The Berlin Philharmonic’s Anti-Anti-Maestro

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The Berlin Philharmonic’s Anti-Anti-Maestro

Post by lennygoran » Tue Aug 27, 2019 8:40 am

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The Berlin Philharmonic’s Anti-Anti-Maestro

Kirill Petrenko, the storied orchestra’s new chief conductor, avoids interviews and recordings. But artists adore him.

By Michael Cooper

Published Aug. 26, 2019
Updated Aug. 27, 2019, 7:12 a.m. ET

BERLIN — There are standard-issue maestro activities that Kirill Petrenko — who has just ascended to one of classical music’s most storied posts: chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic — simply does not do.

He does not give press interviews. He does not schmooze with artists. He releases hardly any recordings. He limits his conducting to a few choice orchestras.

Bucking the Instagram era of self-promotion, there was no image of him on the posters advertising the open-air performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that he led on Saturday evening at the Brandenburg Gate, drawing a crowd of 20,000 to inaugurate his tenure.


“I prefer,” he explained affably at a news conference here in 2016, when he signed his contract, “to speak through my work on the podium.”

Now, as he takes up the post — joining a pantheon including Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle — Mr. Petrenko, 47, is complicating discussions about the role of a modern conductor. If the old school of forbidding, aloof maestros was succeeded by new generations of determinedly accessible “anti-maestros” who saw outreach of all kinds as central to their jobs, does that make Mr. Petrenko — with his focus on pure music-making and the standard repertory — a kind of … anti-anti-maestro?

“He is such a winning person, but so shy,” said Nikolaus Bachler, the general manager of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, who gave Mr. Petrenko his first job more than two decades ago, at the Vienna Volksoper. When the State Opera, where Mr. Petrenko is finishing an acclaimed period as music director, wanted a portrait of him, it went with a video installation that showed only his hands, conducting Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung.”

Behind the scenes, musicians adore working with him — the star tenor Jonas Kaufmann said there was nobody more reassuring in the pit when something went awry — but few seem to know him well.

“I once forced him to drink a beer with me,” Mr. Kaufmann said. When Mr. Petrenko wanted to chat one night about an upcoming project, Mr. Kaufmann suggested a beer across the street after the performance.

“He came, he ordered a teeny-weeny beer, and then he talked,” Mr. Kaufmann recalled. “He had maybe 10 minutes to talk, and didn’t touch the beer. Then he took the beer, drank it in one” — Mr. Kaufmann mimed a swig — “and said, ‘O.K., have a nice evening.’”


Mr. Petrenko was born in Omsk, Siberia, where, he once said, “small children could stay home when it was minus 34 degrees; the older ones had to freeze until it reached minus 38.” His family was musical: His father was concertmaster of the local orchestra, and his mother was a dramaturg. When he was around four, he recalled in a 2010 interview, his parents would frequently bring him to work, and he got his first glimpse of a conductor.

“He paralyzed me, because in my eyes and ears this was someone who created the most beautiful sounds I ever heard,” Mr. Petrenko said in the interview. “And I realized: If I want to become something, I want to become this man.”

His family left Siberia — they were among the many Russian Jews leaving the country at the time — and moved to Austria when he was 18, and Mr. Petrenko continued his musical studies in Vienna. When he graduated, Mr. Bachler, who was then the director of the Volksoper, hired him as a coach and conductor.


“When he first took over a rehearsal, I was there,” Mr. Bachler said. “I stood up, looking at what this boy was doing. It was, from the first moment, so special.”

His next stop was Meiningen, a small German theater with a rich history where he became general music director in his late 20s — and had his first big success conducting Wagner’s epic, demanding “Ring” cycle. The Petrenko work ethic was already coming into focus at his next post, as music director of the Komische Oper Berlin. Andreas Homoki, who was then its general director, invited the company of Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” to a party on their day off before the final dress rehearsal.

“He looked at me as if I was crazy,” Mr. Homoki said. “Because he had sat down and worked until the middle of the night, until 3 or 4 o’clock, listening to a recording of the rehearsal and writing things into the scores for the musicians.”

