If we want to measure the stylistic journey of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in terms of interpretation of baroque music, we recommend, before watching this recording of extracts from the youth oratorio Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno (“the triumph of time and disillusionment”), by Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759), performed in 2023 at the Baden-Baden Easter Festival, to listen again to the Concerti grossi, by the same Handel, engraved by Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) in the late 1960s.

The life leader (since 1955) of the Berliner Philharmoniker (the name of the group in German) cared little about what would later be described as “historically informed interpretation”, at a time when another Austrian, Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929-2016), began to strongly shake the coconut tree of preconceived ideas and false traditions with his ensemble of ancient instruments, the Concentus Musicus of Vienna.

Karajan knew Harnoncourt all the better because he himself had recruited him for the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, where Harnoncourt played in the cello section from 1952 to 1969, and of which Karajan was principal conductor from 1946 to 1960. At the Salzburg Festival, which the latter also had under his control, Harnoncourt, who had become an international celebrity, would never conduct during the lifetime of the omnipotent Karajan.

A fruitful complicity

At the Berlin Philharmonic, the stylistic transformation took place during the mandate (2002-2018) of Simon Rattle. Since the mid-1980s, the British conductor has directed the old instruments of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Haydn and Mozart. At the Salzburg Festival in 1999, Rattle tackled French baroque opera with Les Boréades, by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764).

He took advice from the “baroque” John Eliot Gardiner – who conducted the score at the Aix Festival in 1982 – and William Christie. He also hired a certain Emmanuelle Haïm, who was then only a harpsichordist and vocal leader at Christie. She will advise Rattle, who in return will say loud and clear how much she helped him during his explorations in baroque territory.

The harpsichordist moved to conducting and founded her own ensemble, Le Concert d’Astrée, in 2000. Since 2008, she has been regularly invited by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, with which she enjoys a fruitful bond. This breaks out in a score that Emmanuelle Haïm knows perfectly, having directed it at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2016, in a production by Krzysztof Warlikowski.

Excerpts only

The Frenchwoman’s vivacity is communicative, and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra provides, in a small formation of around thirty musicians, a stylistically convincing result. As for the singers, it is sometimes less so: in the well-known aria Lascia la spina, the first version of the extremely famous Lascia ch’io pianga, the Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva is on a lyrical planet that belongs only to her.

Note that this seventy-five minute version only includes extracts from the original score – for rights reasons, the full recording could not remain available on demand. In return, a documented part was included with comments from the conductor and her musicians, as well as extracts from rehearsals.