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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Concert Review: Thunder From the Alps

Kirill Petrenko brings the Bayerische Staatsorchester to Carnegie Hall. 
by Paul J Pelkonen
Conductor Kirill Petrenko and the Bavarian State Orchestra.
Photo by Christoph Brech © 2018 for the Bayerische Staatsorchester.
The Bayerische Staatsorchester, based in Bavaria's capital city of Munich, lays claim to one of the oldest musical traditions in Western Europe. Their press kit states that the organization first started playing church music in the 16th century. However, the first of two concerts at Carnegie Hall this week were led by a conductor who is very much a man of the 21st century: music director Kirill Petrenko.

For this concert, Mr. Petrenko (who is scheduled to begin his tenure at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2019) assembled a pair of oddball works by beloved Romantic composers. Brahms' Double Concerto is that composer's final creation for symphony orchestra. It was paired with Tchaikovsky's un-numbered Manfred Symphony, a gargantuan piece that attempted to transit the popularity of programmatic music to the Russian idiom. Considering that it requires a huge orchestra plus a pipe organ, it's not played much.

The same could be said for the Double Concerto, a knotty and cerebral work that requires its soloists (a violinist and a cellist) to put aside their egos and collaborate hand-in-hand with the conductor. Luckily for Mr. Petrenko, this performance featured Julia Fischer and Daniel Müller-Schott, longtime concert partners. From the first notes, the spirit of collegial cooperation was very much in evidence.The cello entered first, with Mr. Müller-Schott spooling out a long and weighty monologue that introduced the four musical ideas that would be the building blocks for the movement that followed.

Ms. Fischer answered his call, soaring into a cadenza that would prove terrifying in the hands of a lesser violins. And so it went for the long first movement, with cello and violin engaging in alternating dialogue over this thematic material, sometimes agreeing and sometimes musically bickering. Mr. Petrenko interjected with his orchestra, who played Brahms' diatonic music with genuine warmth and love. The slow movement was even more tender, a lament for the two musicians that allowed them to play seperately and together, the sound of passion suppressed and left unspent.

It didn't stay that way for long. The finale was dynamite, with Romani and Hungarian inspired themes that are less of an opportunity for showmanship and more one for compositional craft. While this was thrilling, the encore that followed was even more so. This was a Passacaglia for the two instruments, by one Johannes Halvorson and inspired by a keyboard suite by Handel. The instruments are bowed and plucked, trading off melodic lines and parts throughout a dizzying series of variations on the simple ground bass theme.

Tchaikovsky had his doubts about Manfred as a suitable symphonic subject, even as his friend Mily Balakirev suggested it. The poem is a big Faustian epic, ponderous and pretentious, and yet Tchaikovsky managed to mine some good music from it. The opening movement presents a Berlioz-like idée-fixe, which is expanded on and developed before culminating in an orchestral crash-boom-bang. Ramparts of stentorian brass are assaulted by rolling timpani and the bass-and-cymbals combination. Mr. Petrenko proved himself in his mastery of orchestral management here, keeping this giant movement (and the bemused audience) on track.

The second and third movements send the protagonist on a dreamy quest for some kind of personal truth, visiting first a rainbow sprite (the Scherzo) and then attending a bucolic Alpine festival. The respite is brief. The last movement is a wild bacchanal for orchestra, a fiery Allegro of demonic music in the Russian mold. Redemption comes in the form of a coda that features heavenly redemption and affirmation voiced by the organ. This blasting finale was followed by a fierce and funny encore: an entré-acte from Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. If only this fine orchestra had chosen one of that composer's symphonies: it would have had more appeal than poor, unloved Manfred.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.