Mr. Petrenko’s conducting has helped make Munich the envy of the opera world. But although many of his performances there were filmed for live streams, he has been reluctant to release them commercially. Mr. Bachler recalled asking Mr. Petrenko to consider releasing one on DVD.

“He said, ‘Let me listen,’” Mr. Bachler recalled. “Then he said, ‘No, we cannot. Because there are 85 mistakes, and those are only the mistakes I did.’”

His Berlin appointment came as a surprise — not least to Mr. Petrenko, who said later that he had been shocked.

The Philharmonic is a self-governing orchestra. When its players first met in 2015 to elect a successor to Mr. Rattle — who had pushed the orchestra to modernize with ambitious outreach initiatives and daring programming — they initially failed to reach a consensus. (The most discussed candidates, at least in public, included Christian Thielemann and Andris Nelsons, but Mr. Petrenko, revered for his way with the core Central European Romantic repertoire, was always in the running.)

The players met again a month later and elected Mr. Petrenko — who had only performed with them three times, but wowed them. A sour note was struck when some German press accounts, noting that Mr. Petrenko would be the first Jewish conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, were condemned for including anti-Semitic stereotypes.

A conductor reluctant to record would seem an odd fit in Berlin, long one of the world’s most CD-happy orchestras. The orchestra recently started its own label, as well as a streaming platform, the Digital Concert Hall.

But Mr. Petrenko is adapting. He has already allowed the orchestra to release his first recording with them, of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, and he has embraced the Digital Concert Hall, even giving some interviews on it to his musicians. He is also planning some outreach, including leading students in Puccini’s “Suor Angelica”at Berlin’s Tempelhof, a former airport, and conducting future family concerts.

At the first rehearsal for Beethoven’s Ninth, Mr. Petrenko made a proposal: If the players observed all the dynamic markings in their scores, they would be able to delve more deeply into other areas.

“He said, ‘Please, if we can just do this, then we can talk about the things that aren’t on the page,’” said Matthew Hunter, a violist. “Those are the things we really want to talk about.”

Mr. Petrenko moved easily between the details of the score and discussions of Beethoven and Kant, ideas of the infinite, and Mr. Petrenko’s belief that the symphony reflected not only the positive aspects of humanity — it is, of course, famous for the “Ode to Joy” — but the negative, too. He described a pause in its final movement as a moment of silence for the dead, the fallen, the murdered. And he took special care to make sure the chorus could be heard when it sang “stürzt nieder” (“fall down”).

“If I counted the number of times I’ve played the Ninth, is it 99 times?” Mr. Hunter said. “How many times can you shed a tear? I found new tears.”

He was unafraid to push the virtuosic — and notoriously headstrong — musicians.

“What we do a lot, which I’ve never done with many conductors, is just to repeat a particular corner until it really is precise,” said Matthew McDonald, a principal bass player. “Multiple passages we did at least seven times in a row. I find it very satisfying, because it’s also how you work in the practice room: You repeat until it works.”

Now the orchestra is trying to turn Mr. Petrenko’s mystique — and the fact that he is still relatively little known outside of Germany — into a selling point. Its introductory campaign uses the hashtag #PetrenkoLive, urging people to experience his considerable energy, and they hope the scarcity of his recording catalog will draw the curious to the Digital Concert Hall to hear him.


His performance on Friday at the orchestra’s Philharmonie hall, which paired the Beethoven symphony with the soprano Marlis Petersen, a Petrenko favorite and his first artist in residence in Berlin, singing Berg’s “Lulu” Suite, was streamed online and to 145 cinemas. The following night’s extravaganza at the Brandenburg Gate was televised.

When Mr. Rattle took over 17 years ago, his record label blanketed Berlin with “Welcome, Sir Simon!” posters. Mr. Petrenko’s rollout was far more subtle — perhaps too much so.

After the last strains of the “Ode to Joy” faded on Saturday, Filipe Faustino, a 24-year-old singer from the Netherlands in the audience, said that it had been like “sugar to the ears.” But asked if he knew what the occasion was, he paused. “The Beethoven year?” he asked, alluding to the coming 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.

