Yet the orchestra's sole appearance in Britain this year - at the Royal Albert Hall, London, today - has not sold out, an almost unprecedented occurrence which is particularly odd since the concert reunites the orchestra with Bernard Haitink, one of its favourite conductors. Indeed it is part of the orchestra's May Day 'Europa Concert' tradition that the players themselves choose conductor and venue. They chose Haitink and the Royal Albert Hall.
The reasons why sales have been a little sluggish for what promised to be one of the musical events of the year (with a live television audience of millions worldwide) border on comedy.
First, the performance takes place (or took place, depending on how late you got your paper this morning) at 10.30 in the morning, a most un-British time to hear a symphony orchestra, but one dictated by the arrangement to broadcast live in Japan. The second reason is even more bizarre. The orchestra was enamoured with the Proms season at the Albert Hall, its atmosphere and enthusiasm, and requested and got a promenade concert. The arena seats have been taken out for standing-room. But the Berlin Philharmonic may not have fully grasped that the Proms have a distinct season and that having people standing soon after breakfast does not quite capture their spirit.
Haitink explains: 'They have a special affection for the Royal Albert Hall and they have a special affection for the Proms. I had to explain to them, 'Be careful. This is not the Proms season, and it's 10.30am.' But the British have a love of eccentricity, and maybe they will think it eccentric to come to a concert at 10.30 in the morning.' And, as Haitink went on to describe, there remains a magic for conductor as well as audience in encountering the world's most celebrated ensemble.
First, though, Haitink - unusually relaxed and, in his leather jacket, looking considerably younger than his 64 years - remarked how the low prices of pounds 5 to pounds 30 (half the top price of the orchestra's last visit to Britain) were a source of pleasure to him when compared with the pounds 100-plus top prices at the Royal Opera House, where he is music director and where he is said to have crossed swords with the board and Jeremy Isaacs, the general director, on that and other issues.
'After coming from the Opera House I'm pleased that the prices are low. Of course I care about the pricing at the Opera House. Covent Garden should be accessible, and not only to a well-heeled audience. We want them from every layer of society. I had a concert with the Opera House orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, and a builder working on my house said he wanted to bring his boy and see what we were doing, and he loved it. It was wonderful.'
Today's concert - Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet fantasy-overture, Mozart's Violin Concerto No 3 (with the German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann) and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring - may not have a fully fledged Proms atmosphere but the low prices will ensure a younger than usual audience as well as those who will always be seduced by the opportunity to hear the Berlin Philharmonic. Haitink counts himself among their number.
'It's a wonderful orchestra. They have a wonderful tradition of music- making and of being so motivated. It is because they are very democratic: they choose their own programmes and conductors. Von Karajan said the Berlin Philharmonic was a republic.
'It's an incredible story of having only three conductors in 100 years. That's one of its secrets. The other is that they are still very proud and want to prove they are still a phenomenal orchestra after the death of Karajan. They went through a transition after his death but now, with Abbado, they are very secure again.'
He balks, however, at making too blatant a comparison between the standards of the Berlin Philharmonic and the leading British symphony orchestras, including the London Philharmonic, of which he is president. 'I don't like to rank orchestras. We are not the Olympic Games. I have enormous respect for British musicians. But the situations are different. Berlin was a paradise for the orchestra. The government and the city of Berlin did everything to promote the orchestra. Berlin was the centre of cultural activity. Now, with the Wall gone, it's much more difficult, especially financially. Now Berlin is questioning all these expensive orchestras.
'Von Karajan worked 30 years with them and that has left its mark. For all the strange stories, he was a very good musician and worked a year with the orchestra before deciding to record a specific work. He said the Berlin Philharmonic is an orchestra you can lean against the wall, they are so solid. It's sad that their relationship ended on a sour note.'
Haitink dismisses talk, persistent talk at that, of sourness between himself and Isaacs at the Opera House. Reports that they rarely spoke and only communicate by memo are much exaggerated, he says. 'Jeremy Isaacs is a tough fighter and he really tries to get his viewpoint across. Actually, we get along very well. We are not enemies, but we are both people who mind our own businesses. He is very good at delegating and I get on with my music. I have a lot of time for him, I admire his toughness. Of course it needed time at the beginning to sniff each other out.
'I once said, if you want peace and quiet in your life, don't enter the stage-door of an opera house.'
Haitink says that his departure from the post of music director was tied to the date of Covent Garden's closure for redevelopment - but that continually gets postponed. 1997 will definitely be his last year, though, he told me. Having now conducted his acclaimed Ring and having just seen the Royal Opera receive all eight opera nominations in the Olivier Awards, he can be happy that he has helped restore the Royal Opera's artistic reputation after a decidedly shaky period. More treats are to come, for both the audience and him. His eyes glaze while talking of conducting Graham Vick's forthcoming production of Die Meistersinger.
He can also look back on an often unsung achievement, helping to raise the musical status of the Royal Ballet by conducting it himself for a number of seasons. 'I wanted to give the example of a music director who thinks that ballet is as important as opera and symphony work. It depends on the repertoire, of course. Sometimes ballet repertoire has awful scores, but Rite of Spring and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet have to be played as a symphony concert.'
After 1997, the Dutch maestro wants to concentrate on guest appearances. And he has no wish to have his own symphony orchestra. 'Boston wanted to offer me a special role as a guest conductor. I said, 'Look, at the moment you have the best of me, all the pleasures. Why stick a label on me?' I don't agree with certain colleagues of mine who hold two or three positions. It's a bit ridiculous.'
Whether or not he or any of us will ever see a redeveloped opera house at Covent Garden, one date already in his diary is May 1994, when he will conduct The Marriage of Figaro at the opening of the new Glyndebourne opera house on the festival's 60th anniversary. There too, where he was music director from 1978 to 1988, he gives hints of some fractured relationships.
'Glyndebourne ceased to exist for me after that terrible hurricane. Not only did some of the trees go, but the mentality there seemed to change as well. But the new opera house is a great coup for George Christie. They own the land, of course. What a difference that makes. It will be nice to conduct the reopening. I did the 50th anniversary, and I will do the 60th, but I will not do the 70th. I've told them that. They don't want a geriatric at Glyndebourne.'
Berlin Philharmonic Europa Concert: 10.30am today, Royal Albert Hall, London (071-589 8212)
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