Box Set of the Year – The Beginnings of a partnership, as documented by the Berliner Philharmoniker

Artistic Director Kirll Petrenko conducting Berliner Philharmoniker. © Stephan Rabold

When the Berliner Philharmoniker elected Kirill Petrenko as their new Artistic Director to succeed Sir Simon Rattle back in June 2015, the news took great many of us by surprise. Two years had passed since Rattle’s announcement to step down in 2018, and speculations about his successor had obviously been intense.

While the guesswork mostly revolved around a couple of household names, few observers had included the Generalmusidirektor of the Bavarian State Opera in their shortlists. Up until 2015, Petrenko had made his career in opera houses in Vienna (Volksoper, 1997-99), Meiningen (1999-2002), Berlin (Komische Oper, 2002-07) and Munich (2013-20).

With very few recordings in his discography, Petrenko’s astonishing music-making was mostly known to those attending his live performances. In this respect, his career had been less prolific than those of his colleagues more widely endorsed by the international press and public. 

Yet, anyone been to Petrenko performance, as I finally was in May 2016, attending a Bavarian State Opera production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, had certainly noted his unique musicianship.

Petrenko conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time in 2006, in a programme of Bartók and Rachmaninoff. In archives of the orchestra’s online platform, the Digital Concert Hall, the earliest Petrenko performance dates from May 2009, featuring Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 with Lars Vogt and Elgar Symphony No. 2. 

In the fall of 2020, the Berliner Philharmoniker Records released the single most extensive account of the Petrenko performances on disc, so far. With the new five-CD and two-Blu-ray-disc set, the Petrenko discography is substantially extended. Prior to its release, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (1893) and John Adams’s The Wound Dresser (1989) were the only audio recordings by Petrenko and the Berliners available on disc, alongside the 2019 New Year’s Eve Concert video available on EuroArts Blu-ray and DVD. 

Thus the new set provides us, by far, the most extended portrait of Petrenko the Artistic Director. A combination of standard Berliner Philharmoniker repertoire alongside forays into some uncharted territories, the box is compelling glimpse into the past, present and the future of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

The set opens very much close to home, with two Beethoven symphonies. The orchestra made its first complete recording of a Beethoven symphony under Arthur Nikisch over 107 years ago, in November 1913, the orchestra made its first complete. An acoustic recording of Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1804-08), the historic take was most recently published as a part of Deutsche Grammophon’s Berliner Philharmoniker Centenary Edition in 2013.

Ever since Nikisch’s days, the orchestra has kept recording the Beethoven oeuvre with its Chief Conductors. Eight different performances of five Beethoven symphonies conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler are included in the lavish The Radio Recordings 1939-1945 22-SACD box on the orchestra’s house label. 

Between 1961 and 1985, Herbert von Karajan recorded no less than four complete symphony cycles for Deutsche Grammophon, three audio and one video. In the 1980s, another video cycle was recorded, first released on LaserDisc by Sony Classical. 

Heralding the new millennium, Claudio Abbado, in his turn, conducted another studio cycle for DG, released in 2000. Upon the conductor’s request, the studio recordings were subsequently replaced with concurrent live recordings some years later. These live performances were also released on video by EuroArts. 

A fascinating rethink of the symphonies, the Abbado cycles were the first ones based on the Bärenreiter critical edition by Jonathan Del Mar to be committed to disc by the Berliner Philharmoniker. 

Recoded in conjunction with concert performances within one week in October 2015, Sir Simon Rattle’s Beethoven cycle was released in studio audio and live video on the house label, Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings. Delving even deeper into the Del Mar edition, the Rattle-lead performances yielded to a compelling fusion of the orchestra’s unique tradition and the historically informed practice.     

This fine company is now joined by Petrenko’s live recordings of Symphonies Nos. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 (1811-12) and Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (1822-24). Like Abbado and Rattle before him, Petrenko too makes great use of the Del Mar edition in both performances, without downplaying the essential characteristics of the orchestra’s sounding identity.   

Kirill Petrenko and Berliner Philharmoniker 1st Concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto shaking hands after the 2018/2019 season opening concert at the Philharmonie. © Monika Rittershaus

Symphony No. 7, contained on the first disc, comes from the season opening concert on 24 August 2018, a year before Petrenko’s inauguration, originally coupled with two Richard Strauss tone poems. 

