Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Phil offered refreshing, rethought readings of three symphonic works

GermanyGermany Mozart, Berg, and Brahms: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Kirill Petrenko (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 1.11.2023. (MB)

Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra © Frederike van der Straeten

Mozart – Symphony No.29 in A major, KV 201/186a
Berg – Three Orchestral Pieces, Op.6
Brahms – Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98

As his wont, Kirill Petrenko, offered readings of three symphonic works with the Berlin Philharmonic that were in many ways refreshing, certainly rethought, beholden neither to hidebound tradition nor to fashionable novelty. First was Mozart’s A major Symphony, KV201/186a, especially interesting to hear in the light of the orchestra’s all-Mozart concert with Riccardo Minasi the previous week (review here). Last played by the orchestra in 1997 (!) under Daniel Barenboim, it was more than time for it to return to their repertoire. Using a slightly smaller orchestra than Minasi (strings to Petrenko elicited warm, stylish playing and a similar display of the virtues of antiphonal violins, nowhere more so than at the opening of the first movement. He was unafraid to make small adjustments to fine-tune the balance in real time, without falling prey to fussiness. Articulation was excellent. Perhaps Petrenko was more concerned with symmetry here than overall dynamism, but that was to change in an excellent account of the second movement. To begin with, I wondered whether the playing might be too delicate, even Meissen-like, but it was a starting point for development, led as much by the miniscule wind section (just two oboes and two horns) as by the strings. The minuet successfully trod the tightrope of courtliness and one-beat-to-a-bar, Petrenko taking care over individual beats within. A slightly awkward non-transition to the trio, which itself relaxed perhaps a little too much in context, could soon be forgotten. Here and in the finale, Petrenko knew when it was unnecessary to conduct, this movement being very much what Mozart specified: Allegro con spirito, with not a little vigour.

Musicianship at least as fine was to be heard in Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces, Petrenko clearly having thought out both their individual and overall progress, communicating them with clarity and conviction to orchestra and audience. The opening of the first may have sounded more ominous and inchoate in other hands, but this reading had its own logic and roots, as much in German Romanticism – not only Mahler, but at times as early as Mendelssohn – as in Expressionist horror. Moreover, its considerable contrasts left a decided sense of having only just begun; just, one might think, as a Präludium would suggest. The opening of the second was arguably more mysterious, or at least quizzical, with more than a hint of the world of Wozzeck’s Marie, perhaps even an advance flirtation with Lulu. It certainly danced as Wozzeck can and should, amidst a Mahlerian sense of ultimate danger. Was its close too carefully, even clinically calibrated, at the expense of something rawer and deeper? Perhaps, but if so, it was a minor fault in largely the right direction. Balances in this work are extremely difficult both to assess and to communicate, as Pierre Boulez would always aver. The menace of that movement was picked up and developed in the closing Marsch. It was striking how much here sounded like chamber music – and only because it is. Protean yet directed, this account rightly had rhythm emerge from within, as opposed to being somehow externally applied to melodic and (especially) harmonic material. We expect that in Webern and should do equally in Berg, but it is far from always the case. There was something terrible on the horizon, and suddenly, albeit well prepared, it was well-nigh upon us. By the end, we found ourselves unambiguously in the hinterland, arguably the world itself, of Wozzeck. What occasionally I had found lacking earlier had in most cases been withheld as preparation for that transformation.  

Brahms’s Fourth Symphony could hardly be more central to the orchestra’s repertoire. Since it first performed the work in 1886, conducted by Joseph Joachim no less, there have been recordings from Furtwängler, Karajan, Abbado, and Rattle, as well as a good number of guest conductors. Petrenko himself has already performed the symphony with his orchestra, in 2020; it would be unsurprising if a recording were in the offing before long. This reading was again in some ways unexpected, though coherent and justifiable. Brahms marks the first movement Allegro non troppo. To my ears, the ‘non troppo’ modification might have been more present, but one can argue endlessly and fruitlessly about such matters. On its own terms, it worked, and that counts for more. A first movement that began (knowingly?) with a translucency that seemed to recall that in the first movement of the Mozart was in some ways curiously bright, even optimistic, for one of the most purely tragic of all symphonies. It had scope to darken, and to play with many shades in between, much of that fulfilled; yet, without sounding ‘wrong’, that was afar from the abiding impression in a reading that again seemed to owe much to Mendelssohn (more, interestingly, than Robert Schumann). Exhaustion at the end of the development, a familiar device of Mendelssohn, could in this respect be heard in new light, preparing the way for a more turbulent recapitulation and, finally, true, desperate fury in the coda, enhanced considerably by the Berlin strings and that timpani roll (Vincent Vogel).

An uneasy truce was called in the second movement, stentorian opening horn call and softer pizzicato response from the entire string section mediated by woodwind. The reconciliation effected was always fragile, sometimes even fragmenting, yet conceptually and emotionally necessary. The depth of string consolation in the face of attacks upon it was deeply moving, as if the spirit of a single viola had been assumed by that section as a whole, whilst maintaining chamber-like variegation. There was something of the North Sea to the movement as a whole, fuller of colours and prospects the closer one listened, without relinquishing its necessarily forbidding nature. The third movement was ambiguous, as doubtless it should be: at times quite brutal, though never monochrome, always highly energetic. Its brief trio section proved almost extreme in its relaxation by contrast.

The coming of the finale struck a proper note of, if not archaism, then of haunting by the past, at least as far back as Schütz. Bach’s cantatas seemed a constant presence, and perhaps surprisingly, a frighteningly oppressive one. Sébastian Jacot’s flute solo was every bit as desolate as it should be, but nothing was taken for granted. In Petrenko’s hands, this sounded more a sequence of variations (which, of course, it is) than a Furtwängler-like inexorable flow. Moreover, whilst undeniably climactic, it seemed over rather quickly, not so much on account of tempo as relative lightness of touch. It was, then, a somewhat classical finale: not quite the tragic pay-off many of us will have expected, but certainly of a piece with the overall conception.

Mark Berry

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