Outstanding music-making as Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic open their season

GermanyGermany Reger and R. Strauss: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Kirill Petrenko (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 25.8.2023. (MB)

Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berlin Philharmonic © Monika Rittershaus

Reger – Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart, Op.132
R. Strauss – Ein Heldenleben, Op.40

It had been a while. The last time I had heard the Berlin Philharmonic had been on 5 March 2020, just four days before public performances ceased in that great, monstrous silence. Now I was here for the orchestra’s season-opening concert of Max Reger and Richard Strauss under music director, Kirill Petrenko. Absence may have had the heart grow fonder, but this was outstanding music-making by any standards.

What a joy to open with Reger’s Mozart Variations, a masterpiece, yet one I had not hitherto had the opportunity to hear live. They do not come around that often: Furtwängler gave the Berlin Philharmonic premiere in 1934, 21 years after its first performance in Wiebsbaden, conducted by the composer, and the BPO had not played it since 1995, under Horst Stein. (If you think Hindemith terminally unfashionable, turn to Reger. Schoenberg, though, knew his worth, unhesitatingly calling him a genius.) Petrenko and the Berliners brought us a properly backward glance from the early twentieth century, a Mozart both more delicate and, somehow, more robust than we should hear now, Reger increasingly present – as through the set as a whole – in, for instance, his octave doublings and, crucially, our listening. The first variation brought clucking worthy of Haydn, Reger’s voice becoming ever more evident in toy-shop enchantment. The second and third variations sounded almost as if homages to Brahms; in a way, they are. Vertical and horizontal expansion inevitably brought Schoenberg to mind, but also (for me) Elgar too. Reger could do with a champion or two such as Elgar has; maybe he has found one in Petrenko. The third, however, also took a step back to earlier Romanticism, breathing the air of a Schumannesque forest. Why all the references to other composers, you may ask, and it is a reasonable question. Perhaps because Reger, especially when much of his music remains relatively unfamiliar, seems to invite them, but I should stress that he never merely sounds ‘like’ someone else.

The fifth variation’s scherzo-like quality similarly brought Busoni to mind, whereas the deliciously sly modulations of the sixth reminded us of Reger’s acknowledged mastery in this field. One might think his book on the subject overly theoretical, but it served a point, here painted in vivid colour. A heartfelt slow movement followed, Wagner not a million miles away, nor Elgar, but always Reger ‘himself’. Petrenko seemed always to alight on just the right tempo, giving the illusion of permitting the music to play itself. And the BPO’s playing was unfailingly gorgeous. The sly ingenuity of the fugue was brought home with clarity and warmth; detail was scrupulously yet never pedantically observed. Harmony was at least as much king as counterpoint, which returns us to Mozart…

Richard Strauss too owed much to Mozart, though not so much in Ein Heldenleben as in many other works. The tone-poem’s initial portrayal of the hero inaugurated a season-long theme of ‘Heroes’. It had everything going for it – depth of tone, the playing of those eight horns, the finest articulation, balances spot on – other than some of the swagger Karajan might have brought to it. Perhaps that slightly vulgar bombast, a necessary tone in the palette of an anything-but-vulgar composer, does not come so readily to Petrenko. This, however, was my sole, fleeting reservation and hardly a major one. Strauss’s critical adversaries were faster on their feet than usual, perhaps making their hot air all the more ephemeral. It made for a powerful contrast, highly dramatic, with the well-nigh Wagnerian gloom of string response. Concertmaster Vineta Sareika-Völkner’s solo playing in evocation of the hero’s companion was of equal excellence, her storytelling as vital as that of her orchestral colleagues. In musical congress of distinction, both sides enabled us to learn more of the other, as doubtless they themselves did too.

True symphonic coherence, lightly worn, was readily apparent in the transition to ‘Des Helden Walstatt’, and indeed in other transitions. Here was a battle royal, its heat initially erotic, yet turning frankly military, the jangle of the battlefield approaching cacophony at times. (So perhaps Petrenko can do ‘vulgar’ after all, particularly when prepared. The opening’s out-of-the-blue, cards-on-the-table stance is extraordinarily difficult to bring off; either that, or difficult to prevent overshadowing everything else.) The final two sections functioned not only as crucial staging posts in narrative and form, but also as a conspectus of Strauss’s art, recapitulating works yet to be written as well as those that had. Don Juan met Die Frau ohne Schatten in a second development actually to rival Beethoven by never tackling him head on, rather than by merely aspiring to do so in the key of the Eroica. And yet, Petrenko and the orchestra never mistook this tone poem for a symphony, still less a mere collection of scenes. Strauss may employ symphonic means, but never exclusively so. Ein Heldenleben is a treacherous work, full of traps for even the most experienced conductors and orchestras. Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic did it and themselves proud.

Mark Berry

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