paavo Järvi, Andris Nelsons, René Jacobs and Sir Simon Rattle in a repertory embracing works by Haydn, Mozart, Offenbach, Johann Strauß, Wagner, Puccini, Humperdinck and Schönberg. In October 2010 she sang in the world premiere of Jens Joneleit’s Metanoia at the Berlin Staatsoper im Schillertheater under Daniel Barenboim’s baton. Annette Dasch has given lieder recitals at the Schubertiade in Schwarzenberg and in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Salzburg, London and Naples. Since her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in performances of Wagner’s Das Rheingold under Sir Simon Rattle at the 2007 Salzburg Easter Festival Annette Dasch has repeatedly been reinvited for symphonic and chamber-music concerts of the orchestra. She made her most recent appearance at the Berlin Philharmonie in mid-January in a concert with the Scharoun Ensemble singing works by Arnold Schoenberg and Georg Friedrich Haas. Since the start of 2008 she has invited fellow artists and audiences to RADIALSYSTEM V for Annettes Daschsalon as both presenter and hostess.
Highlights from the concert can be seen in our trailer.