Business as Usual
If the season opening concert of the Berlin
Philharmonic has traditionally marked the end of summer and the beginning of
the new season in Berlin, the concerts of the past few years have been coloured
by varying degrees of pandemic-related uncertainty: between reduced capacity,
mask policies and pre-concert tests, recent seasons have opened with a sense of
living in extraordinary times. This year, however, felt curiously normal. There
was no one scanning vaccine passports at the door, most of the audience had
(alas) dispensed with their masks, and when the orchestra took the stage they
were greeted with applause from a conspicuously full house. For the first time
in three years, it felt like business as usual.
The evening’s programme consisted of a single work, Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, the same piece chosen by Sir Simon Rattle for the opening concert of his final season with the orchestra in 2016. Like Sir Simon – and Claudio Abbado before him – Kirill Petrenko has shown an affinity for Mahler during his tenure as the orchestra’s chief conductor; yet Mr Petrenko’s performance on this evening highlighted the extreme gulf between his own approach and those of his predecessors. While neither Mr Abbado nor Sir Simon could be accused of emotive excess in their readings, Mr Petrenko seemed determined to strip the symphony of whatever romantic lustre it may have accumulated in the course of the twentieth century.
The first movement featured many of what are now identifiable as the hallmarks of Mr Petrenko’s style: exacting precision, fiercely buoyant rhythms, and a taut orchestral sound. The woodwinds and brass remained to the fore throughout the evening – often to the point of dominating the strings in louder passages – while the sound of the massed strings was lean and wiry; the orchestra, as a whole, had a brightness that, in its finest moments, could be bracingly immediate, but at other times seemed harsh and antiseptic, indifferent to the niceties of balance and definition, and suspicious of anything resembling opulence.
The opening section, taken at a moderate pace, had a halting rhythm that sounded almost hesitant, but in the Allegro risoluto – the ‘ma non troppo’ was disregarded – Mr Petrenko seemed fully in his element, driving the orchestra at a gallop while retaining absolute command of every detail. It was impressive in its own way, but when the movement arrived at its calm central interlude, with its hushed strings and elegant flourishes of flutes and harps, the confidence of the performance gave way to a kind of nervousness. It is perhaps too easy – and, for many conductors, far too tempting – to overstate the beauty of Mahler’s pastoral moments, but Mr Petrenko seemed to err too far in the opposite direction, unwilling to dwell any longer than necessary in such romantic frivolity. One could almost sense the relief when the Allegro resumed and the movement could be pressed forward at a more vigorous pace.
If the excitement of the first movement mostly outweighed its moments of uncertainty, the two Nachtmusik movements were more problematic. In Nachtmusik I, Mr Petrenko clearly took some delight in Mahler’s illustrative effects, and each one was duly underlined, but there was little attempt to integrate them into a prevailing mood. Mr Petrenko’s unwillingness to linger on the sensuous details – or even stop for breath – gave many passages an unusually cursory feel. Mahler may have conceived the movement as a leisurely hike through the Dolomites but the performance felt more like driving through the Brenner Pass in a Mercedes: one could still appreciate the majesty of the mountains, but the smell of alpine flowers and the distant herds of cattle with their clattering bells passed by in a fleeting blur. The defiantly un-nocturnal Nachtmusik II made few concessions to the movement’s programmatic aspects and elevated the guitar and mandolin – more often treated as subtle additions to the texture – to a place of prominence that made them sound curiously out of place.
The third and fifth movements were more successful if only because they played more directly to Mr Petrenko’s interpretive strengths. Despite a few moments in the third where the brass was allowed to overpower the strings (to the detriment of melodic line), the heavy stomp of the Scherzo and the intricate woodwind details of the Trio moved with lively gait and clockwork precision. The fifth was even more exciting with its mildly chaotic opening bars giving way to sudden clarity in time for the bold first statement of the recurring brass figure. As in previous movements there was little room for excess, and some of the most dramatic moments – notably the sudden explosion of bells leading into the final section – seemed distinctly underplayed. But the exuberance and intensity of the performance created its own kind of involuntary excitement – the thrill of velocity paired with exactitude – and the audience responded to the symphony’s breathless conclusion with undeniable enthusiasm.
Mahler’s symphonies have come to enjoy
increasing prominence in the past half-century and the fact that Berlin
audiences will, in the next month alone, have the opportunity to hear as many
as five different symphonies is evidence of their continued appeal. With
Mahler’s place in the canon relatively secure there is less need for advocacy
on the part of modern conductors, but a great performance still needs to be
able to locate and communicate the universal emotions within Mahler’s sometimes-unwieldy
canvasses. While it was difficult, as usual, to find fault with Mr Petrenko’s
reading – it featured plenty of thrills and few technical flaws – one came away
from the evening with a sense that it had provided only a partial view of the symphony’s
elusive charm; it moved from peak to stirring peak with little regard for the
graceful serenity of the valleys in between.