The Berlin Philharmonic came to this year’s Festival for a two-concert set with its enigmatic new chief conductor, Kirill Petrenko, whom I have now heard for the first time. I may have to wait until tomorrow’s concert to give a full verdict.
Tonight’s concert contained standard repertory, so in theory I should be able to make a judgement, but I left scratching my head. Two tone poems by Richard Strauss graced the first half of the concert, Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung. Beethoven‘s Seventh came after the break.
I suppose it was time for this orchestra to move on from Simon Rattle – people shouldn’t stay too long in one place, and I’ve found this orchestra has often sounded too clinical (most recently in the Musikverein in June). Judging by his appearances with his new orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, here at the Festival last week, I’d say it’s been good for both sides after a happy few years together just to have a change of scenery. With Petrenko, the orchestra certainly did not sound clinical – he took the exact playing and elicited just a little more emotion and nuance, with a conducting style equal parts animated and precise.
The problem was that his interpretations did not necessarily succeed. Strauss wrote these two tone poems months apart using the same compositional language, but they are telling very different stories. While Petrenko coaxed gorgeous tone paintings out of the orchestra in amazing colors, I actually heard very little differentiation between the poem desrcibing of the erotic life and exploits of Don Juan and the poem describing the death of an artist. Petrenko rarely conducts concerts (which is what made his selection by the Berliners an odd choice), but has spent almost all of his career as an opera conductor, so he understands drama and coaxed it from the orchestra – still, it was peculiar not to hear much of a difference between these two works.
His interpretation of Beethoven’s Seventh flopped. Petrenko did it with a much-reduced orchestra, perhaps to highlight chamber music aspects (the musicians could certainly make a big sound when they needed to, to contrast the quiet – indeed delicate – moments Petrenko emphasized). He also did it at breakneck speed. The slow movement was only slow by comparison, and it was breathless. I was amazed the musicians could even keep up without any glaring errors in the final movement. It may indeed have been that fact that prompted a standing ovation – truly a remarkable bit of playing that had everyone on the edge of our seats wondering if the orchestra could survive this craziness. But on the other hand, it didn’t make any sense, so I think the ovation was unwarranted (and indeed it dissipated – the ovation was rather short, which might affirm for me that it was more a spontaneous reaction to the fact that the orchestra survived the out-of-control ride still very much in control, rather than a measure of the overall performance value).
Tomorrow night sees three works that are not in the standard repertory, all from the Twentieth Century. It may help me complete the picture.