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Berliner Philharmoniker - Kirill Petrenko
rec. live, 2012-2019, Philharmonie, Berlin
BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER BPHR200351 CD/BD-A [245 mins] Blu-ray [285 mins]

Kirill Petrenko was born in Russia – in Omsk, Siberia, to be precise – in 1972 and emigrated with his family to Austria when he was aged 18. I mention those biographical details because they may be relevant in considering his enthusiasm for the Russian and Austro-German repertoire, both of which are evidenced in this collection of recordings. I think I’m right in saying that he first conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in 2006. Further guest appearances followed in 2009 and 2012; in 2015 he was elected Chief Conductor of the orchestra, in succession to Sir Simon Rattle. It was not until August 2019 that he formally assumed the role, though he made several appearances with the orchestra in between his election and his debut as Chief Conductor. In many ways, this set charts the development of his relationship with the orchestra. It certainly serves to introduce to a wider public a conductor who perhaps didn’t have the highest international profile prior to his arrival in Berlin. In fact, Petrenko has something of a reputation for being more reticent than some of his peers and he has made only a limited number of recordings; so, this opportunity to discover more about the BPO’s new Chief is welcome.

The Blu-ray discs which form part of this package include a documentary film feature, ‘Kirill Petrenko in conversation’. I didn’t watch that until after I’d finished my evaluation. As I watched the performances it had seemed to me that Petrenko visibly settled more and more into his new role with each performance in chronological order. Lo and behold, when I viewed the film he more or less confirmed that. I won’t spoil the film by discussing it in detail. It consists of a series of short conversations with various members of the orchestra. These were filmed in the run-up to the various concerts represented in this set. In the conversations Petrenko comes across as personally modest but determined. Moreover, he has some interesting thoughts about the various pieces. My suggestion would be that the film is worth watching before you see and hear him in action with the orchestra.

I said earlier that Petrenko has made relatively few recordings. However, the Berlin Philharmonic has already released on its own label a couple of recordings conducted by Petrenko: their John Adams Edition, issued in 2018, included a performance of The Wound Dresser (review) given in March 2017 and there’s also been the release as a single disc of a performance of the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony given on the same programme as the Adams. I’ll come back to that performance.

Chronologically, the first performance included here is Rudi Stephan’s Music for Orchestra, given as part of a 2012 concert. In the aforementioned film Petrenko is asked, in 2012, why in his early appearances with the orchestra he brought with him a good deal of less familiar music. With disarming frankness, he admits that “ I still need a little time to come here with a truly popular piece” which the orchestra can “play backwards”. The Stephan is a most interesting piece. It’s fairly short, but this young composer, whose life was so tragically cut short during the Great War, says quite a lot in the piece. Elsewhere I’ve read a description of the music as Bartók meets Berg and that’s not a bad judgement. As is usual with this label’s releases, the documentation is very thorough and I learned that the Berlin Philharmonic first played the work in 1921, eight years after its first performance. I wondered how often they’ve played it since. I learned subsequently that the orchestra has played it eight times in the past, most recently in 1958 under Wolfgang Sawallisch. On this occasion Petrenko leads them in a reading that is taut yet which is by no means insensitive to the more atmospheric, lyrical passages. It was an enterprising choice for one of his early appearances with the orchestra and I’m glad it has been included here.

We move forward to March 2017 for Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ This is not new to the catalogue in the sense that the performance is essentially the same one that was issued as a single CD in 2019, except that the earlier release was edited together from two performances on consecutive days (review). This was Petrenko’s first appearance with the orchestra since being elected their Chief Conductor and he relates in the interview feature what a special occasion it was for him. This is a good opportunity to mention one thing I like about all of Petrenko’s performances in this set: the layout of the strings. He divides the violins left and right, which I always appreciate very much; the cellos are on the left of the firsts and the violas sit between the cellos and the seconds. Sometimes the double basses are placed behind the firsts and cellos – in the Beethoven Ninth, for example – though most of the time they’re in their more conventional place to the conductor’s right.

I commented in detail, and positively, on the performance of the ‘Pathétique’ in my original review. Revisiting the recording now, I’ve heard nothing to change my mind. However, I’ve welcomed the opportunity to see Kirill Petrenko at work in this score. He’s very impressive – as is the orchestra. The sound of the string section is simply glorious, whether they’re demonstrating great finesse or digging deeply to produce tonal weight. Amongst all the stellar contributions from the woodwind choir the clarinet solos of Wenzel Fuchs stand out – the bars immediately before the Allegro vivo in the first movement are simply magical. In the video interview he gave on the day of this particular concert Petrenko has some interesting things to say about managing the silences between symphonic movements. It’s clear that he’s thought about this a lot and we witness a few examples during this series of performances. I hadn’t heard those remarks before I auditioned the ‘Pathétique’ but even so I was struck by the way in which he ‘holds the moment’ after the symphony’s third movement, not allowing any relaxation before he commences the finale. This is a fine performance of the symphony.