A little behind him, Brigita Gerholdt, 69, a retired teacher, was delighted. She has listened to the Berlin Philharmonic since the long reign of Karajan, who made himself a global media star, but she said that she was intrigued by Mr. Petrenko and his understated approach.

“I think it is right,” she said, “to listen to people who are quiet.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/26/arts ... renko.html

John F
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Re: The Berlin Philharmonic’s Anti-Anti-Maestro

Post by John F » Tue Aug 27, 2019 11:07 am

With so many things he's not, Petrenko had better be very good. Or maybe the Philharmonic wants to relax back into the standard repertory after 16 challenging seasons under Simon Rattle.

The Beethoven 9th at the Brandenburg Gate, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the end of the Berlin Wall, is on YouTube:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yegqqO6Nxnw

The Berlin Philharmonic is of course a great orchestra and sounds it. But I'm afraid I hear nothing special in most of this performance, which could hardly be more different from Leonard Bernstein's 9th in Berlin 30 years ago when the wall came down. Petrenko only really comes into his own (and appears more animated) in the finale, which at last gives full value to the music's high drama. A good 9th, then, but not a great one.
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Re: The Berlin Philharmonic’s Anti-Anti-Maestro

Post by maestrob » Tue Aug 27, 2019 11:52 am

Bernstein's Beethoven IX at the Berlin Wall was definitely old-style, slow and heavy. Tastes have changed since then, and Petrenko probably reflects this in his interpretation. I like his work ethic: he'll have to learn a great deal of repertoire, and I admire that. As for commercial recordings, I hope I get to hear him when he's ready to publish, but not before.

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Re: The Berlin Philharmonic’s Anti-Anti-Maestro

Post by John F » Tue Aug 27, 2019 12:09 pm

Bernstein's Berlin performance was one of a kind, influenced by his emotions on the occasion. Other Bernstein 9ths on YouTube are not so extreme. As for changing tastes, Petrenko's 9th reminds me of Karajan's with the Berlin Philharmonic recorded more than a half-century ago and, according to Karajan, influenced by Toscanini's still earlier performances. The most notable change in tastes since then has been the HIP movement, with original instruments, reduced orchestras and the observation of Beethoven's metronome marks; Petrenko's 9th has nothing to do with that, for which I'm grateful. :)
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Re: The Berlin Philharmonic’s Anti-Anti-Maestro

Post by Lance » Tue Aug 27, 2019 12:45 pm

Just for the record, Vasily [b.1976] and Kirill Petrenko [b.1972] are NOT related. Vasily, however, has recorded quite a bit, especially with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and other orchestras. Vasily has about 52 recordings to his credit, many with some outstanding soloists. So far, about eight recordings are around with Kirill.
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Re: The Berlin Philharmonic’s Anti-Anti-Maestro

Post by Beckmesser » Tue Aug 27, 2019 7:43 pm

What I found interesting is that Maestro Petrenko seems disinclined to make recordings unless they are perfect. He wouldn't be the first artist who is reluctant to make recordings but I wonder how the orchestra feels about it. I don't suppose orchestras earn much revenue from recording but it is a way of increasing their exposure.

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Re: The Berlin Philharmonic’s Anti-Anti-Maestro

Post by Rach3 » Tue Aug 27, 2019 9:20 pm

Beckmesser wrote:
Tue Aug 27, 2019 7:43 pm
...I wonder how the orchestra feels about it. I don't suppose orchestras earn much revenue from recording but it is a way of increasing their exposure.
Good point, especially since the article says the orchestra has started its own cd label ( no longer with DGG ? ) and Digital Concert Hall,so perhaps does make some money from recordings now ?

