KIRILL PETRENKO and the Berlin Philharmonic

Kirill Petrenko is back with the Berlin Philharmonic, for his last visit before taking up the baton as chief conductor. His choice of programs was hotly debated in the past few years. First it was standard repertoire (Haffner-Symphony, Pathetique), then it was the rarest of rarities (Dukas’ La Peri and Schmidt #4), then standard repertoire again (Beethoven #7Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration) and now a mixture of both: Schönberg’s Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth.

Adorno once said: “With Schönberg, the comfy music stops.” Patricia Kopakchinskaja only agrees with that up to a point. She finds the temperamental, dreamy side of Schoenberg’s music, much more interesting. The sound of her violin is remarkably pliant, and the glissandi are hurtling over the strings with the speed and movement of speed skaters.

But Kopakchinskaja doesn’t just play, she communicates. She looks into the orchestra, she looks at Petrenko and counts with the orchestra during her rests. Petrenko happily takes up that approach, looking at the score, into the orchestra and concentrating on getting a structure and flow dissonant blocks of sound. Petrenko often yields to Kopakchinskaja’s rhythmic vision of the piece, her vibrato, her discovery of temperament in Schoenberg’s difficult twelve-tone structure. It’s an interpretation full of temperament and listening to each other.

Now, the main event: Tchaikowsky’s fifth. Petrenko’s interpretation of the Pathetique was already damn good, this interpretation of the fifth unfolds (I would argue) into an even more moving musical picture. The concert leaves me breathless and deeply touched, something one rarely feels to this degree after a concert. The collaboration between this conductor and this orchestra is simply more than one can put into words. And, even though we should be wary about too high expectations at the beginning of a relationship that is set to endure for a decade at least. And still, Petrenko and the Berlin Phil make music with such abandon, that they simply pulverise everything that was used to put music into words. You really don’t want to say anything.

Nonetheless, here are a few thoughts: In the great crescendo in the middle of the second movement, where the timpani rips up the brass section for a gigantic climax, the orchestra shows what it has learnt in 16 years under Rattle: If the demand is made, this orchestra corners on a dime. And Petrenko demands just that. With a vengeance, the orchestra rips into silence, a wave of silence breaks in the Philharmonie. A wave of silence, not a wave of sound. Audibly, the public exhales, after holding their breath for the length of the remarkable climax. A deeply touched Petrenko wipes his eyes. He loves playing with silence in the music.

But Petrenko’s brilliance lies in the combination of emotional abandonment and rigorous perfectionism in his music-making. Petrenko’s brand of control binds the listener. The coda at the end of the first movement ends in a matter-of-fact, strictly moderate tempo with the exact calls of the trumpet and the e-minor triads in the basses as a perfectly choreographed procession. Petrenko finds the common denominator in the Berlin Philharmonic through his feeling for rhythm: He builds on the immediate communication of music genius.

Petrenko doesn’t just work with orchestras. He works orchestras. He works through them, until they are completely bent on giving him his brand of perfectionism. And for Petrenko it is a pure joy working the Berlin Phil. Here, he can knead and delve deeper than with probably any other orchestra. He brings clarity and transparency to the orchestra’s sound, that enable the listener to hear all instrument groups separately in the various fortissimi-chords throughout the piece (culminations second movement, finale third movement, just before coda in fourth movement. His sense of dynamic layering is perhaps more refined than in any other living conductor.

But I am also impressed by Petrenko’s phrasing. Sure, Petrenko is known for his remarkable control over orchestras. But his phrasing sounds free, even playful to me. Petrenko values dialogue between the instruments, how a phrase can transition perfectly between clarinet and bassoon, with that little tempo variation or echo fitting in just so naturally. Same goes for accents, accelerandi and sostenuti. This is especially noticeable in the waltz, the third movement. God knows what’s going to happen if Petrenko ever conducts a New Year’s Concert. Petrenko’s waltz entertains at the highest level, without ever letting you forget that this art is deadly serious. Petrenko and the Phil celebrate music as a detail-based science of dialogue.

The fourth movement is an emotional culmination, a mount Vesuvius breaking out under our feet. Guns blazing, Petrenko attacks the destiny-motif. He accords a special role to the timpani throughout the piece, to accentuate some short arcs of musical suspense that you don’t know from previous recordings or even from studying the score. Petrenko composed some short pieces for piano during his studying years. He knows how to excite the senses and takes this talent to the extreme tonight.

Back to working with silence. Petrenko continues this in the final movement as well. He allows for an unconventionally long pause at the beginning of the coda, perhaps to tempt some unexperienced listeners into applauding before the symphony is over. Then he unleashes a wall of sound that binds the Phil into one, where 90 musicians give themselves to the vision of the small man at the rostrum. The final three e-minor chords mark the final majestic paces taken by Petrenko and the Phil to reclaim the throne of classical music.

It is the culmination, it is supermusic. This term might get closest to what we are witnessing tonight. Music excluding words, because it is set so close to the emotional centre. As demonstrated to tonight, music is a deeply human art. Petrenko is visibly shaken and exhausted during the final applause. And the Berlin Phil, which usually leaves after the third time rising, stays one more time, to share the stage with their designated chief conductor. The orchestra, its conductor and 2500 people in the Philharmonie bask in the afterglow of supermusic.   Yannik Eisenaecher    15th March 2019

Yannik Eisenaecher is the publisher of the blog FreshEarsClassics