For his next visit to the orchestra, in April 2018, Petrenko brought another rarity in the shape of Franz Schmidt’s Fourth Symphony. He says that he fell under the spell of this work the very first time he heard it, as a student in Vienna. As I recall, he programmed this work with the Berlin Philharmonic quite a bit in 2018 and they brought the work to London’s BBC Proms (review). I’m delighted that it’s included in this collection. Formally, the symphony is a most interesting construct. It has four movements, all played without a break. Everything stems from an extended trumpet solo heard right at the start, the instrument unaccompanied. Schmidt returns to that solo right at the end to conclude his symphony with a kind of QED.

I found Petrenko’s interpretation convincing from start to finish. He paces the first movement very intelligently, I think; his speeds allow the musicians to make the most of Schmidt’s high Romantic harmonic language, yet he avoids any risk of the music cloying. The elegiac slow movement begins with a substantial solo for cello (Schmidt’s own instrument); here, it’s eloquently played by Ludwig Quandt. The performance that follows is superb, not least in the Mahlerian funeral march which is built to a shattering climax. The Molto vivace that follows is a Scherzo in all but name. The music is very lively but I must say I’d not really thought of it as playful until I saw and heard Petrenko conduct it; he’s changed my view of the movement. The concluding movement takes us back to the mood and material of the first movement. Petrenko conducts with evident belief. The orchestra first played the symphony in 1943, conducted by Oswald Kabasta, the same conductor who had directed the work’s premiere in 1934. I wondered to myself how often – if at all – it had featured in a Berlin Philharmonic programme since then. The answer is found in the interview feature where we learn that Petrenko’s performance represented only the third appearance of the work in the orchestra’s history.

Later in 2018 Petrenko returned to lead Beethoven Seventh. Here was another example of his care for the intervals between movements; or, rather, in this case lack of intervals, for he took both the second and fourth movements attacca from the previous movement. I found that this worked well, especially in the case of the finale exploding out of the Scherzo. I found a great deal to admire in Petrenko’s performance. The introduction to the first movement is elegant and full of clarity. This leads into a reading of the Vivace that is lithe, the music bounding along like a thoroughbred. The Allegretto needs astute pacing if it’s not to sound like a trudge. I think Petrenko judges the speed expertly. The Scherzo is vivacious and here we see Petrenko visibly revelling in the music – and his orchestra’s delivery of it. The Trio is nicely mobile. The finale is brim-full of drive and brio – at least, that’s how I heard it but, in the interview, filmed before this concert Petrenko has some very interesting things to say about the symphony in the context of the Napoleonic wars; see what you think. The Berlin Philharmonic gives a terrific performance, thoroughly deserving the vociferous applause at the end. When I was in the last stages of compiling this review, I discovered that my Seen and Heard colleague Mark Berry was present for a performance of the symphony at the Salzburg Festival two days later (review).

From March 2019 comes a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Over the years this symphony has become something of a tired old warhorse and it’s a bit of a challenge to make it sound fresh. I think Petrenko is successful in that respect, though it did cross my mind to wonder how often the Berlin orchestra has played the work in recent years; perhaps not very often. It’s evident from watching him conduct that Petrenko relishes the music and in the first movement I was struck by the way in which he brings out the passion but also invests the music with balletic grace on many occasions. The second movement is ushered in by a gorgeous rendition of the famous horn solo by guest principal Johannes Dengler. As the movement progresses all the woodwind principals add lustre to the performance. Petrenko shapes the music with affection; the only question I’d have is to wonder if the first big climax where the ‘Fate’ motif reappears, is perhaps rather too emphatic – the second ‘Fate’ climax is just right, I think. The Waltz is the epitome of elegance. The finale is superb: the Allegro vivo section is full of fire and spirit. I’m not surprised that the performance is greeted so rapturously by the audience. It’s quite a while since I’ve listened to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth and I really enjoyed coming back to it through this fresh and committed performance.

The most recent performance in this set is the Beethoven Ninth which Petrenko conducted at his inaugural concerts as Chief Conductor. It’s a fleet performance, though anything but superficial. Petrenko’s account of the first movement is strong and bracing. He paces the music briskly, though he is not afraid to rein back the tempo to negotiate expressive corners. The orchestra’s superb response is lean and muscular. It’s a very dynamic performance and I enjoyed it, especially as Petrenko maintains an excellent degree of tension throughout.

