Outstanding Berg from Kirill Petrenko in Salzburg

AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival [11] – Berg and Beethoven: Marlis Petersen (soprano), Elisabeth Kulman (contralto), Benjamin Bruns (tenor), Kwangchul Youn (bass), Berlin Radio Chorus (chorus director: Gijs Leenaars), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Kirill Petrenko (conductor), Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 25.8.2019. (MB)

Kirill Petrenko and the BPO (c) Salzburger Festspiele/Marco Borrelli

Berg – Lulu-Suite

Beethoven – Symphony No.9 in D minor Op.125

Leave aside recorded comparisons, at least for now. If I have heard a better Berg Lulu-Suite in the concert hall, then I have momentarily forgotten it, which seems unlikely. The first time I heard Kirill Petrenko was in 2006, at Covent Garden, conducting a Schoenberg-Bartók double-bill (Erwartung and Bluebeard’s Castle). He greatly impressed me then; he impressed me just as greatly in Berg here. Beethoven, as in last year’s Seventh Symphony, again with the Berlin Philharmonic, was considerably more mixed – at least for me, though the Salzburg audience once again reacted with great enthusiasm, indeed a standing ovation.

Petrenko’s emphasis on line, or rather on lines, was what struck me most of all in the first movement of the Berg. Thinking of his Berlin predecessors, I imagined both Herbert von Karajan and Claudio Abbado, in their very different ways, appreciating this (not that others would not have done). Its flow seemed ideal, but so too did its translucency. There was less to the bass line than I imagine in my head, but this is surely a work, surely a composer, in which one performance can give only a taste of the possibilities inherent. Workings were certainly clear, without pedantry. Not that it was anti-Romantic, or un-Romantic: how could it be? It was loved, clearly, without being smothered. In the ‘Hymne’ section, serial processes seemed to become all the clearer, vertical and horizontal more equal. Had this been a deliberate strategy, to help the audience orient its ears? Who knows? I suspect it helped, anyway.

The second movement offered contrast that was riotous yet related, with an unmistakeable, highly welcome, whiff of Weimar to it. If the first movement seemed to have edged closer to Boulez as time had gone on, this went closer still, making me wonder whether Petrenko would continue the orchestra’s tradition in Boulez’s own music, whether from the composer himself or Simon Rattle. Let us hope so. Wonderful liminal passages as phantasmagorical as anything in Strauss prepared the way for Marlis Petersen’s entrance. Petersen’s uncommonly verbal approach – with no discernible loss, at least to me, of accuracy of coloratura – enabled a shift in balance and thus character for the ‘Lied der Lulu’. A slinky fourth movement seemed especially to relish the tonal implications of Berg’s music, whilst remaining very much in the line of what had preceded. An evocative musical wasteland duly moved for the final movement’s opening: third-act Parsifal in Whitechapel? Yet as the wasteland become more overtly urban, I speculated as to Petrenko’s Varèse as much as his Weill. How Berg’s phrases were turned, moreover: with meaning, never mannerism. Mahler (at last?) came to mind, the Mahler of the Tenth Symphony, in that chord and its aftermath. The music – music ‘itself’ – stopped with a wondrous, Wozzeck-like chill.

D minor was always a special key for the Second Viennese School. It was hardly less special for Beethoven, nor indeed for Mozart before him. I should love to hear a brazenly modernistic Ninth, but have yet to hear one; even Michael Gielen, so refreshing, so inspiring, in the other Beethoven symphonies seemed to lose his way here. It is surely not impossible, however much we may theorise and fantasise about a certain Romantic resistance. If truth be told, almost no one seems able to bring it off; the only living conductor I have heard do so is Daniel Barenboim, though Bernard Haitink has also come close. There was much of interest in what we heard from Petrenko, but it was doubtless asking too much, too soon.

It was striking how non-mysterious the opening of the first movement sounded, though it was not without defiance: materialism rather than metaphysics, then? Perhaps, there was certainly plenty of Berlin precision. It was very different from how I imagine the music, but that is no bad thing: I was intrigued enough to want to hear more. (Just as well, at that point!) At its best, this perhaps came closest to Abbado’s ‘designer Beethoven’; it has its admirers, I know, though his Vienna Beethoven from earlier decades has always seemed to me more convincing. I tried, and, as I said, found much to admire, but ultimately Beethoven, still less the Ninth, without meaning – and that may ‘mean’ all matter of things, verbal, musical, or otherwise – does not seem to me really to be Beethoven at all. Much was skated over, however great the clarity and rhythmic definition. The coda was magnificent, but where had it come from? It was as if an unexpected ocean-liner had sailed in.

The scherzo, however, was much more like it: clear, driven (not too hard, and transparent. Conductor and strings alike relished Beethoven’s antiphonal play, here refreshingly ludic. The problem was more coming after a first movement such as that; again, where had it come from, and where was it going? The trio, alas, veered dangerously close to the glib; a little relaxation, and a great deal more stress on harmony, would have been of benefit. Likewise, of course far more so, in the slow movement. It opened with genuine, almost Schubertian sadness, but its depths went resolutely unplumbed. Sometimes cheerful, even amiable, often pretty and sometimes beautiful, it again felt quite bereft of meaning. If Beethoven trying to be Mendelssohn and not really getting there is your thing, you would probably have liked it more than I did.

The finale, taken attacca, opened with fury, Beethoven’s ensuing cello and bass recitative marked by a depth of tone previously missing, even if wind sounded at times merely petulant. Ghosts of earlier movements were vividly apparent; indeed, they often seemed more ‘real’ than the ‘real thing’ had been. Petrenko’s basic tempo for the main theme was very much on the swift side, but such is his prerogative; if only he had not driven it so hard, however beautiful the playing of the BPO. Again, harmony seemed weirdly minimised; thank goodness it had not been in the Berg. Kwangchul Youn set the scene for other soloists and indeed the chorus, in eminently musicianly singing that yet rarely ventured – the excellent Benjamin Bruns a striking exception – beyond the precise and pleasant. Taken in isolation, a good part of what we heard might have moved in a different, more consequent performance; here it beguiled yet ultimately baffled. A jubilant close delighted many. Where had it come from, though, and what did it mean?

Mark Berry

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