Surrender to the Rhythm
into his tenure as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Kirill Petrenko
remains something of an enigma. On the podium he is a confident, energetic
presence, clearly delighting in the precise musicianship of the orchestra
before him. There is little sense of turmoil or profundity in his demeanour:
regardless of the music being performed, he seems to enjoy the act of making
it. He has displayed an affinity for music from the early-twentieth century,
but he has also presented Russian works and grand classics of the German
repertoire with equal care. Regardless of what might be on the programme in a
given evening, one can be fairly certain of hearing performances of uniformly
Why, then, does he seem enigmatic? Because after so many scrupulously-prepared, brilliantly-executed performances of diverse works from all corners of the canon, one is left with almost no clue which of these pieces he genuinely loves, which set his pulse racing and which are merely assignments. One can rarely find fault with Mr Petrenko’s interpretive decisions, nor can one doubt his ability to coax rhythmically deft performances from the orchestra; but every so often one longs for greater impartiality, a reading that pulls constantly on your sleeve and argues bar by bar for the greatness of a particular piece.
The same sphinx-like impenetrability presided over the Berlin Philharmonic’s season opening concert, which featured a trio of wonderful pieces given performances of equal brilliance. In the overture to Weber’s Oberon, in the restless Scherzo of Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses, and in nearly every moment of Schubert’s ‘Great’ C-Major Symphony one was never allowed to forget the insistence of the rhythm. Each piece was relentlessly focussed, played without indulgence or hesitance, and in the evening’s finest moments it was easy to get carried away by the momentum. But when it was over, one was left more with the sense of music having been performed with consummate skill than the experience of having been walked through any of the pieces by an overly excitable guide.
Weber’s overture to Oberon is a delightful piece, but the sober, straightforward reading it received on this evening had little time for pastoral calm in the opening adagio nor romantic excess in the climax. The opening section, with its distant rising horn theme and soft strings, was oddly anticipatory as though it couldn’t wait to get to the Allegro; when the Allegro finally arrived it was every bit as brisk and buoyant as one would expect. The brass – especially the trumpets – seemed to dominate the strings in the louder passages, but when the strings played on their own they were full of zest and bite. Yet the piece grew so beholden to its own vivacity that it was unwilling to slow down and savour the gaiety of the final moments.Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses was arguably the evening’s most successful performance, and the second movement in particular seemed to gain most from Mr Petrenko’s exacting rhythmic vision. The opening movement was urgent in its pace, but not so rushed as to neglect the delightful sparring of the woodwinds.
At the beginning of the second there was a pause for breath just long enough to give the flute’s initial statement of the theme an air of ethereal mystery. But as soon as the theme was picked up by the basses, the movement became unstoppable, adding and subtracting orchestral layers, tightening and relaxing intensity, but never straying from its fundamental pulse. The more the theme was passed from section to section the more one was forced to put aside their reservations and surrender to the rhythm. If the remaining movements couldn’t quite reach the Scherzo’s peak of giddy inspiration, the third had a pleasingly uncertain quality between drift and driven, highlighted by more sparkling solo flute; and the finale, taken at a marginally more relaxed pace than the Scherzo, highlighted the festive quality of the march.
Schubert’s ‘Great’ C-major Symphony was more problematic. On the surface it displayed all the qualities that had made the Hindemith performance so engaging: rigorous tempi, sprightly rhythms, and extraordinary precision from the orchestra. One could hear the consideration and preparation, the rhythmic conviction from which the first movement derives its majesty, and the almost imperceptible shifts in tempo that give the fourth movement its excitement. What it lacked was fallibility. It was a performance that allowed for no uncertainties: the shifts in tempo and dynamic were meticulously rehearsed, the thrills finely calibrated. Barring some kind of force majeure, there was little chance of anything going off the rails.
As in the Hindemith, the best moments of Schubert’s symphony achieved an undeniable excitement through rhythmic exuberance and deft execution. The pace of the first movement introduction left little room for affection in the opening horn theme, but in the movement’s central section the levels of kinetic energy were impossible to ignore. The central movements, however, revealed the limitations of such a rhythmically dominant approach. The second movement started well, with delicate solo oboe and an urgent Andante pace, and the fortissimo entrance of the full orchestra was undeniably commanding. What never emerged was a sense of narrative argument. One was aware of the rhythm as an organising principle around which the movement’s succession of dynamic rise and fall were structured, but the subtle shifts in mood often seemed underplayed, and after a while the movement began to feel more like a study than a journey.
This was even more apparent in the third movement, which featured no shortage of brilliant playing – especially from the strings – but offered little sense of the drama that lies beneath the notes on the page. After a while the sheer vigour of the playing grew monotonous. The fourth movement, like the first, achieved its own captivating quality through sheer insistence and innumerable carefully-rehearsed adjustments in tempo and dynamic; it was trying to be thrilling and for the most part it succeeded. The audience seemed to love it; it was, after all, a performance of considerable verve and tremendous technical skill. But it was also a performance that seemed frustratingly uninterested in arguing for the greatness of Schubert’s final completed symphony. If Mr Petrenko has strong feelings about the piece – and one has to imagine that he does – he managed, in his quietly enigmatic way, to keep them to himself.
The experience of attending concerts in the age of the pandemic has evolved considerably over the past eighteen months, and this evening was different yet again from the events that happened in June of this year – when Berlin allowed concert halls and opera houses to reopen – as well as those which took place at the beginning of last season during the brief lull between the first and second waves. Shortly before this evening’s concert, Berlin revised its ruling on the capacity for indoor events, so long as all members of the audience could provide evidence of vaccination of recovery. As a result the attendance at this concert was significantly higher than at any similar cultural event in Berlin since the beginning of 2020. There was, it must be said, a certain pleasure in the age when half the seats were blocked off, as though everyone in the audience had been upgraded to business class. The trade-off, however, was a feeling of excitement and anticipation in the auditorium that had simply never materialised when only half the seats were occupied. The opening concert of the Berlin Philharmonic is as much a seasonal ritual as a musical performance, an evening that marks the end of summer and the return of music to the city. On this evening the usual excitement of seeing the orchestra was supplemented by a sense that musical life in Berlin might finally, after a year a half, be returning to normal. We can only hope that it continues.