The Berlin Phil and Kirill Petrenko Simply in a Class of their Own


SwitzerlandSwitzerland Lucerne Festival [2] – R. Strauss, Beethoven: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Kirill Petrenko (conductor), Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern, Lucerne, 29.8.2018. (JR)

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

R. Strauss – Don Juan Op.20;  Death and Transfiguration Op.24
Beethoven – Symphony No.7 in A major Op.92

It has been a long time since I attended a concert with such a sense of anticipation. This was my first sighting and hearing of Kirill Petrenko and the sound of the Berliners is always a joy. This also happened to be the sixtieth anniversary of the first concert at the Lucerne Festival by the Berliners, led by Karajan (also Beethoven incidentally, but his Ninth).

Petrenko’s reputation, and all the formidable reviews I have read of his concerts and opera performances thus far, set me up to expect a thrilling concert and I was not disappointed. Officially, Petrenko only starts his tenure at the helm of the Berliners next year, he has to wind down in Munich, but who minds him jumping the gun? The programme for the Festival describes him as ‘charismatic’ (even though he eschews the limelight – so far – certainly if compared with his predecessors) and ‘a radiant bundle of energy’, with which no one will quibble. I looked forward to hearing well-known works rejuvenated and fresh as though they had just been composed. And so it was.

Petrenko, for many years in Munich with the Opera and Bayerische Staatskapelle, has become somewhat of a Richard Strauss specialist. Petrenko audibly studies the scores meticulously and brings out the nuance in every phrase, but not in any artificial way.

I felt that Don Juan was the star of the night’s show, but it is easy listening, certainly compared with Tod und Verklärung which is the more cerebral, more academic work. I sat overlooking the orchestra in the first half and could witness Petrenko beaming throughout, clearly thrilled to be in charge of what many consider the best orchestra in the world. On tonight’s showing, I take no issue with such claimants.

As fellow critic Mark Berry in his recent review (click here) of the same programme at the Salzburg Festival points out, Petrenko’s reading was masterful, less fussy or quirky than from Simon Rattle; given Petrenko’s small stature, he compensates with big gestures, plenty of youthful bounce, a veritable fireball – but not pretentious or showy for the sake of it. Petrenko really looked as though he was enjoying it; the audience certainly was. It was a buoyant and fiery performance, aided by magnificent solo contributions, particularly from Albrecht Mayer on oboe.

Tod und Verklärung is less easily digestible fare; it is beefier, more complex but just as satisfying in its different way. Emmanuel Pahud, no less, shone in his solo contributions. In both Strauss works the horn section was to die for: and one just marvelled at the Berlin sound. It took one back through the Rattle and Abbado eras to Herbert von Karajan, less polished now perhaps but full of bloom and technical perfection. The back strings in all sections are almost as strong as the front desks; voluminous celli and elegant double basses bring up the rear. Petrenko ensured we enjoyed plenty of goosebumps.

After the interval, I changed my seat to the back of the hall, where the acoustic blend of the orchestral sound was ideal, even though I could not witness Petrenko and his soloists at such close quarters. Petrenko conducted Beethoven exuberantly, with humour, and once even stopped conducting to allow his players free rein, a sign of his confidence in them at any early stage of their relationship. This was a youthful performance but with gravitas, Petrenko relaxed but hardly pausing for breath between movements, tempi always judiciously chosen. Occasionally he had to keep the trumpets down in volume, but otherwise there was hardly a tweak. The ecstatic ending came all too soon and we were just a mite disappointed that there was no encore.

Petrenko had inspired his musicians to veritable heights and the whole audience, at the close of this fine concert, came to its feet. They knew they had witnessed the start of an auspicious era. I came out of the concert thinking the world is a better place.

Clearly, the Berliners have made a fine choice of principal conductor. I, for one, cannot wait to hear what the impressive Petrenko brings us over the course of the coming years with this orchestra, for which I have simply run out of superlatives.

John Rhodes

2 thoughts on “The Berlin Phil and Kirill Petrenko Simply in a Class of their Own”

  1. I agree it was a magnificent concert; but while you write a lot about Petrenko’s conducting style you don’t haven’t really critiqued the concert. And you don’t even discuss Beethoven’s 7th.

    • A paragraph about Beethoven 7 is indeed there and a tiny change now makes this clearer. S&H


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