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