A thunderous affair in concert and on disc, the performance never fails to put the listener on the edge of the seat, no matter how many times one has sat down with it. The intensity of the performance, combined with fine-tuned articulation and sensitive phrasing, clads the score in dazzling guise, dusting off any routine or autopilot. 

Yet Petrenko is not writing a statement, but simply making music at the highest level. The freshness of his take is akin to those luminously insightful performances conducted by Herbert Blomstedt, where every bar is brought to life with astonishing vitality, without any self-serving fuss.

Thanks to the well-measured tempi, the music is given time to breathe, without loosing the element of danger, essential to any genuinely Beethovenian performance. The architecture of the first movement unfolds in with apt sonic dramaturgy, buzzing with excitement. 

The allegretto does not linger, but lives to its markings. The echoes of vernacular country-dances are woven into the scherzo and its two trios, and the finale is simply electrifying.

Perhaps more airy than Rattle’s wondrously earthy 2015 account, with its two double bassoons joining the string basses, the 2018 Petrenko performance is more translucent, somewhat akin to Abbado’s quasi-chamber-music reading. However, in terms of phrasing and articulation, Petrenko draws more tactile sonorities from the orchestra, resulting in a performance genuinely original yet thoroughly idiomatic.  

Recorded a year later, Symphony No. 9 was the main piece in Petrenko’s inaugural concert on 23 August 2019, preceded by Alban Berg’s Lulu-Suite (1934). Starting one’s tenure with a piece like Beethoven Ninth might not be a stuff of headlines per se, yet, on closer a look, it is actually quite daring choice.

Having sat through way too many routine roll-outs of the mighty Ninth in one hand, and being perhaps too immersed into the myriad of immaculate recorded performances across the ages in the other, there are far more easier ways to make an impact. 

Yet, once again, Petrenko is not one seeking to make an impact. Instead, he is committed in delivering a musically honest, committed performance. And that is precisely why the music matters so much. 

Having analyzed the performance upon hearing it live at the Philharmonie, I find it plausible to abstain myself from paraphrasing those inadequate praises inscribed back in August 2019. Instead, I’ll limit myself to lauding the heart-whole immediateness of the BPH recording and its spellbinding ambience. 

Once one presses play on either the CD or the Blu-ray rendition of this performance, there is no turning back. Each time, one is complete enthralled by the devoted intensity of the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Rundfunkchor and the four marvellous soli, under Petrenko’s resolute guidance. 

The wondrous performance salutes the sheer boldness and originality of Beethoven’s unprecedented symphonic creation, reminding us what earth-moving powers lie within a musical score. An epiphany, no less, listening to the recording yields to learning the piece anew, with abundant joy.    

Kirll Petrenko’s inaugural concert at the Philharmonie on 23 August 2019. © Stephan Rabold

Unlike the Beethoven oeuvre, when it comes to Tchaikovsky, the symphonies were not at the core of the repertoire with each previous Chief Conductor. Rattle’s only Tchaikovsky recording from Berlin is the EMI-era Nutcracker (1892) recorded in 2009 and now also available in EuroArts video as a part of the New Year’s Eve Concerts boxed set. 

With Abbado, the Berliners recorded some of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral works and concertos for DG and Sony, alongside a 1994 live account of Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888) for the latter. In addition a Salzburg Festival performance of Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 Pathétique (1893), also from 1994, was included in the Grosses Festspielhaus 50th anniversary box set released in 2010. 

Interestingly, the 1970s DG symphony cycle with Karajan still remains as the most extended foray into the Tchaikovsky realm by the orchestra. 

In the Petrenko set, Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 are included. The Pathétique is in fact a re-release of the single-disc set first made available around Petrenko’s inauguration. Recorded on 23 March 2017, the symphony comes from Petrenko’s first concert with the orchestra as their Artistic Director Designate, with a programme featuring Adams’s The Wound Dresser, mentioned above, and Mozart Haffner-Symphony (1782).

