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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Berlin's Perfume doesn't smell so sweet

By Norman Lebrecht / November 1, 2006

At the start of its 125th season, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra has descended from Parnassus and shattered two historic taboos. Breaking out of generic isolation, it has crossed onto the big screen and sound-tracked a feature movie. And in a snub to the elite music industry, the orchestra has licensed its anniversary CD set to the Hong Kong cheapo label, Naxos. If Simon Rattle had wanted to signal a Blairite agenda of access and education, he could hardly have struck a mightier chord.

The film, to be released next month, is Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, based on Patrick Süsskind’s 1985 bestseller about an 18th century French apothecary who kills virgins for their scent. The novel, which sold 15 million copies in 45 languages, is the most popular German literary text since the war. The producer is Bernd Eichinger who, two years ago in Downfall, broke the tacit German ban on showing the human side of Adolf Hitler.

Although the acting is in English, with Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman in leading roles, this is the most ambitious German movie in years, a landmark in German cinema. It was a matter of pride that the nation’s finest should play the score, and its music director readily concurred. ‘What I have always admired in Simon Rattle,’ says Tykwer, ‘is his extraordinary enthusiasm and fervour, coupled with his exceptional skill and willingness to try anything with this orchestra.’

Rattle has one previous film credit as conductor of Patrick Doyle’s score for Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, but the Berlin Philharmonic is new to the cinema, having dedicated itself more or less monastically to the summits of western musical heritage. This is not an orchestra that plays pops or jingles. It is taking a big step out of the box.

The alliance with Naxos is likewise a leap into the beyond. For the past half-century, the Berlin Phil has worked with five major labels, earning 100,000 Euros for a symphony in the can. That kind of money is no longer on offer and much of the work has fled elsewhere. From making half a dozen discs a month in 1990, the Berlin Phil barely manages that total nowadays in a year.

When labels balked at paying a hefty advance for the anniversary set, the orchestra turned adversity to advantage and launched it on Naxos at 12 Euros (£8) a disc, winning both political brownie points and less wealthy customers. The set features Berlin’s five music directors – Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado and Rattle – along with seven other maestros in well-chosen works. The elusive Sergiu Celibidache caresses the Suite Francaise by Darius Milhaud, the emotive David Oistrakh performs Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique and Daniel Barenboim is heard in the Beethoven concert he gave on the night the Berlin Wall came down, a collector’s piece by any reckoning.

There was a risk involved - that the orchestra would compete with its own premium products at lower price and alienate the rest of the industry for all time to come. The Naxos owner, Klaus Heymann, has trumpeted his triumph, promising another dozen Berlin CDs next year, not just archival tapes but current studio work. Both parties, however, are trying to have their cake and eat it. To offset cheap German pricing, top whack is being charged elsewhere - £15 a disc in Britain – which is preposterous for archival tapes, some of which have been issued before. We may be curious to hear Rattle’s 1987 debut with the orchestra in Mahler’s 6th, but would we pay the price of three new Naxos releases for the esoteric thrill?

As for the cinematic appeal of Perfume, the film score is vapid stuff even by eclectic Hollywood standards. Three composer names are listed - Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil and director Tykwer himself (apparently, they once played together in a rock band). It is a truth universally acknowledged that committees do not make great music. There is not one original chord, phrase or gesture in an odoriferous 70 minutes and the superimposition of electronic clicks and a sepulchral Latvian chorus only underscore the intellectual poverty of the enterprise. It called to mind the immortal review of the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick who, after the local premiere of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, wrote: ‘it stinks to the ear.’

The master players in the Berlin Philharmonic made a good fist of this drivel, but I have seldom heard so wanton a mismatch of means to end - like an ophthalmic surgeon using lasers to cut his supper cheese. Berlin, in its Rattle-scattle confusion, has surrendered its virginity for a mess of pottage, and the loss of prestige could be costly as the orchestra joins the lesser London bands in scrabbling for scraps of commercial work. Its lofty rivals in the Vienna Philharmonic must be laughing all the way to Valhalla.

* Stage rage diva earns web fame

For a few treasurable days, YouTube had its first classical star. Onto the DIY video zone just bought by Google for two billion dollars popped a long, blonde cellist by name of Amanda Forsyth, a Jacqueline du Pre lookalike who was playing the legend’s trademark Elgar concerto.

Midway through the music, soloist and orchestra came apart. Nothing unusual about that. Artists are prone to lapses of memory and concentration and learn to improvise their way out of mishaps without the audience being any the wiser.

Not Ms Forsyth. Out of her seat she leaped, rushing over to the conductor and berating him with heated gesticulations and tempestuous shakes of blonde tresses in full view of a live Chicago audience and cable-TV cameras. Anyone would have thought the conductor was at fault. In fact, in the view of many cellists who watched the clip, it was the soloist who had skipped several pages of music and could not apparently find her way back.

Resuming her seat, Ms Forsyth pouted and snarled through the finale, at one brief rest twirling her cello around by the neck to communicate her disgust. The conductor, a retired concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, maintained professional decorum. It was made for action replay, the sort of thing you see on a soccer pitch every Saturday between an overpaid striker and a harassed referee.

Which mischievous soul put the clip on YouTube is a mystery, but more than 4,000 viewers enjoyed the show and word was spreading like wildfire when, within days, the clip was withdrawn by legal-eyes at Google for reasons of alleged copyright infringement.

The plot thickens. It turns out that Ms Forsyth was, on the night of the concert, on paid sick leave from her job as principal cellist of the National Arts Centre Orchestra of Ottawa. The NACO is directed by her husband, Pinchas Zukerman. Her absence must have taken some explaining, but it is a pity the film was pulled. From what I saw and heard of her playing that night, I doubt Amanda Forsyth will ever get a better crack at international attention.


CD of the week

Klezmer Karma Roby Lakatos Ensemble/Franz Liszt Chamber Orch. (Avanti)

The Hungarian gypsy fiddler Roby Lakatos crosses most musical forms, from smoky cafes to the BBC Proms. What he is pursuing here are affinities between his own caravan heritage and the klezmer music of little Jewish bands that used to crisscross central Europe. The symbiosis is striking, both traditions drawing copiously from the same melodic wells and both refined over centuries to squeeze a tear from hearts of stone. The Lakatos take on Hatikvah may never get played on Israeli state occasions but its tremulous yearnings are authentic beyond dispute. Best of all, Lakatos introduces the Yiddish singer Miriam Fuks who, in a pitch-perfect alto profundo, delivers irresistible sweet-sour wedding songs of a world that is no more.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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