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Secrets of the Dussmann Basement



Opened in 1997, Dussmann’s Kulturkaufhaus occupies a stone and glass building of four stories—plus a crucial basement dedicated to classical music—in Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse halfway between the Strasse unter den Linden and the Friedrichstrasse Train Station from which the Kindertransport trains departed in 1938 and where, during the years of Berlin’s division between 1961 and 1989, many West Germans took their tearful goodbyes from family members marooned in the East. Even for those who haven’t read, or even heard of, the  unsparing dissection of the culture industry found in the Dialectic of Enlightenment by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the word Kulturkaufhaus (culture department store) might well strike a dissonant tone. Shouldn’t “art” be above the frenzied consumption and manipulations of marketing and commerce? Even though it never has been, I’m still guessing that a Sotheby’s Old Masters auction has a rather different feel than the plundering of tables stacked high with the latest novels and CDs in the Dussmann emporium of cultural consumption.

Peter Dussmann made his money from a cleaning, catering, and security firm. A later addition to his holdings, his giant book, video, and music store in central Berlin drowns out Adorno’s highbrow lament with a massed chorus of cash registers singing at full voice.  The first time I entered the store was in 2003. That happened to be the centenary of Adorno’s birth.  There in the shop window was Adorno in cardboard cutout—arguably the perfect substance to represent this notoriously stiff figure—looking on sternly if impotently at the docile hordes thrumming through the entrance to the Kulturkaufhaus. No greater indignity for the philosopher could be imagined than to be taken captive by the very culture industry he deplored. Now in ill health and reduced capacity, Dussmann might still be able to muster a response to Adorno that claimed that the capitalist superstructure should rightly be built on service, even if its workers are poorly paid, as picketers in front of the Kulturkaufhaus recently maintained. Forced to choose between a clean toilet bowl and the sublime strains of Beethoven’s Ninth, you’d probably go with the former.

The Dussmann basement houses thousands of classic CDs and DVDs. Pop, jazz, world music and other categories more lucrative than classical are given real estate in the maelstrom of upper floors. Not only does the basement location for Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms imply a certain foundational importance to these figures and their music, but it allows for calm shopping atmosphere, even during in the high holidays of the culture industry, Christmas. The classical floor is somewhere between music shop and library. There is an island with CD players where customers (or interlopers) can explore any recording, and customers are encouraged to remove the packaging and listen to all they want. In this respect, Dussmann’s basement serves as a kind of listening library, especially for the city’s many music students, whose own university or school collections are not as current, comprehensive, or accessible.  Any one can sidle up to the Hörbar—a German adjective meaning “audible,” here turned into a clever pun that suggests a bar where music not cocktails are served—lay down a score and listen to an entire Bruckner symphony without getting so much as a disapproving look from the shop assistants. Only the customers waiting for a chance to check out their own booty might apply some disapproving pressure as a rogue Wagnerian heads into the sixth hour of Götterdämmerung at the Hörbar.

The most extreme classical music product I encountered in my visit to Dussmann’s yesterday for some commando Christmas consumption was a double-shoebox-sized offering that packaged German cellist Jan Vogler’s Bach cello suites together with a bottle of Riesling Sekt, thus combining the delectations of classic music and wine—Bach and Bubbly. For more historically-minded connoisseurs, one could perhaps offer the secular cantatas with Brandy or an 18th-century-style beer. Actually, Peter Schickele was there a long time ago with his immortal Wurst of P. D. Q. Bach of 1971. The classic cover photo shows a host of hanging meats and a long salami played like a flute by the composer himself. A 30th anniversary commemorative set could have been successfully reissued with a full assortment of heirloom sausages inside. Indeed, this marketing strategy could inspire a whole range of inter-sensory products, though their sale might have to be conducted in the Berlin backstreets rather than in Dussmann’s heavily frequented basement: Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique with a side of opium; the Charlie Parker complete Savoy sessions with just enough heroin to get you hooked; a course of sulfa-antibiotics tucked alongside Cannonball Adderley’s MRSA, MRSA, MRSA.

A few feet from the frothy Bach cello suites was a table stacked a dozen high with some twenty different recordings of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. One hears that this is Bach’s most popular work, and the table seems to confirm this claim. Competing for Lebensraum on the table were a half-dozen discs of Handel’s Messiah, a small handful of several Christmas Story CDs, and collections of Christmas cantatas by Bach’s contemporaries and students like Graupner and Homilius.