The most compelling aspect of the Berliner Philharmoniker and Petrenko Pathétique is the sense of continuity. The first movement, especially, has tendency to appear somewhat episodic, even with some of the composer’s most revered advocates. While the problem may not be wholly solved in terms of performance, Petrenko makes the most of the movement with his well-conceived symphonic dramaturgy.

As a whole, the Pathétique is given a fine performance, one of gripping drama and fine detail. 

Recorded on 9 May 2019, Symphony No. 5 is the second foray into the symphonic realm of Tchaikovsky by Petrenko and the Berliners. Coupled with the Schoenberg Violin Concerto, Op. 36 (1934-36), with Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the Tchaikovsky symphony was given a memorable outing at the Philharmonie.    

The performance is well served on CD and Blu-ray, yielding to another case in point of symphonic theatre at the highest level. Revolving around a recurring idée fixe, the Fifth Symphony constitutes a stirring orchestral drama. Splendidly performed by the orchestra, with Petrenko, the score comes off in vigorously animated manner, awash with sounding chroma.     

On the fifth and final disc, the course is set towards new horizons, with two Berliner Philharmoniker premieres. 

Although Franz Schmidt’s masterpiece, Symphony No. 4 in C Major (1932-33) already appears on a dozen-or-so recordings and Rudi Stephan’s intriguing, one-movement Music for Orchestra (Musik für Orchester, 1912) has also been caught to disc on a couple of occasions over the years, both works have been seriously underrepresented on disc and in the concert hall for decades. 

Written in 1932-33, Schmidt composed his final symphony as a requiem for his daughter. Cast in four movements, performed attacca, the score is rooted in cyclical musical subjects, recurring throughout the score. 

The symphony opens and closes with a tremendous trumpet solo, gorgeously performed by the orchestra’s Principal Gábor Tarkövi. Between the two passages, a forty minute symphony unravels, featuring a solemn slow movement, concealing an Eroica-inspired funeral march and a brilliant scherzo

Both inner movements are based on a single musical subject, first played by a solo cello in the opening section of the ABA adagio. For a contemporary listener, the theme bears an interesting pre-echo of Ramin Djawadi’s Main Title Theme for Game of Thrones (2011). 

As the symphony finds its end in its beginning, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, its musical transformation yields to transfiguration. The performance by Petrenko and the Berliner Philharmoniker, recorded on 13 April 2018, in a programme featuring Paul Dukas’s La Péri (1911) and Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto (1917-21), is one of shattering intensity. 

Perhaps the zenith of the whole set, I cannot remember ever hearing a more gripping and sonically enthralling performance of the Schmidt’s symphony.

Kirill Petrenko taking a bow at the Philharmonie. © Stephan Rabold

Recorded on 21 December 2012, Rudi Stephan’s Music for Orchestra is a fifteen-minute, one movement symphonic essay, clad in the most original guise. Stephan’s highly personal take on the extended orchestral expression of the era bears family resemblance with both the late romantic giants and the emerging Second Viennese School. 

Embraced by the superlative performance, Music for Orchestra is a veritable discovery. Interestingly, the other Stephan work of the same name featured in the original concert programme, alongside works by Stravinsky and Scriabin, did not make it to the disc. Nevertheless, having this brilliant composer, whose life was tragically cut short in the First World War, included in the set is of utmost importance. For this is a composer not to be forgotten, but revived and revered. 

All things considered, in here we have the AIM Awards 2020 Box Set of the Year. Within these audio and video discs, the beginnings of a fascinating partnership is documented with great care. Accompanied by an extensive booklet and beautiful packaging, not forgetting the download code for hi-res audio files, this is a release not to be missed.   

Berliner Philharmoniker

Kirill Petrenko, conductor

Rundfunkchor Berlin

Gijs Leenaars, chorus master

Marlis Petersen, soprano

Elisabeth Kulman, mezzo-soprano

Benjamin Bruns, tenor

Kwangchul Youn, bass 

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 (1811-12)

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (1822-24)

Poytr Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888)

Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 ”Pathétique” (1893)

Franz Schmidt: Symphony No. 4 in C Major (1932-33)

Rudi Stephan: Musik für Orchester (1912) – In einem Satz

Recorded at the Philharmonie Berlin, 2012-2019

Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings BPHR 20035 (2020), 5 CD & 2 Blu-ray

© Jari Kallio

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