Saturday, March 20, 2021; deferred relay Sunday, April 4, on (link below) and Digital Concert Hall

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

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

This concert was given on March 20 – piloting an audience of a thousand, antigen-tested and masked, medical staff on hand. People, after a year in isolation, clearly as relieved to get into the hall and live music-making as the orchestra were to have their presence and applause.

Under Kirill Petrenko, never a musician to cut corners, the level of playing was supremely cultured, the orchestra in regal, intimate, narrational form, the highest embodiment of living art. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet was about love, battle, prayer, death, expanses of fantasy soaring liberally yet contained and sonorously transparent. Not a trace of fat on the bone. Bardic storytelling.

With several stand-out performances of Rachmaninov’s E-minor Symphony impressed on recent memory – Paavo Järvi and his Tokyo orchestra in London, February 2020, Nelsons at the Concertgebouw last August, a 2016 Moscow video with Alexander Sladkovsky and the Russian National Orchestra – it was good to be reminded of Petrenko’s panoramic landscape. This is the work with which he made his Philharmoniker debut in 2006. He gave us the complete canvas, first-movement repeat included. Sixty minutes. Strong on detail (pointed articulation especially). The sharpest of marcato fugato attacks in the Scherzo. A wonderous sense of refrain and response. Sweeping emotional peaks. Transient pictorial imagery – the whispered tremolando violins/violas leading into the first movement’s first subject, like so many birds rising suddenly above the forest floor before settling back among the branches. In Petrenko’s hands this music is a showcase because of what it is, not because of intrusive interventionist action. Those cyclopean tidal surges, inexorably driving events onwards, swelling, receding, flooding all before – that’s what Rachmaninov wrote, that’s what Petrenko releases. Simple to say, enveloping to experience. The amour and climaxes, the sweetly delirious aftermaths, the silences of the slow movement – so often over-cooked – transported us into a smoky world of fantastical dream. Somewhere between night and dawn. Was that really how it was, or was it just in our imagination? The rapier rhythms and canter of the Finale, old memories surfacing, balanced theatre with architecture, the structuralist in Petrenko watching and commanding all fronts, the body language demonstrative without excess. Magnificent.

Emmanuel Pahud, principal flute, and Daniel Stabrawa, one of the orchestra’s three first-concertmasters, contributed a sagacious interview beforehand. Brought up in communist Kraków on Oistrakh, Kogan and “a diet of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov”, Stabrawa, now in his mid-sixties, joined the Philharmoniker towards the end of Karajan’s reign. Having worked through the Abbado and Rattle years, Petrenko, he suggests, reminds him how the Russian school ought best be managed. “In Berlin it used to be said about [Tchaikovsky’s] music that you smell it but couldn’t feel it. If you play it the wrong way, too bombastically, too sentimentally, and with your heart on your sleeve, then that’s how it sounds and the music seems to be bad. [Petrenko aims for] exactly how it should be played: distance and yet an incredible amount of emotion. Every note is important – as with Mozart. One takes trouble over the sound and the entries. Precisely what Karajan wanted: the origins of music, the feelings in music. And, most importantly for me, beauty of tone.”

“The Russian language is very important in this music. Russian is a bit like Italian [in containing] linguistic melodies that are passed on. The best way to describe the artistic Russian soul is by referring to the country’s vastness. It’s a limitless land. It stretches from before Moscow to Japan. If you’re far away from everything, you yearn for something that’s unattainable. In those days there were no roads on which to travel round the country. But people knew that the country was vast, the winters long. They needed to be patient, very patient. This arguably gave rise to a mentality that’s completely different from that of Western European countries. Rachmaninov used the same progressions [as Tchaikovsky], the same motivic writing with endless repetitions, this seeking without finding, this tendency to lapse into nostalgia and despair before getting up again and fighting. To survive among the peasants of the Finale you had to get drunk.”

Pahud: “A composer’s musical language is always dependent on his mother tongue. [In different languages] ideas [and grammar] are arranged along completely different lines. Where do I stand as a person? Am I onlooker or an active participant? In Slavonic languages even names are declined. Each time they occur, it’s in a different form, with a different suffix. You also find this in music in the way that phrases develop.”

Stabrawa: “Every motif always sounds almost the same but it means something different because it ends differently – it’s like a conjugation. In Polish, for example, there are seven cases. If you keep changing the inflections, you alter the relationship between the word and the person. Language has a great influence on the way musical phrases are built up. You can hear this with Rachmaninov: the same thing keeps recurring. Then suddenly it changes. Sometimes it goes up, sometimes down. Something new is added. This ‘seeking’ [element] … You can express it with a single word, with tiny changes at the end of it.”

A Petrenko rehearsal is rarely about the mechanicals of performance. It’s a discursive, ensemble-like learning curve, a super-masterclass. Pahud: “He brings out the details in the flow, the tempo, the pulse and allows us to hear how the voices complement one another.” Stabrawa: “We try to lend extra depth to each phrase … discussing and analysing every note and motif in rehearsal. How does it fit, how it is related to the emotional component in the music. Constantly repeating and seeking …” Searching for the grail. “If you combine all the interpretations from the last one hundred years, you’ve taken one small step towards the truth.”