Opened in 1871, London’s Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington is one of the most impressive concert venues in Europe. Television audiences from all over the world are familiar with its auditorium – modelled on a classical amphitheatre and seating 5,500 concertgoers – from relays of the Last Night of the Proms, the final evening of the BBC’s annual season of summer concerts. It was here, on 1 May 1993, that the Berliner Philharmoniker gave their third European Concert. The programme featured works by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Mozart under the direction of Bernard Haitink, who was then the music director of London’s Royal Opera House, only six underground stations away.
The opening piece on the programme was Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Tchaikovsky wrote it in 1869 at the instigation of Mily Balakirev, and it was first performed in Moscow in March 1870, albeit with little success. Audiences of the time found Tchaikovsky’s response to the most famous love story in history baffling, and following the first performance in Vienna in 1876, Eduard Hanslick – then the doyen of the city’s music critics – dismissed it as a “soulless battle painting rent asunder by insipid dissonances and wild noises”.
Stravinsky likewise encountered an almost universal lack of understanding when his Le Sacre du printemps was first performed in Paris in 1913. According to one eyewitness, “screams, insults, hoots, prolonged whistles drowned out the music, and then slaps and even boxing blows”. This value judgement on the audience’s part has in the meantime been corrected by music history, and Le Sacre du printemps has been rehabilitated as one of the most innovative and pioneering works of the twentieth century.
Mozart’s Violin Concerto in G major found a far more favourable response among its early listeners: “During supper that evening I played my Strasbourg concerto, it all went very smoothly. Everyone praised my beautiful pure tone.” Mozart was an extremely gifted violinist, who had tailor-made this piece to his own abilities, resulting in a cantabile masterpiece, and a modern-day virtuoso like Frank Peter Zimmermann can still move an audience to great heights of enthusiasm with this work.