This weekend, Kirill Petrenko appeared on the podium of the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time as their chief conductor. A long-awaited event, which exceeded all expectations with hoisted colours.
Elected by the orchestra in 2015, Petrenko’s full-on start in Berlin had to wait until his previous commitments, mainly at the Bayerische Staatsoper, were fulfilled. In the meantime, his annual visits to conduct his future orchestra whetted the appetite for the Petrenko era.
In the contemporary music world, Petrenko stands apart from the prototype of a media-savvy maestro. He is not a man for interviews or social media. His focus is on live performance, which has resulted in an unusually sparse discography, undoubtably to expand soon, along with his new job.
Anyone who has experienced a Petrenko performance, knows that he has this special combination of carefully rehearsed details and spontaneous spirit. As for myself, his Meistersinger in Munich in 2016 will be ever etched in memory.
In Berlin, the Petrenko era was launched with two events, the inaugural concert at the Philharmonie on Friday, followed by a free open-air concert by the Brandenburg Gate on Saturday,
For the inauguration concert, Petrenko and the orchestra had come up with an exquisite programme, rooted in the very essentials of both parties.
On the first half, Symphonic Pieces from the Opera ”Lulu” (1934) by Alban Berg was heard. As suggested by its matter-of-factly title, the five-movement suite was conceived as a concert introduction for Berg’s second opera, begun in 1927, and sadly unfinished upon the composer’s untimely death in 1935.
The idea for the suite was initiated by Berg’s publisher, Universal Edition, in order to provide the audiences a glimpse of the forthcoming opera.
In 2015, Petrenko conducted an acclaimed production of Lulu (in Friedrich Cerha’s completed edition) at the Bayerische Staatsoper, with Marlis Petersen in the title role. Berliner Philharmoniker artist in residence for the 19/20 season, Petersen made a brief return to the role with the performance of the suite on Friday.
Far more than a simple sequence of pieces, Lulu-Suite, as it was originally called, is, in fact, a symphonic entity of its own. Based on musical material from acts II and III, the thirty-minute suite is cast in five movements, resulting in a symmetrical overall form.
The outer movements Rondo – Hymne and Adagio are the most extended, whereas the second and fourth movements serve as elaborate interludes. The centerpiece is Lulu’s Song, a dead-honest self-portrait for the title character, originally written for Anton Webern’s fiftieth birthday in 1933.
The second movement, Ostinato, is a riveting musical palindrome. In the opera, the music serves a score for a film interlude. The fourth movement is a series of variations, with each variation pealing off musical layers, resulting in a fascinating dramatic effect.
The fourth and fifth movements of the Suite are the only excerpts form the third act with completed orchestration in Berg’s hand. The Adagio contains an ad-lib vocal line, one omitted from Friday’s performance.
Vibraphone and solo saxophone cast a special sonic aura for Lulu, clad in exquisite orchestral guise by Berg. With ever transforming instrumental combinations and a multitude of string divisi, the score of Lulu is a feast of orchestration and detail.
With Petrenko, Lulu-Suite was given a dazzling performance by the orchestra. Perfectly architectured and paced, the symphonic form was immaculately realized, with admirable attention to dramatic detail and characterization.
Impeccably balanced, the contrapuntal textures were clad in marvellous transparency without compromising the dramatic impact. Petersen’s reading of Lulu’s Song was profoundly compelling, with Petrenko and the orchestra providing their full support.
Following the interval, Beethoven Ninth Symphony was heard. An archetypal Berliner Philharmoniker piece, with its hard-won celebration of peace and brotherhood, timeless ideals echoing profound historical reverberations in Berlin, of all places.
Composed in 1817-24, with earliest sketches dating way back to 1812, the Ninth heralded a new era in music. Within the context of a symphony, Beethoven conceived a work of unprecedented expressive proportions. Alongside the first-ever inclusion of vocal and choral parts in a symphony, the first three movements, purely instrumental, themselves break new territory of symphonic thinking with their unforeseen struggles and inner tensions.
Like Abbado and Rattle before him, Petrenko performs his Beethoven from Jonathan Del Mar’s urtext edition (Bärenreiter, 1996), a towering achievement in terms of musical archaeology and detective work.
The opening movement was an unparalleled journey, with Petrenko and the orchestra engaged deep in its symphonic drama, resulting in a shattering rendition of Beethoven’s score. With ever mounting tension, the vast arc of the first movement was brilliantly paced, heading steadfast to its inevitable conclusion.
With the last echoes of the opening still hanging in the air, the orchestra and Petrenko launched into the scherzo. Of its demonic powers, nothing was held back, and the music was unleashed in its full menace. Ever immaculately articulated, the scherzo was a spellbinding thriller.
In the adagio, one could simply marvel those unique sonorities, provided by the outstanding musicians of the Berliner Philharmoniker. A splendid canvas of instrumental detail was unraveled, to a stunning effect.
Concluding the symphony, the choral finale was given a performance of a lifetime. Following the most compelling realization of the instrumental introduction, with references to the first three movements beautifully paced, the first entry of the An die Freude subject was nothing short of magic.
The game-changing Schillerian vocal and choral parts were a true force of nature, full of spontaneous energy, yet undoubtably carefully planned and rehearsed by Petrenko and his musicians. The Rundfunkchor, well-coached by Gijs Leenaars, sang with admirable clarity and transparency throughout their vast expressive scale.
The four soli, Marlis Petersen, Elisabeth Kulman, Benjamin Bruns and Kwangchul Youn, were an ideal ensemble. Their soaring vocal lines were woven together with finesse, delicately balanced with the choral and instrumental parts.
With a thunderous performance of presto conclusion, the symphony was brought to its cathartic ending with a burst of pure, unhindered joy, clad in riveting sound.
A Ninth to remember, one could hardly imagine a more inspiring start for a new era with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Greeted with a thunderous ovation by the rejuvenated audience of the sold-out Philharmonie, Petrenko received the most warm-hearted welcome imaginable.
With their new chief, the orchestra is engaged in a new phase of their journey, one with joyous discovery and rediscovery.
Kirill Petrenko, conductor
Gijs Leenaars, chorus master
Marlis Petersen, soprano
Elisabeth Kulman, mezzo-soprano
Benjamin Bruns, tenor
Kwangchul Youn, bass
Alban Berg: Symphonic Pieces from the Opera Lulu (1934)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony no. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (1817-24)
Friday 23 August, 7 pm
© Jari Kallio
Photos © Stephan Rabold