Screenshot from broadcast (Beethoven)

Friday, January 27, 2023

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

Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, Opus 31 – first heard in December 1928 with this orchestra conducted by Furtwängler, with a later-generation Philharmoniker making a superlative recording for DG with Karajan – is an ingenious masterwork, formidably complex, yes, but when made lucid, such as here,, and here,, it stands very tall in terms of musical achievement and listener appeal.

The present-day Berliners and their chief conductor confirmed Opus 31 as a feast of related commentary, a through-line of diversity leading to a resounding completion that leaves no doubt as to the music’s fulfilling structure. Details sparkled and involved a few particulars new to me (I first heard this work during the 1970s from Zubin Mehta’s LA Phil/Decca recording, an LP borrowed from the local library, and suffice to say that Petrenko sculptured a revealing performance notable for clarity and expression, scrupulous in preparation and execution, the latter returned with intense and emotional address.

Starting the evening was another set of Variations, Brahms’s on a Theme of Haydn, investigation long-ago determining the source as the non-attributable ‘St Anthony Chorale’, given an unassuming reading – well-upholstered string sound without obscuring wind lines; curvaceous phrasing within mostly traditional tempos, save for Variation VII, cossetted enough to drag, whereas the final section had buoyancy and direction.

Beethoven’s compact Eighth Symphony doesn’t often end a concert – it’s most likely to be an aperitif rather than the cheeseboard – although it wasn’t that long ago that the BP did similarly, From Kirill Petrenko the first movement was a playful mix of determination and affectionate lyricism, vividly sounded, not least from timpani, and the very end was the wittier for having nothing done to it. The metronomic second movement chuckled along, Petrenko looking at his watch beforehand – got a laugh – and the retrograde Minuet swung into action, the Trio distinguished by horns (Stefan Dohr and a colleague), clarinet (Wenzel Fuchs) and the cello of Bruno Delepelaire. As driven by Petrenko, the Finale was akin to a journey in the fast lane in a luxury limousine.