Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic usher in 2024 with some memorable Wagner

GermanyGermany Wagner, Berliner Phiharmoniker Silvesterkonzert: Vida Miknevičiūtė (soprano), Jonas Kaufmann (tenor), Tobias Kehrer (bass), Berliner Philharmoniker / Kirill Petrenko (conductor). Directed by Hannah Dorn and livestreamed on the Digital Concert Hall from the Philharmonie Berlin, 31.12.2023, and now archived. (JPr)

Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra © Monica Rittershaus

Wagner – Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg: Overture and The Venusberg (Vienna version); Die Walküre Act I (concert performance); Encore: Lohengrin Prelude to Act III

In Vienna at the turn of the year they gave sparkling – and uplifting – performances of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus (review here): whilst in Berlin musical matters were rather more downbeat and the Berlin Philharmonic gave three all-Wagner performances, featuring the first act of Die Walküre.

To open the concert we heard the Vienna version of the Overture from Tannhäuser. I was surprised how heavily the Pilgrims seemed to be trudging along at the beginning. However things improved – for me – with the abrupt change of tempo when the music becomes more Mendelssohnian. The Pilgrims have now passed into the distance, and we have entered the realm of the Venusberg with its sirens, naiads and nymphs. It was now a glorious musical cacophony which reached the orgiastic heights of the Bacchanale which threatened to get out of control; though under the smiley Kirill Petrenko and his elegant balletic gestures on the podium, it never did. It goes without saying the playing by the Berlin Philharmonic was virtuosic and it ended in beautifully controlled, shimmering, post-coital (?) repose.

As expected, the Berliners whipped up quite a storm for the start of Die Walküre Act I under a now-stern looking Petrenko who has considerable experience of Wagner in the opera house. As the two timpanists thundered away the impact of Siegmund’s flight – we hear him running for his life in the music – was dissipated by having Jonas Kaufmann already onstage. I have not always been the biggest admirer of Kaufmann and am pleased to report that minor criticism is my only adverse comment of his performance on this occasion. Of course, I was only hearing him through loudspeakers but – perhaps due to his recent recovery from his much-publicised (vocal) health issues – I thought I experienced his Siegmund more in the tenor register than I have heard before. Kaufmann’s singing seemed much less baritonal and with little resorting to a crooning head voice which – for me – he has overused in the past. He was dramatically engaged throughout, and his highlights were the stentorian cries of ‘Wälse! Wälse!’, an intense and beautifully phrased ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond’ and the excitement he brought to the end of the act as he claimed both a bride and a sister, as well as the sword, Nothung.

Vida Miknevičiūtė (Sieglinde) and Jonas Kaufmann (Siegmund) © Monica Rittershaus

Vida Miknevičiūtė was recently described by my colleague Mark Berry as very much ‘a soprano of the moment’ and her New Year’s Eve Sieglinde only appeared to confirm this. Where appropriate she brought bitterness, anguish, urgency, ardour and elation to ‘Der Männer Sippe’ and ‘Du bist der Lenz’. She is a compelling singing-actor and along with Kaufmann and Tobias Kehrer’s Hunding there was not only vocal acting but also sufficient physical acting from the trio on the platform to bring the drama alive. The emoting Kehrer – who was replacing Georg Zeppenfeld – was a vehement, wild-eyed, menacing and black-toned Hunding who dominated the few minutes he was involved. The hatred he expressed for Siegmund’s ‘wild race’ was visceral and chilling.

While I prefer my Wagner staged this was a truly memorable performance. Petrenko wished the audience and those watching a Happy New Year – with the hope that it might be a more peaceful one – before a brief encore. This was a brilliantly jubilant Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin which was perfect in miniature and more evidence of how exceptional the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra are. There were many significant solo moments from its musicians during the concert including concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, cellist Bruno Delepelaire and clarinettist Wenzel Fuchs, amongst others.

Jim Pritchard

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