Prelude to a new era

Jesse Simon

martes, 4 de septiembre de 2018
Berlin, viernes, 24 de agosto de 2018. Philharmonie. Strauss: Don Juan, op. 20, and Death and Transfiguration, op. 24. Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A, op. 92. Berlin Philharmonic. Kirill Petrenko, conductor
Kirill Petrenko © Wilfried Hösl/Berlin Philharmonic

It has now been three years since Kirill Petrenko was named the next chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, and in that time he has given Berlin audiences only a few intriguing glimpses of what lies ahead. His programmes have tended toward the early twentieth century, and there have been a few pleasingly unexpected choices – notably Franz Schmidt’s still underrated Fourth Symphony – among the less-than-usual suspects; yet for his first season-opening concert with the orchestra (his tenure doesn’t officially begin until next year) he went straight to the heart of the standard repertoire, performing two tone poems by Strauss and one symphony by Beethoven that have been closely associated with the Berlin Philharmonic for over a century.

Don Juan, the evening’s first piece, was also arguably its high point. It opened with a surge of energy – a majestic sweep from the strings and a strident exclamation from the brass – and moved from strength to strength. The orchestra played with invigorating splendour: the violins shimmered in the nocturnal second section, the trumpets and trombones were crisp and emphatic, the horns provided a magnificent statement of the Don Juan theme, and there was animation and clarity in the woodwinds, especially the beautiful solo oboe passage. Mr Petrenko observed the work’s heightened, ever-shifting moods without feeling the need to underline them: the opening was exuberant, the second section languid and mysterious, and the central section had a propulsive grandeur and large romantic phrasing that never quite crossed the line into overblown. Only the sudden burst of speed and exaggerated pause leading into the death coda drew attention to the presence of an interpretive hand.

If Death and Transfiguration was less seamless in its construction, it nonetheless contained individual moments of arresting intensity. The opening section glided forward through clouds of ominous woodwinds and snatches of lyrical violin that served to compound the mood of eerie calm rather than dispel it. The first violent outburst, however, did not have the same level of focus: the brass dominated the strings, the pace was disorientingly quick, and the resulting sound somewhat chaotic. The rapturous recollections of early life also seemed unnaturally brisk and the first appearance of the transfiguration theme came across as fragmentary and uncommitted. The final section, however, was magnificent. Once the chaos of death had subsided, the horns, gong and timpani locked into an insistent pulse over which Mr Petrenko layered an intricate, slow-burning crescendo; while the climax is often unfurled with a kind of Brucknerian sanctity, under Mr Petrenko’s guidence it seemed far closer to the triumphant ecstasy of Salome’s final moments.

There can be few composers more central to the repertoire of the Berlin Philharmonic than Beethoven, and few symphonies as universally adored as the Seventh. It was, in many ways, an obvious choice for the second half of a season-opening concert, and if Mr Petrenko’s highly elastic, rhythmically intense reading had its unconventional moments, the music that emerged was rarely less than thrilling. Even the measured introduction to the first movement possessed a barely restrained excitability; in the final bars before the transition to the fast section Mr Petrenko slowed everything down, as though he had just wound a clockwork motor to its very limit and was pausing for one satisfied moment before letting the forces of kinetic energy take over. Then the woodwinds accelerated to full speed and were joined by the rest of the orchestra in a glorious first tutti powered by muscular strings, powerful brass, and the unmistakable presence of the timpani. The movement sounded more spontaneous and less studied than the Strauss of the first half; everything bounced forward on sprung rhythms and even the observance of the repeat did nothing to diminish the momentum.

After only a breath of a pause, Mr Petrenko launched straight into the second movement, which brought back some of the concentrated solemnity from Death and Transfiguration without sacrificing the rhythmic focus established in the first movement; the pulse remained prominent throughout although the playing never grew overly metrical, and the contrapuntal section in the middle of the movement featured the evening’s most delicate playing. Mr Petrenko was at his most boisterous during the third movement, bobbing up and down and cuing different sections with small, decisive gestures. It was the precision of the orchestra – especially the magnificent woodwinds – that held everything together: the trios seemed almost dangerously quick, but Mr Petrenko remained committed to his choice of tempo and his flirtations with chaos yielded more excitement than actual disorder. In the final movement, which again followed the preceding movement almost without pause, the horns, trumpets and timpani maintained a steady, urgent pulse that drove everything forward. The pace was raucous and energetic, but not so brisk as to obscure the passages of full-orchestra grandeur, and the final moments, if not exactly subtle, were undeniably stirring.

Although Berlin audiences will have to wait until next season for Mr Petrenko to take up his appointment with the orchestra – he will be back in March for a programme of Schönberg and Tchaikovsky, but the remainder of this year’s regular concerts will be led by an assortment of guest conductors – his season-opening concert offered several insights into his approach to the classical canon. While his previous appearances in Berlin have left us in no doubt about his affinity for the late romantic era in general and Strauss in particular, his high-energy Beethoven provided us with further hints of what we can expect in the years to come.


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