Berlin Philharmonic delivers gleaming, high-powered Mahler

Thu Nov 17, 2022 at 2:53 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Kirill Petrenko conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Wednesday night at Symphony Center. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

“They play with balls!” said a female Chicago Symphony member sitting in the balcony following the clamorous final bars of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Wednesday night.

Visits by the world’s top symphonic ensembles happen all too rarely in Chicago and the Berliner Philharmoniker has not been in town since since their last local appearance under Simon Rattle—13 years ago to the day.

Kirill Petrenko was a surprise candidate to succeed Rattle, chosen by the self-governing Berliners in 2019. Yet as Wednesday night’s concert decisively showed, there is clearly a close and simpatico bond between the orchestra and its current Russian-born, Austria-resident chief conductor and artistic director.

The Berlin Philharmonic remains at or very near the top of the world’s finest symphonic ensembles. The orchestra was long famous for its gleaming and luxuriant, string-dominated sound under the 35-year tenure of Herbert von Karajan (1954-89). Claudio Abbado streamlined and refined that corporate sonority during his years (1989-2002). Rattle (2002-18) further honed the ensemble’s virtuosity and widened its repertoire to incorporate more contemporary music.  Petrenko, it seems, is not only maintaining that elevated standard but building on it.

The Berliners played to a nearly sold-out house (97% of capacity) at Symphony Center, indicating that they probably could have done a second night and sold out their other tour program (Korngold, Mozart and Andrew Norman) as well.

Wednesday’s concert was devoted to a single item, Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. The 81-minute work is characteristic in its breadth, rich and quirky scoring, audacious contrasts of material, and cumulative progression from darkness to light. Yet the Seventh remains one of the less frequently played of Mahler works due to a somewhat discursive structure and a finale that is notoriously difficult to pull off.

The Berlin orchestra remains a bravura band like few others. There is no laying back at any desk or playing with half a bow. There are not many ensembles that play with this kind of corporate gleam and individual intensity, down to the last stand of the second violins. Many players swayed with the music, some nearly jumping off their chairs in ardent tuttis. A couple fleeting slips (section trumpet and horn) through Mahler’s epic journey were like spots on the sun set against the overall quality of the musicianship.

The orchestra was arranged in Euro configuration, the same setup Christian Thielemann employed in his Bruckner with the CSO last month: violins split, basses back and to the left, cellos in the center. (One section cellist became ill and departed during the first movement.)

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Under the ebullient Petrenko’s high-energy direction, this was big and, especially, vivid Mahler. Rarely has the Seventh—or any Mahler symphony for that matter—sounded more like a vast concerto for orchestra. 

The tenor horn solo that announces the main theme of the first movement instantly made one sit up straight—baleful in expression, boldly projected and arrestingly played by Jesper Busk Sorensen of the trombone section. Petrenko took a measured tempo for this ominous slow march, the unsettling expression coming through. The conductor kept in tempo (as marked) for the rhapsodic second theme, played in refined yet unsentimental fashion. One was repeatedly impressed by the varied hues and resplendence of the woodwinds, principals and section players alike. The moments of nature stillness received their peaceful due but this was overall a clear-cut and firmly outlined performance, rounded off with martial swagger.

In the ensuing Nachtmusik I, the opening horn calls were ideally contrasted with principal Stefan Dohr’s distanced effect sounding uncannily like he was playing from offstage. Oddly, the ensuing cowbells that really were played offstage were far too present and failed to register the atmospheric mystery. Otherwise Petrenko’s balancing was meticulous and one noted subtle details in Mahler’s scoring that usually go unnoticed—a little wind curlicue here or a gnarly muted trumpet there. 

The performance of the jumpy, shadowy Scherzo conveyed the creepy-cringey quality with a raffish overlay. Petrenko and colleagues charted the waltz-like interlude from playful and nostalgic to insistent and menacing.

Nachtmusik II was a way-station out of the Scherzo’s darkness en route to the finale’s sunlight. Petrenko underlined the gentle ars antiche/serenade flavor; the picturesque guitar and mandolin were not spotlit, but just another hue as part of the ensemble. The piquant playing by the musicians was wholly delightful and Petrenko masterfully drew out the lines in the hushed coda of the movement.