The performance of the Scherzo is lithe and during it Petrenko’s facial expressions make it very clear that he’s greatly enjoying the performance. The slow movement flows quite swiftly, perhaps a bit too swiftly? Some listeners might wish for a degree more expansiveness, and so might I on another occasion, but here I like the very natural way in which the music unfolds. And, of course, it helps that the playing is glorious. I love the fact that there isn’t a trace of heaviness in the performance and if I had to find one word to describe it, I’d choose graceful. The finale is taken attacca. The cello/bass recitatives are very dramatic initially; they then relax slightly but still make their rhetorical mark: Petrenko integrates the recits very successfully with the recollections of the preceding movements. The famous big tune is almost inaudible at first. Here is another example of the conductor’s fleet approach and I have to say that I would have welcomed just a degree more expansiveness. The soloists are placed behind the orchestra, immediately in front of the chorus. Kwangchul Yuon’s opening summons is delivered imposingly. That sets the tone for first class singling from both the chorus (who sing from memory, and very incisively) and the excellent quartet. Petrenko proves to be one of those conductors who takes the tenor’s martial solo at something of a lick. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with this approach but Benjamin Bruns is equal to the task. In the last few minutes, Petrenko whips up the Presto coda, bringing a striking performance of the Ninth to an exhilarating end. The Berlin audience greets the performance rapturously with a standing ovation: the Petrenko era is well and truly launched. A couple of days later the symphony was repeated at the Salzburg Festival and my Seen and Heard colleague Mark Berry witnessed the performance (review).

Having waited so long – since 2015 – to assume the Berlin podium, Kirill Petrenko would be less than human if he were not disappointed that the 2019/20 season, his first as Chief Conductor, has been blighted by the Covid restrictions, though the Berlin Philharmonic has done its best to get the season back on track with a series of smaller-scale concerts. However, with vaccines now in the offing we must hope that musical life as we knew it will soon be restored; that will mean we’ll see and hear much more of the partnership between the Berlin Philharmonic and its new chief.

When Kirill Petrenko’s election to the Berlin podium was announced I think it would be fair to say that for many people he was something of a surprise choice; I’d include myself in that number. Other more prominent names had been mentioned in connection with the job. I think it’s a very good thing that the orchestra has taken this opportunity to introduce their new Chief Conductor through this boxed set. I’ve come away from it with a very favourable impression. There seems to be nothing flashy about Petrenko’s conducting; on the contrary, he seems to me to be clear about what he wants and he gets his results through thorough preparation and through very clear direction on the podium. One thing that becomes progressively more apparent as one watches these concerts is the extent to which Petrenko visibly enjoys the music. To be sure, he has a serious countenance when necessary – in the finale of the ‘Pathétique’, for example – but he’s quick to recognise wit and joy in the music he conducts and he appears to be very encouraging towards his players. I rather think they enjoy working with him. Certainly, they play magnificently for him in every performance.

As is invariably the case with the orchestra’s own-label releases, the presentation is lavish. I used the Blu-ray videos as my primary source for this reviewing assignment. The pictures and sound are consistently first-rate. My sampling of the CDs satisfied me that anyone listening to the performances via this medium will get excellent results and the Blu-ray audio gives superb results. The documentation is comprehensive.

I think that we can safely say that this release is an auspicious appetiser for the Petrenko era at the Berlin Philharmonic

John Quinn

CD 1
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No 7 in A major, Op 92 (1811-12) [37:41]
rec. 24 August 2018
CD 2
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Symphony No 9 in D minor, Op 125 (1822-24) [61:51]
Marlis Petersen (soprano); Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano); Benjamin Bruns (tenor); Kwangchul Yuon (bass)
Rundfunkchor Berlin
rec. 23 August 2019
CD 3
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No 5 in E minor, Op 64 (1888) [45:11]
rec. 9 March 2019
CD 4
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No 6 in B minor, Op 74 ‘Pathétique’ (1893) [44:02]
rec. 23 March 2017
CD 5
Franz SCHMIDT (1874-1939)
Symphony No 4 in C major (1932-33) [40:52]
rec. 13 April 2018
Rudi STEPHAN (1888-1915)
Music for Orchestra (1912) [15:29]
rec. 21 December 2012
5 CDs +2 Pure Audio Blu-ray discs / Concert Video Blu-ray discs in High Definition including documentary video: ‘Kirill Petrenko in conversation’ [49:00] + Download code for high resolution audio file of the entire album + 7 Day Ticket for Digital Concert Hall

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