Four views of Berlin, from east to west and music to museums

Who better to ask for a tour of Berlin than some of its finest musicians, the Vogler Quartet?

When Frank Reinecke calls to pick me up, it is, he says, a kind of homecoming. Entirely by accident I am staying in the former East Berlin, around the corner from the Musikgymnasium Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach on Brunnenstraße, where he and his friends all went to school.

Our conversation plunges us back into the heart of a divided Germany, when East Berlin was notorious for its greyness, and the notorious Berlin Wall was within a stone’s throw. A childhood game was to see how many times anyone could run up and down to touch it before the police would come to shoo them away.

The nearby former Bernauer Straße U-Bahn station has become the Berlin Wall Memorial, a small section chillingly preserved with watchtower, another area with tunnel paths marked out in slabs on the ground – escape tunnels, and also a Stasi tunnel for secreting spies to the West. Later, as we walk past a building opposite the Bundestag, he tells of editing a recording in its basement and commenting on how remarkably quiet it was – the wall ran just outside the window. Yes, said the sound engineer, except when a rabbit hits a mine.

I had asked each member of the Vogler Quartet to reveal their favourite cultural haunts, museums, galleries, buildings – or their least-favourite one – and what they missed from the East Berlin they grew up in. That last was the easiest. Nothing, apart from the moments of special camaraderie in a culture that eschewed materialism. They all remember the excitement of their first experience of the lights and smells of the west on the way to a music competition, and their conflict about playing before Erich Honecker in the dying days of the East German state. They sent a letter of protest about conditions in the country, which resulted in a serious security encounter.


I spent most time with Frank Reinecke and the quartet's leader Tim Vogler, with Reinecke venturing out to the public park that was Tempelhof airport, and cooling down on what had been the hottest day of the year in Peter Eisenman's controversial Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a forest of tall concrete slabs, like a maze in which you can't get lost.

Vogler heads first to Oderberger Straße in Prenzlauer Berg, where his parents lived before he was born, and where they again live now. It’s a handsome, quiet street, lined with international eateries (his favourite is a Greek restaurant). At the northern end there’s a second-hand shop, VEBorange, specialising in objects from the German Democratic Republic. Its window display has dolls wearing the scarves and uniforms of youth organisations, a lurid orange hand-mixer, toys, lamps and knick-knacks, some of them long enough in the tooth to be back in fashion.

Like Reinecke, who headed south to Leipzig after the breakup of his first marriage, Vogler has also moved, north to Schwerin, but keeps an apartment in Berlin, close to his children and ex-wife. He presents a nature-loving front, pointing out that in Schwerin he has three lakes to choose from for his morning swim.

We pass the celebrated apartment complexes of the Karl-Marx Allee, an architectural statement of socialist grandeur. What are they like to live in? Pretty good, he says, they even have bidets, and points to some generous penthouse balconies. Time doesn’t permit a visit to the Gärten der Welt (Gardens Of the World) in Marzahn, or that suburb’s notorious vast housing estates from the 1970s and 1980s.

The green Vogler has made up his mind about the threats facing the longest surviving stretch of the wall, on the Mühlenstrtaße in Friedrichsain. He wants it to go. It blocks the view of Berlin's great waterway, the river Spree, which he finds unforgivable.

Island paradise
Every member of the quartet mentions the city's Museuminsel (Museum Island). It's Vogler who takes me there, to the Neues Museum, with its coloured bust of Queen Nefertiti, serene and magnetically attractive. He's not just in awe of the art, but of the building, which was allowed to lie in ruins until its 2009 reopening in a restoration by David Chipperfield, which juxtaposes 21st-century modernity and the remnants of Friedrich August Stüler's mid-19th-century original with moving starkness. Vogler's bête noire is the pink Alexa shopping centre at Alexander Platz.

Berlin’s Konzerthaus, where the Voglers have their own series, is a glorious restoration of the latter days of the German Democratic Republic. The Voglers play in the Kleiner Saal, which looks big from the stage, but, says Tim Vogler, feels small when it is full. It’s not the easiest of halls to play in, he says, the sound being dry enough that players definitely have to work that bit harder at projecting. They all seem to prefer the Konzerthaus to the in-the-round layout of the Philharmonie, home of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Viola-player Stefan Fehlandt takes me to the Hackescher Hof, a network of arts and crafts courtyards with restaurants, its Jugendstil glazed brickwork glowing in gorgeously saturated colours, and to the Hamburger Bahnhof, a Renaissance-style 1847 railway station that's been a museum for more than a century. As the Museum der Gegenwart, it's now visited for Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol, and its exterior is lit by a neon installation by Dan Flavin. It's also where the Voglers took the four-hour-plus plunge into the micro-gestural world of Morton Feldman's Second String Quartet. They never did manage to have a full run-through in advance, says Fehlandt, and the much-debated topic of loo-breaks was never an issue.

Cellist Stephan Forck is in awe of Berlin's main railway station, the multi-level Hauptbahnhof, which centralised north/south and east/west connections in 2006, and simplified his life when he had to commute to teach in Stuttgart. It has a kind of efficient modern calm that you never find, say, in the major stations in London.

At the other end of the scale, he loathes the boxy information centre on the building site where the demolished East German Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic) is being replaced by a rebuild of the Berliner Schloss, the royal palace that stood there until 1950. It was with Forck, a bishop’s son, that I got to see the cross that – horror of horrors to the East German authorities – the play of light creates on the sphere of the TV tower they built in 1969. Could this have been mere coincidence?

The Vogler String Quartet play at Music in Drumcliffe, from Saturday to Monday.