Saturday, June 13, 2020

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

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

In these darkened auditorium, physically distanced lockdown days, the Berliner Philharmoniker, along with everyone else, has had to dispense with what would have been a large-scale season. In the process, though, they’ve discovered an interestingly exploratory side to principal conductor Kirill Petrenko, prospecting both chamber repertory and unexpected byways of the symphonic – for instance the outing he gave Erwin Stein’s 1921 arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth in the orchestra’s European Concert at the beginning of May. Score before him, no baton, wearing a permanent (not always helpful) smile, whatever the musical or dramatic context, he’s a director who likes to prepare analytically, each detail, staccato and slur weighted, placed and mattering. Commendable though this might be, the outcome can be variable. More than a few times I’ve had cause to wonder if he’s not perhaps too careful in his approach, too calculating, too hands-on? From him I get take-offs and landings but flight or fire only rarely. Taking a few chances wouldn’t hurt.

In both Mozart’s B-flat Serenade for thirteen instruments and Dvořák’s E-major String Serenade – neither work conventionally laid out, the one in seven movements, the other in five – he dwelt on invention and imagination, lingering long, controlling phrases precisely, playing liberally with and within pulse and tempo. There were lovely things, paragraphs of lyricism delicately sentimentalised and cadenced, moments of corporate magic. Yet, all said and done, it was like looking at jewels in a glass case, untouchable and remote. I wanted the players less reined-in, left free to express their own artistry and individuality. The Adagio of the Mozart – that sublimity Peter Shaffer in Amadeus had Salieri think was “the very voice of God” – was all about reserve and finesse, concentrating on entombed harmonic depth and glow, the solo voices muted and distant, low speech before high song, the “voice of God” coming, if at all, from behind velvet curtains. The closing rondo, at around minim=70, bordered on an uneasy scamper. In such a piece a class ensemble of the first-rank, impeccably schooled and disciplined, doesn’t need a conductor; they’ll know exactly what to do.

Slavonic niceties in the Dvořák were not particularly for the finding, even if passing cameos were. The fourth movement picked up; the fifth, too little too late, found tension and theatre, the recall of the opening Moderato floating past like a beautiful flashback independent of bar-lines. Daniel Stabrawa, veteran that he is, led his musicians in customary style, a machined battalion in formal dress politely respectful towards Petrenko but not that giving in body language. This final concert of the Berlin season wasn’t earthbound – but love, happiness, the joy of top-drawer communal music-making, wasn’t as apparent as it might have been.