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The Berlin Philharmonic: Edged off the top spot by the Berlin Staats-kapelle (Manfred Brückels CC BY-SA 3.0)

Is the Berlin Philharmonic still the finest orchestra in the world? A friend’s response — to wonder whether it was still the finest orchestra in Berlin — was informed by his view of Daniel Barenboim’s Berlin Staats-kapelle, whose sublime performance of Wagner’s Ring at the 2013 BBC Proms electrified audience and critics alike. It allowed the music to speak for itself while avoiding the more ludicrous aspects of the Berlin staging earlier that year during their annual festival. This year, that festival featured Wagner’s Parsifal, and Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, both superbly performed despite productions not universally liked.

The real magic was Barenboim’s conducting. At 74 he remains a wonderful Wagner interpreter, but is six years younger than Zubin Mehta, whose superb take on Die Frau ohne Schatten rivalled that of Semyon Bychkov in the same production at Covent Garden three years ago. Said to be Strauss’s most Wagnerian opera, Frau is an adult fairytale created by the composer’s great collaborator Hugo von Hofmannsthal. With its upper world of Emperor, Empress and Nurse, and lower world of Barak the Dyer, his wife and three deformed brothers, it expresses the difficulty of coming to terms with life and love. In Claus Guth’s remarkable production this fantastic opera is seen entirely in the Empress’s dream world as she sleeps.

Both these great operas were staged at the Schiller Theatre in West Berlin, to which the Staatsoper Berlin relocated while their home in the East undergoes renovation. It was to be a five-year exile, then six, now seven, but their return still remains in the hands of higher powers who will not set a date. I’m reminded of the famous remark by an Englishwoman during a wartime air raid: “Like everything Teutonic, it goes on too long.”

 
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