Planning the Future

The Berliner Philharmoniker under Kirill Petrenko

24 August 2019: Beethoven’s Ninth with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Kirill Petrenko in front of the Brandenburg Gate
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

For the Berliner Philharmoniker and their chief conductor, the opening concert of the season is always a stocktaking as well. The programming of their collaboration thus far is taken into consideration and future emphases emerge. It is the same this year, when Kirill Petrenko conducts works by Brahms and Schoenberg – repertoire that is incorporated into a variety of projects and plans.

Exactly one year ago Kirill Petrenko opened his first season as chief conductor and artistic director of the Berliner Philharmoniker with a proverbial bang – Beethoven’s Ninth, the most famous symphony of all, first in the Philharmonie and the next day outdoors in front of the Brandenburg Gate. “The Ninth Symphony has everything that is wonderful and threatening about human beings,” the conductor writes in the introduction to the forthcoming CD edition. “If one wanted to convey a realistic portrait of mankind to distant worlds, one would have to send them this work: it contains both demonic and combative elements as well as profound love; it includes man’s humanistic and destructive nature in its extremes. It was absolutely clear to me that I could not begin my time as artistic director of the Berliner Philharmoniker with anything other than this work.”

Historically conscious composers

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as the core of Classical and Romantic repertoire, as the legendary chief conductors Hans von Bülow, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan would also have cultivated it, will “continue to be an essential part of our work”, Kirill Petrenko said when he announced the programme for his inaugural season: the foundation on which everything is based and from which inquisitive excursions will be made into the world of music. During this announcement he mentioned Johannes Brahms and Felix Mendelssohn in the same breath. In this respect, the opening of this season is a logical continuation of what has already begun. The Ninth was paired with the Symphonic Pieces from Alban Berg’s Lulu last year; in the opening concert of the 2020/21 season Brahms’s Fourth is preceded by an early work by Berg’s teacher Arnold Schoenberg. And while there are many connections between Berg and Beethoven, Schoenberg’s music builds directly on Brahms and links his reflective understanding of form with Wagner’s leitmotiv technique.

Both composers in today’s concert saw their works in a larger musico-historical context. Brahms revered Johann Sebastian Bach; he could play the Well-Tempered Clavier from memory and impatiently awaited each new volume of Bach’s complete works. He approached Beethoven with immense respect and strongly supported the publication of unknown works by Franz Schubert. Schoenberg also thought in terms of such epoch-spanning continuities, not least in his hope that, with the invention of the twelve-tone technique, he had ensured that German music would be “predominant for the next 100 years”.

Mendelssohn is also part of this line of historically conscious composers, as one can see from his (re)discovery of Bach’s St Matthew Passion and his own oratorios, inspired by Baroque examples. His First Symphony is on the concert calendar of the Berliner Philharmoniker and their chief conductor in early September. Composed when he was 15, it is a true stroke of genius in which the models of Mozart and Beethoven are apparent, yet the sound is pure Mendelssohn.

But these works are not only combined programmatically for historical reasons. They go beyond mere notes; they express more than formal models and harmony, unfolding on the threshold between music and language. Beethoven and Berg composed symphonic music which incorporated a sung text, and Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night was inspired by a poem; only Brahms dispensed with a semantic level.

Music and human beings in times of upheaval

The 2019/20 season first had to be broken off due to the corona pandemic, then took a very different path than anticipated. Many of the thematic accents planned by Kirill Petrenko had already been realized. In addition to performances of Classical and Romantic works of the German-Austrian musical tradition mentioned earlier, music by unjustly neglected composers such as Josef Suk was also presented. Other focuses included Russian music, the symphonic works of Gustav Mahler and modernist music, condensed into one programme combining works from the same decade by composers of three generations. Also memorable were the project for young artists featuring Puccini’s Suor Angelica and the New Year’s Eve concert with songs and dances by Gershwin, Bernstein and others.

But then came the cancellation in March. Among the many programmes that were important to the musicians but now could not take place as planned, it was especially painful to have to sacrifice Kirill Petrenko’s first opera production with the Berliner Philharmoniker: Beethoven’s Fidelio, which was to be presented on the stage at the Easter Festival in Baden-Baden and in a concert performance at the Philharmonie Berlin. This opera is about moral courage, protest against injustice, resistance even in a seemingly hopeless situation, in short, a “nevertheless”. Nevertheless – that became the leitmotiv for the activities of the Berliner Philharmoniker during the weeks after the cancellation. The European Concert was played, albeit at home rather than in Tel Aviv and without an audience in the hall. Instead, it was seen by television viewers all over the world and in the Digital Concert Hall and was understood everywhere as a symbol that went far beyond momentary concerns.

Desire for community

Many other concerts followed in various formats via creatively used digital channels, including an Easter@Philharmonie Festival and the Berlin Phil Series, whether with chamber music, ensemble works or as a string orchestra. For the three concerts he conducted without an audience in the hall, Kirill Petrenko chose works with small or reduced forces that deal with the particular situation: music in which the sudden isolation and loneliness of people play a role, works which originated in times of upheaval and tell of conflicts and crises. For example, the turmoil of the 1920s can be heard in Hindemith’s Chamber Music No. 1, and in Ligeti’s Ramifications, the titular branching out of a seemingly homogenous ensemble into individual voices which then converge again results in a new texture. In Pärt’s Fratres, a unique force develops while one listens for the slightest changes; in Mozart’s Gran Partita, the desire for community is expressed, transcending the typical serenade style. And Mahler’s Fourth Symphony strikes an ironic tone in order to come to grips with the world’s paradoxes.

Music about human existence

From all of this it becomes clear that music is more than notes and rhythm, that great composers write music about human existence, starting with themselves. That is true of all good music, whether or not it has a text and programme. It is also the case with another composer whose music will be a focus of the 2020/21 season: Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who – as Kirill Petrenko points out – “expressed the ambivalence of his personality in his music, turned his fears and desires into sound, reflecting the utter impossibility of leading a happy life in the face of an overpowering fate”. After the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, during this season Tchaikovsky’s rarely performed opera Mazeppa is also on the schedule – “an overwhelming work, whose story is more relevant than ever” – and before that, his fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet, a splendid example of the creative adaptation of a work of world literature as symphonic music. Thus the opening concert of the season, featuring Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night and Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, is also indicative of what Kirill Petrenko and the Berliner Philharmoniker want to achieve together in the future.

The article by Mate Krasting was originally written for the programme booklet for the season-opening concert on 28 August 2020