From the outer fringes of the repertoire
Since its foundation in 2014, most of the releases on the Berlin Philharmonic’s in-house record label have focussed on well-defined bodies of work, often symphony cycles. The few releases that have deviated from this approach have been devoted either to special occasions – Claudio Abbado’s final appearance with the orchestra, or Sir Simon Rattle’s last concert as chief conductor – or, in the case of the monumental Furtwängler wartime radio broadcasts box, are invaluable labours of historic preservation. Their newest release is thus something of a departure, focussing not on a particular composer or event, but on their new chief conductor Kirill Petrenko.
The box, which features five CDs of audio as well as video performances of the same works on two Blu-Ray discs, is described in the liner notes by Mr Petrenko himself as a ‘musical snapshot’ of his first years with the Berlin Philharmonic; yet it comes across as more of a grab-bag, an elegantly packaged miscellany of symphonic works unconnected by any sort of conceptual thread. The works represented are two symphonies by Beethoven (the Seventh and Ninth), two by Tchaikovsky (the Fifth and Sixth), Franz Schmidt’s criminally underrated Fourth, and, the outlier, Rudi Stephan’s Music for Orchestra, a fifteen minute work with symphonic aspirations; while the performances range from curious (Beethoven’s Ninth) to excellent (Tchaikovsky’s Sixth), as a musical snapshot it offers a curiously narrow view of Mr Petrenko’s tenure thus far.
Mr Petrenko was named as the new chief conductor in early summer of 2015 but, apart from an appearance at Musikfest leading the Bayerischer Staatsorchester, he remained conspicuously absent from Berlin until March of 2017 when he led the Philharmonic in a programme of symphonies by Mozart and Tchaikovsky, followed a year later by an intriguingly eclectic concert with works by Liadov, Prokofiev and Schmidt. Although his post was not scheduled to begin until 2019, he conducted the opening concert of the 2018 season – featuring two tone-poems by Strauss and Beethoven’s Seventh – and returned later in the season for a wonderful concert (with Patricia Kopatchinskaja) that nonetheless made few attempts to draw a connection between Schönberg’s Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. From the very beginning Mr Petrenko has generally favoured the fringes of the late-romantic and early twentieth-century repertoire over the grand classics of the nineteenth century, a trend which is set to continue into the coming season.
Even allowing for the possibility that Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings are saving the Berg, Schönberg and Webern pieces for a future ‘Kirill Petrenko plays the Second Viennese School’ box set (which, one hopes, will happen), and taking into account the vagaries of releasing recordings featuring soloists signed to other labels, the box still comes across as a lopsided portrait of Mr Petrenko’s first years in Berlin. In sticking to the big symphonies – albeit peppered with two rarities – the set captures only some of his strengths as an interpreter and constructor of stimulating programmes.
Although the otherwise excellent booklet is uncharacteristically vague regarding the exact recording dates, it seems probable that the two Beethoven performances are drawn from Mr Petrenko’s first two season-opening concerts. On both of these evenings Mr Petrenko revealed an approach to Beethoven that seemed a marked departure from any of his immediate predecessors. The sound was concentrated, the rhythms tightly coiled, and the pacing of the faster movements only one step down from frantic; the fact that every detail remained sharply etched and almost nothing was lost in the most driven passages was impressive, but the experience of being in the concert hall and hearing the music played so briskly, and with so little of the usual affection, left one slightly on edge.
The performances work somewhat better on the home stereo than they did in the concert hall. The Seventh, perhaps the more successful of the two, maintains a remarkably high level of energy from beginning to end. The Ninth is more likely to polarise listeners. Certainly the monumental style of Beethoven conducting popular during the twentieth century has fallen steadily out of fashion as a new generation of conductors have opted for a leaner (some would argue more ‘authentic’) sound and more vigorous tempi, and those who prefer their Beethoven taken at a sprint will find much to like here. Mr Petrenko gets through the symphony in a mere sixty-two minutes, but the rush yields few moments of true exhilaration. The first two movements, although less exhausting than they were in the concert hall, offer only fleeting glimpses of the symphony’s internal drama, and leave us primarily in awe of the virtuosity of the orchestra. Oddly it is the slow movement that benefits most from the driven pace, and once one is attuned to Mr Petrenko’s approach, there is something undeniably compelling about the way in which the various episodes of the finale come together. But it is not a Ninth for all tastes.