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Re: The Berlin Philharmonic’s Anti-Anti-Maestro

Post by John F » Wed Aug 28, 2019 3:17 am

The Philharmonic is not limited to recording with its current music director, and never has been. It is independent and self-governing, which I should think includes making its own contracts with record companies and, of course, deciding what to issue on its own label. And the players can indeed make a lot of money from recording sessions and royalties for issued recordings - one of Karajan's major legacies, for example. I expect there will be Petrenko/BPO recordings on their label and possibly a major commercial label as well, if not as many as in the past.
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Re: The Berlin Philharmonic’s Anti-Anti-Maestro

Post by Rach3 » Wed Aug 28, 2019 8:47 am

John F wrote:
Wed Aug 28, 2019 3:17 am
The Philharmonic is not limited to recording with its current music director, and never has been.
Interesting. Would be a bit awkward not to ?

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Re: The Berlin Philharmonic’s Anti-Anti-Maestro

Post by John F » Wed Aug 28, 2019 9:09 am

I wonder how much difference it would make in the classical record market. The Berlin Philharmonic is a great "brand name," while Kirill Petrenko is all but unknown outside Germany. During the 1950s and 1960s, Karl Böhm made many recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic, including the complete Mozart symphonies, and I don't remember that anybody thought anything of it. So maybe nobody would notice.
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Re: The Berlin Philharmonic’s Anti-Anti-Maestro

Post by barney » Wed Aug 28, 2019 5:59 pm

I wonder if conductors have as much control as they once did. In the famous account of Beethoven's triple concerto with Karajan and the BPO I've heard that Richter and, I think, Oistrakh, hated it and wanted it not be issued, but Karajan overruled. This is from memory - no doubt others can be more precise.

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Re: The Berlin Philharmonic’s Anti-Anti-Maestro

Post by Rach3 » Wed Aug 28, 2019 8:51 pm

barney wrote:
Wed Aug 28, 2019 5:59 pm
I wonder if conductors have as much control as they once did. In the famous account of Beethoven's triple concerto with Karajan and the BPO I've heard that Richter and, I think, Oistrakh, hated it and wanted it not be issued, but Karajan overruled. This is from memory - no doubt others can be more precise.
I have the recording.Never have so few owed so little to so few.

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Re: The Berlin Philharmonic’s Anti-Anti-Maestro

Post by John F » Thu Aug 29, 2019 8:13 am

barney wrote:
Wed Aug 28, 2019 5:59 pm
I wonder if conductors have as much control as they once did. In the famous account of Beethoven's triple concerto with Karajan and the BPO I've heard that Richter and, I think, Oistrakh, hated it and wanted it not be issued, but Karajan overruled. This is from memory - no doubt others can be more precise.
That's from Richter's memoirs, in which he uses very tough language about Karajan and Rostropovich in the recording session, and says of the finished recording that he disowns it utterly. But especially with a conductor and soloists of such prestige, it wouldn't have been released if any of them formally disapproved it. Why Richter and, according to him, Oistrakh would have OKed a recording he considered "dreadful," only he could say, and he doesn't.

It has often happened that a recording disapproved by the performer was nonetheless published after his death. In every case I know of, this has been clear gain. The Mozart concertos 20 and 27 with Clifford Curzon and Benjamin Britten is one of the finest of anything that I know. It was his third attempt to record this music, after sessions with George Szell and Istvan Kertesz which I'm sure must have been very fine; what dissatisfied him about any of them I can't imagine and he never said.
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Re: The Berlin Philharmonic’s Anti-Anti-Maestro

Post by maestrob » Thu Aug 29, 2019 10:08 am

barney wrote:
Wed Aug 28, 2019 5:59 pm
I wonder if conductors have as much control as they once did. In the famous account of Beethoven's triple concerto with Karajan and the BPO I've heard that Richter and, I think, Oistrakh, hated it and wanted it not be issued, but Karajan overruled. This is from memory - no doubt others can be more precise.
I have had that recording since it was issued, and admire it. No doubt Richter had his quibbles, but frankly I don't hear them. On the EMI CD I have, it's coupled with a first-rate reading of the Brahms double concerto with Oistrakh and Rostropovich. No problems there to these ears either. The public has judged these performances excellent by buying them consistently since they were first issued, thus I have no quibbles with that.