The joyous yet bizarro finale can often seem chaotic and episodic in its quick-changing reverses and untrammeled exuberance. Petrenko avoided the pitfalls by taking a whipcrack tempo, the fastest I’ve ever heard in this music, live or on disc. 

The contrasts between material in the finale were rather ironed out as a result of the warp-speed approach; fitfully in previous movements this high-beam Mahler perhaps sacrificed a bit of the work’s subtler chiaroscuro. Still, it was undeniably effective and Petrenko ramped the adrenaline up to a thrilling coda and final peroration of brassy brilliance.

The packed house erupted in thunderous cheers and a riotous, extended ovation. Petrenko returned to acknowledge key principals who were received with equal enthusiasm in their solo bows.

The audience clearly wanted an encore from the Berliners but it was not to be. After a final curtain call, Petrenko had a brief word with  the evening’s concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto, the violinist and his colleagues rose to their feet and that was that.


On a side note it was wonderful to see Orchestra Hall full to the rafters again after the past few weeks of alarmingly low attendance for some superb CSO programs. If audience members will come out in such overwhelming numbers for the Berlin Philharmonic, it’s hard to fathom why the same people won’t buy a CSO ticket and support the local team—which isn’t exactly steam heat either.

Posted in Performances

15 Responses to “Berlin Philharmonic delivers gleaming, high-powered Mahler”

  1. Posted Nov 17, 2022 at 3:56 pm by John

    I could not agree more. I sat next to a lovely gentleman who had come from Milwaukee for the concert after listening to 3 weeks of different Mahler 7th recordings. We both agreed that this may have been the best orchestral performance either of us had ever heard of anything (second choice, Boulez conducting The Firebird with the CSO around 2010).

    I, too, thought that it was like a concerto for orchestra, with each section having its moment. It was also like a horn concerto, with the first horn playing endlessly difficult music. But overall, it was just terrific!

  2. Posted Nov 17, 2022 at 8:22 pm by Nathan Sonnenfeld

    As a musician myself, I have seen and played many concerts. Last night’s performance by the Berlin Phil ranks as one of my top 5 concerts EVER! I was speechless at the end!

  3. Posted Nov 17, 2022 at 9:39 pm by Robert Scharba

    One mature lady I spoke with after the concert described the “local team” as being “sedate” in comparison. I would more diplomatically characterize it as over-refined or stately. In any case, this was an energetic and vivid style of playing we’re not used to hearing in Chicago.

  4. Posted Nov 17, 2022 at 10:40 pm by Lawrence A. Johnson

    There was nothing sedate about the Shostakovich Fifth Thursday night.

  5. Posted Nov 18, 2022 at 12:43 am by Peter Borich

    Indeed Mr. Johnson….the Shostakovich 5 was tremendous, powerful, vibrant and brilliantly performed by our “sedate” local band.

  6. Posted Nov 18, 2022 at 1:28 am by david novak

    The CSO performance on Thursday was superb but the gallery was almost empty and there were many vacancies on the main floor.

    Based on the previous evening’s packed crowd for the BPO, I am reluctant to blame poor attendance on COVID or crime. Putting together the Vaughan Williams and Shostakovich concerts, both poorly attended, I wonder if one of the problems is programming too many works (three) per concert. I could have done without the Wagner a few weeks ago (and I generally love Wagner) and the first two pieces yesterday.

    This programming did not stop me from attending. But what about others? Just a thought.

  7. Posted Nov 18, 2022 at 4:26 am by Brian Richardson

    I have subscribed to the Berlin Phil’s Digital Concert Hall since 2009, and have become accustomed to the consistent superlative playing of this elite orchestra. Because many of us don’t have an opportunity to hear the CSO in person, we can only wish that a similar digital presence would exist to expand the mind share and excellence of the ‘home team.’ The Berlin digital option is the gold standard.

  8. Posted Nov 18, 2022 at 8:40 am by Charles

    No support for the local team? The answer is simple, Muti’s concerts are stale and boring. The orchestra has fossilized in the Muti’s years. Look forward to the new MD.