The Tchaikovsky symphonies are an entirely different matter. In both recordings, Mr Petrenko seems on a mission to dispel the century and a half of saccharine sentimentality that has accumulated around these works while retaining the core of dramatic excitement and emotional accessibility that has them kept them among the front rank of popular classics. The propulsive drive of the Fifth’s outer movements never comes at the expensive of orchestral grandeur; indeed the climactic moments sparkle all the more for rarely being indulged. Yet Mr Petrenko refuses to overheat the second movement, shaping its elegant phrases with a dignity that remains intact even in its most intense passages.
The Sixth – which was released initially as a single disc about a year after the concert – is an even more impressive achievement, avoiding the pitfalls of opulent pathos while retaining a heightened investment in the drama. The simmering agitation that opens the first movement gives way to an understated introduction of the second theme, which Mr Petrenko makes no attempts to oversculpt. The stormy central section is where the performance hits its stride, fashioning one of the bleakest passages in Tchaikovsky into a captivatingly epic struggle. The easy sway of the second movement is unfailingly genial and only the most dour listener could fail to take some delight in the vigorous pomp of the third, but it is in the final movement where Mr Petrenko works hardest to counter expectations. If he is not entirely able to excise all melodrama from the mournful string outbursts, his ability to layer the sections of the orchestra into nearly static blocks of sound takes the movement in an unexpectedly Sibelian direction, bringing the symphony to a conclusion more mystic than tragic.
The inclusion of Franz Schmidt’s Fourth Symphony alongside the vastly more well-known symphonies of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky is perhaps the most intriguing part of this collection. Schmidt’s final symphony was first performed in 1933 and it seems at times to exist in a parallel world in which the late-romanticism of Bruckner, post-Wunderhorn Mahler and Pelleas und Melisande-era Schönberg had been allowed to mature untouched by the machine-age rhythms, jazzy textures or advanced harmonic developments that shaped so much early twentieth century music. He may not have been as lofty, visionary or forward-thinking as any of those composers, but in his Fourth symphony – a response to the sudden death of his daughter – he created a forlorn, harrowing masterpiece.
After decades of cautious reappraisal, the appearance in 2020 of not one but two high-profile recordings – the other is part of a complete symphony cycle by Paavo Järvi on Deutsche Grammophon – suggests that Schmidt’s final symphony may at last be making in-roads within the standard repertoire. Mr Petrenko’s reading is considerably more driven than Zubin Mehta’s classic Decca recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, and inevitably less explosive in its most anguished moments; yet if Mr Petrenko’s unwillingness to linger downplays the climax of the central funeral march in the second movement, the brisk pace distils an impressive sense of structural drama. The organic expansion of the opening movement from lone trumpet to full orchestra, and the levels of animation in the Scherzo are perhaps the most obviously captivating aspects of this recording, but it is Mr Petrenko’s unfussy elucidation of the themes and episodes that may well draw new listeners into the world of this oft-neglected symphony.
The set concludes with it’s least-known work, Rudi Stephan’s Music for Orchestra from 1912. Although Stephan did not live long enough to make his mark as a composer – he was killed during the First World War at the age of 28 – Mr Petrenko devotes as much care and attention to this fifteen minute symphonic movement as he does to the more well-established symphonies, and in doing so reveals a work of fascinating ideas and carefully wrought late-romantic orchestration. It is, along with the Schmidt, the most fascinating part of the set and one which will, perhaps merit the most repeated listening. Certainly one can never tire of Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky casts an undeniable spell over listeners and concert-goers, but it is Mr Petrenko’s willingness to champion lesser known works from the outer fringes of the repertoire that may yet come to define his partnership with the Berlin Philharmonic.