To try and understand what this sorcerer’s apprentice-like multiplication of Christmas Oratorios might mean, I rallied my courage and slashed my way through the entire table.  There were the gaunt German warhorses from the 1960s and 1970s trudging along with massed choruses and orchestras on their backs. I started off with Karl Richter’s Arkiv recording from 1965  because it is the one I grew up with. We decorated the Christmas tree to the LP, and it was just as I remember it: shrill trumpets raining down on lugubrious choral and orchestral legato. I grimaced at the Hörbar, as if someone had poured vinegar into my Martini. At 12.99EUR Richter was now bottom-shelf stuff, and well past its expiration date.

Richter happens to have made the recording in the Hercules Hall in the Residential Palace in Munich, where another contender for present day consumers’ Christmas Euros (almost three-times as expensive)  was also made—this one by the Bavarian Radio Choir with the help of the excellent early music orchestra, the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin, done live last Christmas. This recording is marked by its aggressive timpani—the 18th-century style models used here are more cannon-like in sound than their modern descendants—befits the martial underpinnings of the opening chorus. That rousing movement piece is taken wholesale by the composer from his celebratory cantata lauding the Saxon rulers, themselves avid if often unsuccessful warriors, at least during Bach’s lifetime. The Berlin Akademie has its own independent recording stacked on the table. But for all its virtuosity and fire, the music as presented here seems more like a chamber piece of restrained domesticity than the festive extravaganza it should be.

Other German contestants proved that performing styles on either side of the Iron Curtain were not very different: those from the later days of the German Democratic Republic led by Peter Schreier  and the West German Helmuth Rilling with the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart  share an affection for plodding tempos, quavering strings and strident wobbling voices. Bach during the Cold War was indeed frigid stuff. The Dresden Kreuzchor’s 1976 recording under Martin Flämig is now repackaged in velour box with embossed gold letters in a vain attempt to provide some pep to the product. Many buyers, Lutheran or not, will be suspicious of Bach’s evangelical Oratorio dressed up like a Catholic dandy.

The mantle of Bach is often claimed by the men and boys choir of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, which Bach once led, though in a far different, more minimal form. Under director Georg Christoph Biller the venerable group has made two recordings of the Oratorio, one live one not live. Neither is particularly lively. Riccardo Chailly takes back his Leipzig  Gewandhaus Orchestra borrowed the St. Thomas Choir and spurs them to nearly unprecedented  speeds in a live recording also made last Christmas. Chailly’s version yields something for more varied and convincing.

This reading laps the slow-motion Gewandhaus and Thomanerchor “classic” from 1958 with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Although none of the many English and American recordings of the piece were offered a place this year at Dussmann’s, there a few foreign invitees to the Oratorio banquet. From Asia, but with an international ensemble of singers and instrumentals, comes Masaaki Suzuki’s Japan Bach Collegium.) Their rendition is extrovert and exciting, but with touching moments of intimacy. Two Dutch guests have elbowed their way into the predominantly German gathering. The Netherlands Bach Society’s  version is exuberant yet polished.  However, my Best of Table award goes to the Cappella Amsterdam for performing this music with intensity that often seems ready to burst through the decorum of modern “classical” sensibility. This Amsterdam CD is presented in book form in episcopal purple, and includes a photo essay by Dutch photographer Eddy Posthuma de Boer showing mothers of the world snuggling and suckling their babes, from the alpaca outfits of the Andes to the silks of Asia and back to the Low Countries for homegrown polyester. Never would the laced-up women of Bach’s Leipzig have countenanced such a display of brown breasts, especially to the soundtrack of such unyielding Christian church music. It is a sign of our own historical distance from these cultural objects that modern Bachian cover art and booklet contributions show an ever-increasing desire to demonstrate the universality of the music of a composer, who, in order to get the job directing that same choir of St. Thomas had to affirm that he couldn’t abide Calvinism, never mind Islam.

The Belgium Collegium Vocal Ghent under Philippe Herreweghe is also at table, elegant and affordable, but considered rather than celebratory.

And therein lies the problem with all these recordings, down even to the much more convincing ones praised above. There is too much not just of the recordings themselves but of everything else as well, from rehearsals, to the number of choir members (always more than Bach had) and the relentless perfection fostered by digital fixes. This feast of Christmas music is marked by excess. What is missing is the fervor and devotion of Bach’s boy singers, fewer in number and granted only two meals a day even when singing for their supper. There is comfort and ease to the professional and semi-professional legions heard in this stack of recordings. Also AWOL on all these discs is the covering artillery of a large church organ, replaced throughout by tepid chamber models. In their quantity and individual qualities, these Christmas Oratorios show that in the banqueting halls of the culture industry the difference between a feast and the everyday has all but disappeared.

David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at

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