  9. Posted Nov 18, 2022 at 10:03 am by niloiv

    The overture/concerto/symphony trio (including one somewhat modern piece) is standard for most concerts. Single/Large-piece concerts are more commonly seen on orchestra tours.

    BPO will always sell and rightly so. But ‘local team’ is still bread and butter and needs more support, especially when they’re playing contemporary pieces. Listening to the Auerbach concerto is some very special experience and I enjoyed every second of it. They could have put in a Dvorak or Elgar in place, which would require much less rehearsing, and probably sell more tickets. But CSO instead chose to introduce to the audience some of the most exciting music of our time, and played their part in having our time to be heard decades and centuries from now

  10. Posted Nov 18, 2022 at 12:23 pm by Chuck

    An earlier commenter wrote (re: CSO attendance), “….I wonder if one of the problems is programming too many works (three) per concert. ” The commenter also asked how others felt.

    Too many works? Under no circumstances would I wish concert lengths shortened. I also like hearing works that are not played often and therefore likely unfamiliar.

  11. Posted Nov 18, 2022 at 12:40 pm by aaron

    I listened to Berlin Phil’s Carnegie broadcast of Mahler 7 last week, and I attended CSO last night. So recording to live attendance is admittedly not a fair comparison. But anyway…
    I had the same impression as the NYX review of BPO. It was technically perfect, but didn’t feel urgent. Kind of like seeing the Mona Lisa guarded behind glass. Maybe there was more heat in the Chicago concert than Carnegie.

    But for CSO with Honeck and Shostakovich, I’m not sure how to give enough praise. Sheesh. Wow.

  12. Posted Nov 18, 2022 at 3:48 pm by Steve Parker

    Regarding Mr. Novak’s comments on the Berlin attendance vs. Thursday’s CSO attendance, I think the difference is that Berlin played only one night, so when you figure most CSO subscribers would want to hear Berlin, it’s pretty easy to fill the house when you pull in subscribers from all the various packages (Thurs, Fri, Sat, Sun, etc.). Had Berlin played even 2 nights, let alone 3 or more as CSO does, I doubt they would have sold out each night.

    Having said that, I was proud that Berlin was (nearly) sold out on Wednesday and we were able to give them a hearty Chicago welcome. And I can’t understand why in a metropolitan area of our size, the incredible CSO (who impressed me on Thursday as much as Berlin did on Wednesday) isn’t sold out on a regular basis.

  13. Posted Nov 18, 2022 at 7:03 pm by Zach

    I flew in from Seattle for the performance. Well worth the time and expense.

    COVID changed everything. We have new habits. Every city I’ve been to in 2022 is the same. There are fewer people in the urban core. It was easy to stay late at work, have dinner and then catch a show in the before times. But with so few people in the Loop (I was shocked by how few people were there), that’s probably not happening as much – even with an orchestra like the CSO.

    There is more competition than ever for our entertainment dollar. Streaming services orchestras implemented during 2020 are probably eating into attendance as well, but generating revenue and views in other ways. The Berlin Phil is an orchestra worth making an effort to hear. Which no doubt draws out the most committed concertgoers.

  14. Posted Nov 19, 2022 at 2:18 pm by Robert Scharba

    I think it can be said that the CSO is capable of anything that is elicited from them. But what is being elicited from them on a regular basis? As I told some of the Berlin musicians in Miller’s Pub after the performance…they shook the dust out of our old concert hall that night.

  15. Posted Nov 23, 2022 at 8:25 pm by Dave Rah

    One of the reasons the BPO has reached rock star status is their Digital Concert Hall is the best classical app available. Accessible, intuitive, varied forms of media. BPO is a household fixture for classical enthusiasts as a result.

    I have written letters and e-mails imploring CSO Admin, Patron Services, and even Board members to go digital and develop a subscription streaming service. After multiple attempts and not receiving a single acknowledgement of my correspondence I gave up.

    CSO is a better ensemble than the BPO. Our CSO should be international superstars but have limited presence beyond Chicago. CSOTV!? Who watches TV in this day and age!? CSO needs to hire a 20 something to market to a new generation. It would make our great band better…

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