Arnold Böcklin’s painting, Die Toteninsel, which, when he saw it as a black & white print, inspired Rachmaninov to compose The Isle of the Dead. Max Klinger’s etching-and-aquatint copy was widely popular. Böcklin’s “Basel” version is illustrated.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Berliner Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße, Berlin

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

The New Year over it’s back to business, the Berliner Philharmoniker battling pandemic odds, medical checks, government-imposed restrictions and no audience to bring superior live-streamed music-making to our screens. This was another Digital Concert Hall webcast of demonstration audio-visual production, of a performing standard near impossible to fault. Not free, not downloadable, not on YouTube, but worth every cent of a subscription. Invest in a sizeable ultra-high-resolution gaming monitor, top-notch video and sound cards plus amplifier, converters and speakers – and the experience is something else.

Forging new angles and tradition in Berlin, Kirill Petrenko’s way with Russian repertory is fusion distinctive. He speaks of intense nostalgia, homesickness even, for his early years growing up as a Ukrainian Jew in Soviet Siberian Omsk, far from Moscow. Emotionally he can blaze with Russia’s best, past and present. Broadly though his structural and sound values, his analytical and musicological sensibilities, are Western rooted. Here’s a man who didn’t study with the Moscow/Leningrad old guard but rather with the Slovenian Uroš Lajovic in Vienna (a Maderna/Swarowsky disciple), Myung-Whun Chung, Leitner and Bychkov, along with Edward Downes and Péter Eötvös, guiding him subsequently. Elements of their style and priorities underline what he does – architectural landscaping, harmonic intensification, orchestral detailing, precision balancing, rhythmic attack, an overall expansiveness of tempo. Beautiful phrasing matters to him, even more so the time he allows his players to achieve that. He wears his heart on his sleeve yet rarely extravagantly. Russian branding, gratuitous showmanship, doesn’t come into his reckoning.

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet (the familiar 1880 third version) and Francesca da Rimini (1876), with Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead (1908) in between, made for a dark ‘death’ programme inspired by literature and painting. Not for the first time Petrenko’s pre-concert chat showed the depth of his seriousness and enquiry. He prepares the scores in his head, he researches their background and origins, he ponders their place philosophically. What he learns he passes on freely, orchestra and listener sharing in the quietly measured enthusiasm of his discoveries. The focus this time was less his (originally pianistic) adoration of Rachmaninov than what he had to say about Francesca da Rimini. Firstly the composer’s descriptive programme note, absent from the published edition. Secondly, the impact of Gustave Doré’s 1857 illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy, images with which Tchaikovsky was familiar.

Debussy through Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky through Rachmaninov. A Romeo and Juliet more thespian than cinematic – arguably over-prepared in its ‘romance’, but familiar, boldly gestured, weighty, disciplined, a long ascending farewell palled in throbbing kettledrum B. An Isle of the Dead – Arnold Böcklin’s symbolist “dream” painting, the 1883 version, on screen – full of black eddies, menacing climax and fateful Dies irae hauntings, the primeval 5/8 material emerging like a hypnotically endless funeral march. A Francesca da Rimini of pulverising power and solo/corporate virtuosity, Petrenko at his most animated and choreographically communicative, by the end, gazing heavenwards, reaching paroxysms of passion, along with the Philharmoniker at one within the music, consumed by towering walls of infernal sound.