An Encouraging Augury for the Berlin Philharmonic’s Partnership with Kirill Petrenko

29/08/2018

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Salzburg Festival [6] – Strauss and Beethoven: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Kirill Petrenko (conductor). Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 26.8.2018. (MB)

Kirill Petrenko (conductor) & BPO (c) Salzburger Festspiele/Monika Rittershaus

Strauss – Don Juan, op.20
Strauss – Tod und Verklärung, op.24
Beethoven – Symphony no.7 in A major, op.92

In my final Salzburg concert this year – I reviewed all performances I heard, bar a thought-provoking Salome and a best-forgotten Magic Flute – I went to hear old friends from my time in Berlin, together with their new friend and music director, Kirill Petrenko. They were to give two programmes, one very much of their traditional repertoire, the second ranging wider. I heard the first: two Strauss tone poems and a Beethoven symphony.

Don Juan makes for a splendid if perilous curtain-raiser: no fear of perils being anything other than expertly navigated here. There was a brash, confident swagger to the opening; here is not the place for modesty. Already, though, I noticed a difference from many of the performances I had heard the orchestra give with Simon Rattle (if not necessarily always with visiting conductors): here was a bass line from which the harmony and indeed the entirety of the work’s material seemed to grow. There was ‘feminine’ opposition – a loaded, dated, even offensive term, I know, but apposite to the work’s conception and terms of reference – in the material to come, coming together in a magical Straussian phantasmagoria of sound. Petrenko’s way with Strauss is less self-conscious than, say, that of Christian Thielemann, but he is no less adept at ‘playing’ the orchestra as if it were his instrument when required. He was commendably unafraid to show the work’s hard edges as well as its exquisite tenderness. And what wind soloists were heard, Albrecht Meyer on oboe first among equals. Strauss is often at his deepest, of course, when the cracks in the façade are perceived, however briefly; so too was he, so too was the performance, here. Moments or split-seconds of irresolution made all the difference. Does the close offer the greatest of all youthful sunsets? It certainly seemed to do so on this occasion, followed by the strange materialist gravitas of a Straussian death.

Tod und Verklärung took us back to the moments before death, to the uncertainty of a fading heartbeat. Its gravitas nevertheless seemed to pick up where Don Juan had left off. Once again, the excellence of soloists (Meyer, Emmanuel Pahud, Daishin Kashimoto, et al.) might almost have been taken for granted, yet should not have been. The struggle was different, of course, and so it sounded. Petrenko has never been one to offer identikit solutions – he is far too thoughtful and dedicated a musician for that – and certainly did not do so here. Verklärung, whatever that can mean to a thoroughgoing materialist, was certainly unthinkable in the world of the previous symphonic poem. There was to be heard an intangible kinship with Elgar and his Dream of Gerontius; no wonder Strauss admired it so. It is here that Strauss goes deeper than in any symphonic poem before Metamorphosen, or at least such was the impression gained here, without any need artificially to apply ‘gravity’ (as Strauss perhaps felt the need to with John the Baptist). There was honesty here as well as virtuosic mastery; there was, above all, harmony.

The orchestra returned after the interval significantly smaller. Strauss calls for instruments that Beethoven does not, of course, so there was no great surprise there. However, I wondered slightly about the strings. I had not counted them before, but think they were reduced; at any rate, they were 12.12.8.8.6 in number. Not so many strings, then, as sometimes one might (hope to) hear, yet interestingly and tellingly, a stronger bass line than often one might fear. Petrenko judged the introduction to the first movement very well; I am tempted to say that it sounded just as I imagine it in my head, yet I am not sure I could conjure up quite such expectancy. Beethovenian concision in the movement as a whole was never in doubt: not, however, through rushing – which actually achieves the opposite – but through playing as outstanding in its execution as in its design. The jolt of the development’s onset was real, but again no silly stunt; it was played, not applied. Rhythm naturally played its part, yet never as something independent of the rest of the material. The recapitulation continued to develop, the coda all the better for its lack of exaggeration, a microcosm of the movement as a whole.

The Allegretto grew out of the first movement and was indeed taken without a pause. It offered release and intensification in a processional of great mystery, beauty, and cumulative power. Petrenko also knew when not to conduct: again, no affectation, but a sign of confidence in his outstanding musicians and what is already clearly a partnership of strength. Thank goodness there was none of Rattle’s weird moulding of phrases here, nor the fashionable yet often perverse ‘rethinking’ of later Claudio Abbado, let alone the manicure of Herbert von Karajan (at his worst). This had little in common with Wilhelm Furtwängler, save for its integrity – which is surely what matters. It may not have overwhelmed, but it was fresh, coherent, and comprehending.

Giving the bronchial brigade a pause for self-expression was probably a wise move prior to the Scherzo. Its provisional wing would doubtless have made its presence heard in any case. This and the finale were similarly taken without a break. I found them less impressive – yet only less impressive, for there was nothing ‘wrong’ with them. Perhaps a greater contrast in material would have helped the scherzo as well as the relationship between scherzo and trio. They were well balanced, though, and clearly heard as one. The finale was fast indeed, yet never unduly driven. A little greater flexibility might again have been welcome, but there was no doubting Petrenko’s understanding. Daniel Barenboim conducts this music as no one else alive; there is no shame in coming, at least at present, a little behind our truest heir to Furtwängler and Klemperer. This, we should recall, is only the beginning; the best is most likely yet to come.

Mark Berry

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