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Re: The Berlin Philharmonic’s Anti-Anti-Maestro

Post by barney » Thu Aug 29, 2019 5:47 pm

John F wrote:
Thu Aug 29, 2019 8:13 am
barney wrote:
Wed Aug 28, 2019 5:59 pm
I wonder if conductors have as much control as they once did. In the famous account of Beethoven's triple concerto with Karajan and the BPO I've heard that Richter and, I think, Oistrakh, hated it and wanted it not be issued, but Karajan overruled. This is from memory - no doubt others can be more precise.
That's from Richter's memoirs, in which he uses very tough language about Karajan and Rostropovich in the recording session, and says of the finished recording that he disowns it utterly. But especially with a conductor and soloists of such prestige, it wouldn't have been released if any of them formally disapproved it. Why Richter and, according to him, Oistrakh would have OKed a recording he considered "dreadful," only he could say, and he doesn't.

It has often happened that a recording disapproved by the performer was nonetheless published after his death. In every case I know of, this has been clear gain. The Mozart concertos 20 and 27 with Clifford Curzon and Benjamin Britten is one of the finest of anything that I know. It was his third attempt to record this music, after sessions with George Szell and Istvan Kertesz which I'm sure must have been very fine; what dissatisfied him about any of them I can't imagine and he never said.
In the case of K595, the Szell and Kertesz recordings were released, because I have both. Are you saying that was done posthumously? I agree about the Britten/Curzon partnership: a truly outstanding recording. Proof of its high regard: it appears in my collection five times, once as itself, once in complete Curzon set, once in Britten the Performer set, and twice in two different Decca collections. In raiding the archives, they knew they were on to a good thing.

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Re: The Berlin Philharmonic’s Anti-Anti-Maestro

Post by barney » Thu Aug 29, 2019 5:49 pm

maestrob wrote:
Thu Aug 29, 2019 10:08 am
barney wrote:
Wed Aug 28, 2019 5:59 pm
I wonder if conductors have as much control as they once did. In the famous account of Beethoven's triple concerto with Karajan and the BPO I've heard that Richter and, I think, Oistrakh, hated it and wanted it not be issued, but Karajan overruled. This is from memory - no doubt others can be more precise.
I have had that recording since it was issued, and admire it. No doubt Richter had his quibbles, but frankly I don't hear them. On the EMI CD I have, it's coupled with a first-rate reading of the Brahms double concerto with Oistrakh and Rostropovich. No problems there to these ears either. The public has judged these performances excellent by buying them consistently since they were first issued, thus I have no quibbles with that.
Yes, that neatly encapsulates my own position. Richter, of course, was a relentless self-critic.

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Re: The Berlin Philharmonic’s Anti-Anti-Maestro

Post by barney » Thu Aug 29, 2019 5:50 pm

Rach3 wrote:
Wed Aug 28, 2019 8:51 pm
barney wrote:
Wed Aug 28, 2019 5:59 pm
I wonder if conductors have as much control as they once did. In the famous account of Beethoven's triple concerto with Karajan and the BPO I've heard that Richter and, I think, Oistrakh, hated it and wanted it not be issued, but Karajan overruled. This is from memory - no doubt others can be more precise.
I have the recording.Never have so few owed so little to so few.
:D Very nice. Not a fan, then.

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Re: The Berlin Philharmonic’s Anti-Anti-Maestro

Post by John F » Fri Aug 30, 2019 6:53 am

barney wrote:
Thu Aug 29, 2019 5:47 pm
In the case of K595, the Szell and Kertesz recordings were released, because I have both. Are you saying that was done posthumously?
Definitely. When the Curzon/Britten LP appeared I reviewed it in Fanfare, and at that time the other versions were unpublished and appeared likely to remain so. That's why he kept rerecording the concertos, and Decca indulged him at considerable expense - Szell and the Vienna Philharmonic didn't come cheap. Indeed, Curzon hadn't approved the recordings with Britten, and Decca/London only published them after his and Britten's deaths.

I heard Curzon play no. 27 in Nürnberg in 1966 and was so moved by the beauty of the thing that I nerved myself to go to the green room and thank him, something I'm normally too shy to do. He was quite relaxed and gracious. After that I went looking for his recording of the concerto which I was sure had to exist, but it didn't.
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