It has been nearly five years since Sir Simon Rattle announced his departure from the Berlin Philharmonic, setting into motion the search for a new chief conductor. An initial conclave in Spring of 2015 resulted in deadlock, but a few months later it was announced that Kirill Petrenko would take up the post. In the following seasons Mr Petrenko appeared in Berlin only a handful of times, with each concert revealing different facets of his conducting style: two restrained Tchaikovsky symphonies suggested an interpreter not overly prone to grand gesture, while an extraordinary performance of Ligeti’s Lontano (with the Bayerisches Staatsorchester) promised a level of engagement with the twentieth century repertoire. Although he conducted his first season-opening concert for the Berlin Philharmonic last year, the expectations for his first official concert as chief conductor was considerably higher, and the programme, which gave equal precedence to classics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, provided the Berlin audience its first sustained glimpse of Mr Petrenko’s vigour and versatility.
Berg’s suite of Symphonic Pieces from Lulu may have seemed an understated choice to open a new era, but the performance was unfailingly elegant. From the large ensemble on the stage, Mr Petrenko drew light textures, clear phrases and a pleasingly intimate balance between strings and woodwinds. That same sense of moderation informed Mr Petrenko’s interpretation: in the hymn section of the first part, a subtle but decisive force pulsated beneath the opulent surfaces, just enough to dispel any sense of drift; even in the more obviously rhythmic second part, Mr Petrenko’s discernment yielded attractive results.
When Marlis Petersen appeared at the back of the stage for Lulu’s song – delivered in an appropriately languid manner – the Mr Petrenko shifted effortlessly to a supporting role, offering a measured foundation while allowing the vocals to dominate. The orchestra sounded nowhere more impressive than in the final two movements, but beneath the hypnotic rhythms and elegantly sculpted climaxes was a sense of total control that left little room for the unexpected. Certainly what works on stage doesn’t necessarily translate to the concert hall, and in stressing the formal integrity of the pieces over their dramatic potential, Mr Petrenko seemed to be creating an intentional distance from the tension and danger that one finds in the opera from which the suite was extracted.
If Beethoven’s symphonies are still a towering presence in the standard repertoire nearly two centuries after their composer’s death, it is perhaps because they can withstand nearly every extreme of interpretation with their fundamental character intact. Not only is Beethoven hard to mess up, but the possibilities that arise from radically different approaches force us to acknowledge the fundamental genius of the scores. It is for this reason that we have room on our record shelves for Furtwängler and Toscanini, for Klemperer and Karajan, and for the countless others whose readings enrich our understanding of these endlessly captivating works. With Beethoven, one approach is simply not enough.
The conductors most closely associated with the Berlin Philharmonic in the twentieth century were acknowledged as masters of Beethoven’s symphonies and, in the eras of Furtwängler, Karajan and Abbado, the symphonies remained at the very heart of the orchestra’s repertoire. Mr Petrenko’s decision to inaugurate his tenure with the Ninth – a symphony associated with more significant events in the cultural life of Berlin than it is possible to count – seemed a nod in the direction of tradition; but if the evening’s performance was in part a gesture of legitimacy it was also a clear statement of intent. Whatever else Mr Petrenko may prove to be in the coming years, it was apparent that he had little interest in looking back.
It is to Mr Petrenko’s credit that his Beethoven sounded nothing like any of his predecessors; there was none of Furtwängler’s encompassing grandeur, nor Karajan’s opulent warmth. The sound was perhaps closest to Abbado’s in its leanness and taut agility, but there was a restlessness and rhythmic motivation that belonged to Mr Petrenko alone. The agitation at which he had hinted in last year’s Seventh was on prominent display in the first movement; where some conductors might attempt to ease the first bars into existence as if from nothing, Mr Petrenko seemed to flip a switch that brought everything suddenly to life. The pace was brisk, propelled by a nervous energy that remained present for much of the evening. Yet the jittery tempi offered no real problems for the orchestra; while the number of musicians on the stage seemed fairly small, the sound that emerged was lithe and forceful, stripped down but perfectly balanced. The thrill of hearing the orchestra lock into Mr Petrenko’s urgency with such confidence and precision was sufficient to keep the first movement exciting.
Mr Petrenko’s ferocity and drive seemed best suited to the second movement, and his adoption of a slightly more measured pace gave the music greater room to breathe. The quiet passages simmered and the full-orchestra outbursts were gripping in their intensity. In the third movement, however, Mr Petrenko’s restlessness came across as impatience. The music seemed so determined to get somewhere else that it never took the time to luxuriate in the grandeur of the present moment, and the movement’s capacity for tranquillity was replaced by an anxiety that offered little respite from the turbulent outer movements.
The opening of the fourth had a sense of drama that played itself out in a heightened dialogue between the woodwinds and low strings; one had the sense of witnessing the central theme, the simplest and greatest of all themes, emerging clear and assured from the surrounding chaos, passing from section to section and locking the musicians into a grand unity of purpose. When it had spread to the full orchestra, the effect was tremendous. Yet in subsequent sections, the restlessness of the third movement returned. Mr Petrenko did not seem inclined toward dramatic pauses, nor did his conception of Schiller’s ode seem especially celebratory; and while his approach yielded several moments of gripping ferocity – the orchestral interlude following the ‘Froh, froh’ section was extraordinary – his urgent way with the Finale sometimes came at the expense of warmth.
It is possible that warm, luxuriant Beethoven is out of fashion at the moment, and certainly the audience reacted positively to the energy and anxiety in Mr Petrenko’s reading. For his first outing as chief conductor, Mr Petrenko offered a decisive break from the Rattle era – at least as far as Beethoven is concerned – but he did so in a way that seemed wholly uninterested in drawing inspiration from the orchestra’s twentieth century preeminence. If the results were occasionally more fascinating than satisfying, the chance to hear the Berlin Philharmonic well-rested, well-rehearsed and clearly energised by the presence of a new force on the podium gave the evening an undeniable excitement of its own.