The week in classical: Berlin Philharmonic/ Petrenko review – thrillingly eruptive

Brandenburg Gate; Philharmonie, Berlin
The city turned out in force to welcome the self-effacing Kirill Petrenko to the world’s top conducting job

From the illuminated columns of the Brandenburg Gate to the darkening trees of the Tiergarten, as far as the eye could see, an estimated 35,000 people turned out to welcome the Berlin Philharmonic’s new chief conductor, Kirill Petrenko. A free, open-air performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No 9, on a hot August night last weekend, watched by another 300,000 live on TV, was for most Berliners a first chance to greet the Russian-born Austrian in this hallowed role. Petrenko was elected to succeed Simon Rattle in 2015. Cogs move slowly in orchestral life. Now, finally, he has arrived, the seventh person to hold the post in the orchestra’s 137-year existence.

A few in the crowd were still chanting in anticipation when Petrenko, 47, darted on stage, lithe and compact, and raised his baton to unleash the spectral, falling fifths that ignite Beethoven’s last symphony. More than an hour later, after the final movement’s explosive hymn of joy, Schiller’s An die Freude, this most attentive of audiences was on its feet as one, anointing Petrenko with cheers. He grinned in response, hand on heart, his gratitude clear.

This was the Berlin Philharmonic’s first concert at the Brandenburg Gate. History was made and reawakened. The orchestra has a long association with Beethoven’s Ninth, notably in the era of Petrenko’s famous predecessors Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, or more recently, Claudio Abbado and Rattle. The Ninth’s wider resonance, its tangled saga of appropriation, is still alive. Germany’s two states used it to different political ends during the cold war. Leonard Bernstein conducted it, as a gesture of humanity and unity, weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall – the 30th anniversary of which is fast approaching. The Ode to Joy is the EU’s official anthem, as no Brexit MEP needs reminding. In addition, 2020 marks 250 years since Beethoven’s birth. For Petrenko it was both an obvious, and a potent, choice.

New chief conductor Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in front of the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, 24 August 2019.
New chief conductor Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in front of the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, 24 August 2019. Photograph: Omer Messinger/EPA

If his intention, to borrow a none too elegant term from the orchestra’s website, was to “de-ideologise” this masterpiece, he triumphed. The work was the centrepiece of his official inaugural concert the previous evening, at the orchestra’s nearby home, the Philharmonie. Without big screens and loudspeakers (effective though they were), this was the place to encounter these world-class players at their sonic and expressive best. So many of them have parallel careers of their own – principal flute Emmanuel Pahud, oboist Albrecht Mayer, horn player Stefan Dohr – that it’s no exaggeration to call it an orchestra of soloists or, more importantly, of chamber musicians.

Before the Beethoven they performed Berg’s Lulu suite (1934), with soprano Marlis Petersen as the coloratura soloist. Sumptuous and murky, requiring large forces, Berg’s glittering symmetries demand almost the opposite skills required for the Beethoven. Petrenko, whose attention to detail is formidable, used the edition of the Ninth by the British scholar Jonathan Del Mar, now a standard version drawing on 20 or so sources. You’d guess Petrenko had studied them all.

Revolution and invention, risk, clarity and control, surged through every bar. Speeds were brisk and pliant, never extreme. Strings used vibrato warmly but sparely. Articulation throughout was crisp, always on the edge of danger. At times, in its wildness and freedom, its irony or silence, Beethoven’s 1824 score sounded tantalisingly close to chaos. The Rundfunkchor Berlin was resolute and strong, the soloists – together with Petersen, Elisabeth Kulman, Benjamin Bruns and Kwangchul Youn – accurate and characterful.

The world beyond Berlin may barely have noticed that Petrenko has already worked in the city, as music director of the Komische Oper (2002-07). Since 2013 he has been the acclaimed music director at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich (his tenure there ends next year). He’s a regular Wagner conductor at the Bayreuth festival, less well known as a symphonic conductor. A questing spirit, Petrenko is likely to dig deep into German and Russian Romantic repertoire, while not neglecting the new. If the biography is well recorded, little is known of the man. He shuns interviews. His eyes smile but his face is hard to read. His conducting style is at once contained and thrillingly eruptive. Rigorous in pursuit of his art, Petrenko would rather work than talk.

Maybe he will be freed from that obligation, the blight of many star musicians’ lives, especially conductors. Luckily Rattle, as gifted a communicator as they come, helped usher the Berlin Philharmonic into the modern age. The orchestra’s pioneering Digital Concert Hall, the more open attitude to repertoire, the outreach programmes vital for a city as diverse and fast-changing as Berlin – all are down to Rattle. Last week, Deutsche Bank extended its 25-year support for a further five years until 2025. Petrenko’s task is to keep that singular Berlin sound honed and alive. His natural introversion may be unusual in his line of work, vanity being a more common problem. Yet it’s hardly an abnormality. Let him do his job. The Berlin Philharmonic elected him after only three concerts together. It was enough. On the exciting evidence so far, their choice was spot on.

Watch a trailer for Kirill Petrenko’s inaugural concert with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Philharmonie.


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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