Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic Make a Strong Impression in Strauss Tone Poems

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC PROM 68 – Strauss and Beethoven: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Kirill Petrenko (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 2.9.2018. (AS)

Berliner Philharmoniker & Kirill Petrenko (conductor) (c) Robert Garbolinski

StraussDon Juan Op.20; Tod und Verklärung Op.24
Beethoven – Symphony No.7 in A Op.92

There has never been a move to change existing traditions in the performance of Strauss’s orchestral music. The original tradition, set by the composer’s own performances and recordings and those by several conductors who had personal associations with the composer, has never been challenged. That is not to say there is no variation in performances by, say, Mengelberg, Krauss and Reiner, or by those who had slightly later close connections with the tradition, for instance Karajan and Kempe, but they all clearly come from the same stable.

In the case of Beethoven, of course, we have no aural evidence of an original tradition, and thus performances of his music have always been shaped by his interpreters and have changed with the passage of time and fashion. These thoughts were provoked by this concert under the baton of Kirill Petrenko.

At once Petrenko’s conducting of Don Juan had familiar features: the powerful upsurge of energy at the beginning of the work and in the following passages was superbly wrought, and as the work followed its programmatic course there was a winning flexibility of phrase, but also a strong projection of the music’s line and structural sequence. The orchestral textures were clean and clear,the playing was of the highest class, with distinguished individual contributions, notably from the first oboe in his long solo. Of the two principals listed, I was told that the player was Albrecht Mayer, and it was gratifying to hear his beautifully clear tone, which seemed very unlike the over-sweet chocolaty quality displayed by BPO principals of the past.

The long, quiet beginning of Tod und Verklärung may pose problems for lesser conductors, but under Petrenko this was superbly managed, its painfully dark and oppressive quality and anticipatory nature realised in a wonderfully rich quality of tone. The following orchestral explosion as the subject struggles against his inevitable fate was as dramatic as could be, and Petrenko’s evocation of the sad, quieter music that follows as he recollects nostalgic memories was poignantly sweet. Here, and in Strauss’s depiction of death followed by the soul’s fulfilment, he conjured some wonderfully powerful playing. This really was quite special.

It was perhaps the case that Petrenko needed to impose his own personality on his players rather more in a Beethoven symphony than in the Strauss tone poems, for he opted for a distinctively ‘modern’ approach rather than the one that the BPO probably was used to and could play on auto-pilot – though of course Sir Simon Rattle’s Beethoven with the BPO was also not exactly in the Teutonic tradition. In any event, Petrenko took the first-movement introduction at a fairly brisk rate, one that perhaps diminished the feeling of great things to come. The following Vivace main section of the movement was taken fairly quickly too, so that a lyrical, almost dance-like quality in the music was found rather than intellectual vigour and profound argument. The exposition repeat was taken, as almost always these days.

The Allegretto was also taken in a tempo that was slightly on the hasty side. There was some build-up of tension, but the general impression was of a somewhat lightweight reading, with conspicuously beautiful playing made more apparent than it should have been. It was entirely appropriate that the scherzo and trio should have a dance-like nature, as it did, but the finale really was too hasty and came across as an example of orchestral virtuosity rather than an expression of joy unbound. It didn’t help that the conductor rather played to the gallery with some extravagantly expressive but quite unneeded gestures. So, in footballing parlance it was very much a concert of two contrasting halves.

Alan Sanders

6 thoughts on “Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic Make a Strong Impression in Strauss Tone Poems”

  1. I didn’t imply that he was new – merely that the BPO oboe sound has changed from former days – thank goodness!


  2. Disagree with you about the Beethoven. This was a beautifully constructed, fresh and invigorating performance of a symphony that has had its tempos dragged about all over the place by conductors who usually make the allegretto (note:allegretto) into a dirge. It is not a funeral march. Petrenko took all the repeats and still the symphony danced its way to a joyous finale that brought the house down. This was dazzling stuff, full of wit and joy. The Berliners sounded like they have found a new vitality, released from the sometimes over-polished Karajan years and the frankly beige sound of Rattle’s over-rated talents. Petrenko is the first conductor of the Berliners that actually looks like he’s part of the orchestra, rather than some nebulous deity with a stick. He looks like he’s actually enjoying what he’s doing, rather than suffering a-la simple Simon and his pained grimaces. This was a mighty performance of Beethoven by a mighty orchestra, directed with energy, wit and a real understanding of Beethoven’s rhythmic rhetoric by a magician. The Strauss was as good as you say. Bravo Petrenko!

  3. Yes, I know that others I spoke to shared your opinion about the performance, but to me it was lightweight and superficial.

    If you want to use Petrenko to take a swipe at Karajan and Rattle then that’s up to you! I’m not going to join in that one…………..


  4. Were you actually there? We seem to have been listening to different performances.
    Perhaps you have some issue with Petrenko.

    I have no problem with von Karajan, he was one of the great conductors. I was fortunate to see him conduct the BPO playing Beethoven 5 & 6 in 1977 and Bruckner 8 in 1979 in London at the Festival Hall. Both concerts were magnificent, the Bruckner was music elevated to a higher plane.
    Rattle, on the other hand, I saw at the Barbican conducting the CBSO in a performance of Sibelius 6 which was lifeless and grey. The music was just played, with little real feeling for the remote iciness of the great Finnish composer’s vision. I confess that I have never warmed to Rattle’s predictable and somewhat hammy performances. He lacks the real fire and passion that Karajan had and which Petrenko displayed at Prom 68. There was nothing lightweight about his Beethoven 7. Perhaps you are too used to the smooth, burnished sound of the BPO’s former incarnations, rather than the clean, clear, incandescent sound they presented on Sunday. If this is what we can expect under Petrenko’s command, I, for one, am delighted. I would love to hear what he makes of Sibelius and Prokofiev with the BPO. But each to his own.

  5. Dear MT,

    You must be psychic. I have to confess that I was listening to Petrenko’s Beethoven 7 on my iPhone in a crowded pub in South Kensington, having sold my reviewers’ tickets to the resident tout outside the hall in order to be able to be able to pay for something to eat. As for Karajan, I rather preferred Furtwängler’s Bruckner 7 in his performance with the Philharmonia at the Albert Hall on 22 February 1951, even though it was rather oddly played after Weber’s Freischütz Overture in the first half, and before Edwin Fischer’s Emperor Concerto in the second half.

    I missed Celibidache because travel to Berlin was difficult in those days, and of course poor Leo Borchard was shot by mistake before most people had the chance to hear him, but you should have heard Nikisch. Now he really was something!

    Oh, and by the way, I really was at the first of the two BPO concerts, so unlike you I HAVE had a chance to hear Petrenko’s Prokofiev – a superb partnership with the incredible Yuja Wang. This took place after a performance of ‘La Péri’ in which I was amazed at how Petrenko made the orchestra sound thoroughly French.



Leave a Comment