Saturday, September 3, 2022

Royal Albert Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, David Gutman

Originally scheduled to conduct two programmes at the Proms and elsewhere (the programme booklet was still erroneously promising an evening of Schnittke and Shostakovich to follow), tonight’s conductor had decided that only Mahler’s Seventh would be possible with a broken toe. The bill of fare never looked generous. When Ingo Metzmacher and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin brought the work to the Proms in 2010 it was contextualised with Schreker and Korngold – and Kirill Petrenko gets through the Seventh faster than most (around seventy-three minutes this time – only Hermann Scherchen drove faster). It is, moreover, the only Mahler Symphony he has conducted in Britain before, at the Barbican in June 2018 (with the Bayerisches Staatsorchester).

On that occasion, rather shockingly given his local scarcity, the Hall was not absolutely full. Tonight we had a capacity crowd in the mood for standing ovations. I was reminded momentarily of Günter Wand who insisted on piloting serial accounts of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony (at the Proms in 1985, 1992 and 1995) whatever the planners imagined he was going to conduct! Which is not to say that those performances are not fondly remembered. The same is likely to be true of this hyper-brilliant, at times curiously disconnected display. The antiphonal violins, effective in the slithery Scherzo, contributed to a basic sonority lighter and less string-saturated than that associated with the Berliners under Karajan. No doubt that sound is long gone. There was no sense of playing on auto-pilot with this conductor, certainly nothing remotely bland. Every detail sparkled, diamond-bright.

Whether Petrenko penetrates to the heart of this music in the way he does with other fin-de-siècle and expressionist masterpieces I’m less certain. Possibly he thinks it doesn’t have one. Rhythmic exactitude at high speed seemed the primary goal of the Finale while the inner movements, exquisitely turned from the quirkiest re-voicing to the subtlest pianissimo, allowed remarkably little in the way of rubato. The very opening of the Symphony was ideal – dark-hued, measured, arresting, even emotive. As at the Barbican, the subtlety and detail of the first movement’s Alpine interlude was suitably breathtaking even if, once past this moonlit episode, Petrenko propelled the argument in a rather generalised manner. The pacing of much of the Finale was extreme, not impossible for these fabulous players yet difficult for the listener, this listener anyway.

With Mahler’s manic mood-shifts so confidently negotiated, there was a tendency to move on before stylistic gambits could register, the older sense of Wagnerian carnival lost somewhere in the recesses of the big barn. The accelerated collage may have worked better on Radio 3 but there was little solemnity or grace in the mix. Brightly-lit inner movements stunned in a manner very much of our own time. Petrenko made a point of encouraging a truly convulsive snap-pizzicato from cellos and basses towards the end of the syntactically refreshed central Scherzo. He also deep-cleansed the ‘Nachtmusik’ movements of much of their wistfulness and charm. So was this a cartoon or cardboard cut-out rather than the living, breathing, thing itself?

In terms of extravagantly gestural podium theatrics Petrenko has much in common with Leonard Bernstein – even the foot injury couldn’t deter him – but there is a profound difference in style. The younger conductor sets greater store by tautness and colour than the intangibles of affection and nuance. So long as you can take an interpretation intent on projecting the fractured, ‘modern’ aspect of the invention, the Seventh has probably never been ‘better’ played.  And with the diffident Petrenko, flashiness goes only so far. Unlike, say, Claudio Abbado, he does not dispense with the printed score. The reception was rightly enthusiastic from an audience on its best behaviour for the most part. There were pauses between movements – even the Finale didn’t break in with its customary abruptness. The cyan lighting scheme did not distract unduly though a clutch of late-arriving tourists admitted after the end of the first movement continued to flaunt mobile phones.