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Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op 74 ‘Pathétique’
Berliner Philharmoniker/Kirill Petrenko
rec. live 22/23 March 2017, Philharmonie, Berlin. DSD

So far in advance are the diaries of performers booked these days that Kirill Petrenko only formally assumes the post of Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in August 2019, though he was elected to the role in 2015. Other commitments permitting, he has been appearing with the orchestra since his election. This release is issued to celebrate his forthcoming tenure though its not actually the first time that Petrenko and the orchestra have appeared on disc together. The orchestra’s John Adams Edition, issued in 2018, included a performance, conducted by Petrenko of The Wound Dresser (review). That performance was captured at concerts given on the same dates as this Tchaikovsky performance so they must have formed part of the same programme, which is an interesting thought. I thought that Adams performance was pretty good and so I was fascinated to hear what the new partnership would sound like in a major symphonic work.

The pair of concerts from which this recording comes was the first appearance by Petrenko with the BPO since his election as their incoming Chief Conductor. The booklet essay focuses on Petrenko’s approach to the symphony and also touches on his well-known reticence when it comes to making recordings. The conductor comments that when he gets the master recording of a concert, he already knows what he wishes he could do differently. He compares a recording to “a magazine that’s already no longer current by the next month”. He adds the interesting observation that he’s “not even tempted to programme this symphony again soon” though it’s clear from remarks elsewhere in the booklet that it’s a work about which he feels strongly. His reluctance to play the symphony again in the foreseeable future stems from his feeling that the 2017 performances were such an exceptional event for him and for the orchestra. He felt the concerts had a documentary significance; hence the commercial release.

Right from the start of the Adagio introduction, I was struck by the very wide dynamic range of the performance, faithfully captured by the engineers. The sound of the double basses is so soft as to be almost imperceptible, and the Introduction as a whole has a dark, funereal air. This proves to be a harbinger for a performance in which dynamic contrast, while not exaggerated, is maximised in order to advance and enhance the musical argument. In the subsequent Allegro non troppo the contributions from strings, woodwind and horns are all expertly dovetailed. When we get to the first big tutti (around 3:40) we realise how far we’ve travelled, in terms of dynamics, from that sepulchral opening. Petrenko makes us wait several seconds for the violins’ yearning melody (4:29) and he gets the players to voice it simply and eloquently. A little later, the woodwind solos are delivered with balletic grace. Immediately before the development begins, the solo clarinet is eloquent and very beautiful: the clarinettist and bass clarinettist achieve really hushed playing right at the end of this passage. The Development itself (8:56) is very urgent and fiery; Petrenko makes the passage very exciting but not in a superficial, playing-to-the-gallery sense. Yevgeny Mravinsky’s unforgettable 1960 DG recording with the Leningrad Philharmonic is, in many respects, the ne plus ultra when it comes to recordings of this work (review). His rendition of this section is simply incendiary but so white-hot is his performance that there’s an argument for it being a version for high days and holidays. In any event, I find Petrenko and his superb orchestra are gripping in their own right. The remainder of the movement is very well done by Petrenko; he makes the music passionate without resorting to any hyperbole.

Pleasingly, there’s a decent gap between the end of the first movement and the start of the Allegro con gracia. The present performance is elegant and suave. The change to the minor (2;26) brings subtle music-making; the performance makes its effect through restraint. The BPO’s playing is superb and once again the dynamic contrasts are expertly observed. The third movement is brilliant and precise, as you’d expect from this ensemble. Dynamics are scrupulously observed and as a result the full-on passages make their proper effect without any forcing.

The opening of the Adagio lamentoso is almost gentle; the music sounds deeply melancholic but not yet tragic and that’s correct, I think. Mravinsky is also quite calm at first but he becomes more ardent at a much earlier stage than Petrenko, whose approach is restrained yet sincerely felt. Petrenko builds the intensity incrementally and the climax, from about 6:00, is very powerful – Mravinsky is shattering at this point. As the orchestra unwinds from the climax Petrenko’s dynamic control lets you hear the hand-stopped horns to an unusual degree; with Mravinsky, so intense is the string texture that one strains to hear the horns. The tragic coda (from 9:58) benefits from the eloquence of the BPO strings – I love the way accents are observed – and the music dies away to nothing. Mercifully, no applause is allowed to intrude.

This is a very impressive performance, superbly played and thoughtfully conducted. It’s an auspicious appetiser for the Petrenko era at the Berlin Philharmonic.

As I’ve found to be the case invariably with recordings from the orchestra’s own label, the sound is immaculate and very truthful. I listened to the performance both as an SACD and as a conventional CD and the results were equally satisfactory in both formats. Purchasers can also access high-resolution audio files to download but I haven’t tried that option. Even with the additional access to high-res audio and a seven-day ticket to the BPO’s Digital Concert hall, this release is not cheap, given that the disc only plays for 44 minutes: the price, if you buy direct from the orchestra, is 19.90 Euros (or 14.90 Euros for a 24-bit download). That said, this is probably one of those occasions where quality comes before quantity.

John Quinn

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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