Bavarian State Orchestra under Kirill Petrenko Cannot Change my Perception


SwitzerlandSwitzerland Lucerne Festival (6) – Wagner, R. Strauss: Bayerisches Staatsorchester, Diana Damrau (soprano) / Kirill Petrenko (conductor). Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Lucerne (KKL), 7.9.16. (JR)

Wagner – Prelude to The Mastersingers of Nuremberg

Strauss – Four Last Songs and Sinfonia Domestica

The Bavarian State Orchestra is the opera house orchestra in Munich, of which Kirill Petrenko is in charge, and this was both the orchestra’s and the conductor’s debut appearance at the Lucerne Festival. Concert-goers were clearly keen to see and hear what the Berlin Philharmonic are about to experience when he becomes their Chief Conductor (but not until 2019) and gave Petrenko a rousing reception.

In my last review, of the Munich Philharmonic, I said Munich was fortunate to have two top-class orchestras. I must rush to amend that, lucky Munich has three fine orchestras (the Munich Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Bavarian State Orchestra).  Petrenko has been named by Opernwelt as “Conductor of the Year” – for the fourth time! – and the performance of the Die Meistersinger prelude was, as could have been expected, simply spine-tingling.  The orchestra has been named, by Opernwelt, for two years running, “Orchestra of the Year”. Their roots go back to 1523 (as the Münchner Hofkapelle); their current name dates back to 1918.

Petrenko shaped every bar of the Die Meistersinger Prelude with a clear wealth of experience; clearly a great deal of rehearsal had gone into the piece even though the orchestra members must know it by heart.

Diana Damrau emerged onto the stage in a rather overblown pink concoction of a dress and seemed to have difficulty walking in her shoes. Her singing, though, was seemingly effortless and simply divine. German mother tongue helps, of course, with Strauss Lieder; she was in full command of her leaps into the high notes, the “Strauss Schwung” as she called it in the concert programme. She may not have the rich bloom of a Jessye Norman in the lower register, but at the top she is ravishing, certainly a “Prima Donna” in every sense though she prefers the term “diva”. She was literally breath-taking and most expressive with the lyrics. Petrenko and the orchestra accompanied with utmost delicacy.

The Sinfonia Domestica is a brave and challenging choice of work for a second half. I must admit I had my reservations before the concert.  After hearing it for the first time many decades ago, I did not rush out to buy the CD. I cannot help thinking of Malcolm Arnold’s riotously amusing A Grand, Grand Overture scored for orchestra and vacuum cleaners (dedicated incidentally to US President Hoover) whenever I even hear mention of the Sinfonia Domestica.

Strauss attempts to describe musically the events of a typical day at home, including Richard and Pauline love-making, the chime of the alarm clock and baby Franz bawling as he is put in his bath. The Strauss work is not often performed; at the Lucerne Festival the last (and only) performances were by Karl Böhm in 1960 and Herbert von Karajan in 1973 with the Berlin Philharmonic.  The work does have melodies, in fact one can count forty snippets, all rather unmemorable it has to be said. It lacks the impact of almost every other work Richard Strauss wrote. Mahler didn’t like it. So what could Petrenko do to change my perception?

Well, to say it was an ear-opener is perhaps going a bit too far, but the piece certainly held my interest and certainly has its charms in some sections. The writer of the German programme notes compared it to James Joyce Ulysses, another work I find indigestible. It seems to share with that work irrationality and a plan to deliberately confuse. By the closing pages, the whole orchestra come together for a final blast (Strauss throwing in the kitchen sink?) but it’s all too late to make amends.

The work is scored for 110 musicians, including eight horns and four saxophones. As the famous conductor Hans Richter quipped, not all the gods burning in Valhalla could make one quarter of the noise of a single Bavarian baby in his bath.

To send us away on a more cheerful note, the orchestra played more Strauss – but Johann this time. Petrenko showed us he is more than a competent candidate to conduct Vienna’s New Year’s Day concert.

Petrenko on the podium was a veritable fireball, beaming at his players and exuding warmth and benign authority. Those Berliners are clearly no fools and have made a very wise choice. Lucerne Festival can expect his name to become a fixture with future audiences.

The orchestra and conductor now continue their European Tour as follows:

September 10th: Dortmund – with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony
September 11th: Bonn – also with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth
September 12th: Paris – Tchaikovsky 5 again
September 13th: Luxemburg – Sinfonia Domestica
September 14th: Berlin – Sinfonia Domestica
September 18th: Vienna – Tchaikovsky 5
September 21st: Frankfurt – Tchaikovsky 5

John Rhodes



  1. Rob Harries says:

    ‘A Grand, Grand Overture’ is by Malcolm Arnold, not Gerard Hoffnung.

  2. Jim Pritchard says:

    Thanks Rob. Review has been amended. All comments that correct the very occasional errors on S&H are much appreciated.

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