Two world premieres and a fabulous Francesca di Rimini from Petrenko’s Berlin Philharmonic

GermanyGermany Streich, Wolfe, Tchaikovsky: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Kirill Petrenko (conductor), Philharmonie, Berlin, 11.6.2023. (GT)

Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berlin Philharmonic © Monika Rittershaus

Lisa Streich ISHJÄRTA (Icy Heart)
Julia WolfePretty
TchaikovskyFrancesca di Rimini

In recent seasons, under the Russian-born conductor, Kirill Petrenko, the Berlin Philharmonic constantly extend the borders of performance. Of course, in recent years, Sir Simon Rattle was responsible for engaging with new music and discovering new forms of musical expression and ways to bring people to love music. Yet Petrenko has fundamentally taken the Berlin Philharmonic to a new, higher level of music-making. That he has done this during the aftermath to a worldwide pandemic and with growing tensions in Europe. This concert reflects the nature in which concertgoers in the German capital can approach every concert, as a new adventure, even of repertoire they may have thought was traditional and normal. This concert featured two world premieres by woman composers, and a well-known work by the conductor’s compatriot Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

The first world premiere we heard was by the Swedish composer Lisa Streich (1985) was born in Norra Rada, Sweden. She studied composition and organ in Berlin, Stockholm, Salzburg, Paris, and Cologne with Johannes Schöllhorn, Adriana Hölszky, Mauro Lanza, and Margareta Hürholz. Streich completed her musical education with Chaya Czernowin, Steven Takasugi, Hanspeter Kyburz, and Daniel Roth. She holds a scholarship at the NMH Oslo, where Helmut Lachenmann is her mentor.

According to her website, ‘she likes to work with motorised instruments of her own creation in her music. She is fascinated by the de-subjectification of sound, which for her becomes universal, speaking of and for everyone. She is also interested in the incongruent contrasts that can arise on both visual and auditory levels at the same time. Likewise, she pursues a keen interest in imperfect, well-known chords from recordings which she decidedly takes apart and weaves – sometimes with 40 voices – throughout an orchestral movement.’ ‘Lisa Streich has her own voice,’ says conductor Alan Gilbert. ‘The musicians immediately recognized the quality of her music and found her work special.’

Streich has received commissions from the Lucerne Festival, the Kölner Philharmonie, the Swedish Radio Choir, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, and the Shizuoka Concert Hall. Her music has seen performances from the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Swedish Radio Orchestra, Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, and Malmö Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music with a commission for a Concerto Grosso, Quatuor Diotima, ensemble recherche, the Eric Ericson Kammerchor, Nouvel Ensemble Moderne Montréal, Ensemble Musikfabrik, the Munich Chamber Orchestra.

ISHJÄRTA opened on muted strings with a quietly expressed Baroque-like theme which exploded in the orchestra with vehement crescendos and pointed rhythms. There emerged a rather mesmerising idea as if transporting us to other planets in a very atmospheric passage before a sound of plucking by the double bass players took us to a different idiom against very loud, disturbing sounds on the percussion which alternated with reflective sequences on the woodwind and the mesmeric theme was repeated on the violins and with a reprise of the violent percussive section, the music slowly descended into silence as if all was resolved.

The next world premiere was explained by Julia Wolfe before the concert: ‘The word “pretty” has had a complicated relationship to women. It implies an attractiveness without any rough edges, without strength or power. And it has served as a measure of worth in strange, limited, and destructive ways. It has a less sweet origin from the old English – “cunning, crafty, clever”. As words evolve, it morphed to a much softer sentiment. My Pretty is a raucous celebration – embracing the grit of fiddling, the relentlessness of work rhythms, and inspired by the distortion and reverberation of rock and roll.’

Julia Wolfe’s Pretty was commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic, the Houston Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra and the St Louis Symphony. The piece opened with a rollicking theme in the strings (evoking affinities with folk, rock and jazz) joined by the large percussion group, before a driving urgent idea emerged before being replaced by a simple idea of just two notes played by the whole orchestra. It seems that Wolfe is invoking the restlessness of New York life with its loud and often exhilarating sounds and all of this came to a climax. Suddenly we heard trombone sirens, and the tension was continued by musicians hitting their strings violently and repetitively. The music steadily rose to a culmination with regular hard beats from the percussion, ended suddenly in a loud, noisy climax.

One would expect the music-making to become more conventional with Tchaikovsky’s Francesca di Rimini, however, this was the most astonishing performance of the evening. I have heard this work many times, both on record and in the concert hall, and one remembers the great recordings by Stokowski and Mravinsky, but nothing prepared me for this towering performance. It is quite clear that Petrenko loves Tchaikovsky’s music, most recently he staged several operas in the concert hall, initially, he wanted to perform all the operas, yet this was hindered by the pandemic.

Immediately, Petrenko set a brisk pace emphasising the drama of the work, evincing intense playing with his musicians playing to their maximum ability; the storm developed until a moment of calm arrived in the clarinets inducing the plight of Francesca and her lover Paolo seeking a sanctuary for their love. Petrenko shaped this section with great affection before the playing drove further towards the passionate finale and pre-empting the stormy climax. It was clear how much Petrenko loves this music by the intensity of his direction and getting a response from his musicians; the pleasure of this tremendous performance was evident on the faces of all the players.

This programme of two world premieres by women composers and a standard repertoire piece was both surprising, and rather than the two orchestral premieres on this evening, it was a well-worn classical romantic piece which left the audience with the greater impression.

Gregor Tassie

Leave a Comment