The last time I was present to hear Mahler’s Seventh Symphony in the erratic acoustic of the Barbican Hall the conductor was Gianandrea Noseda and his orchestra the LSO, an ensemble with a higher international profile than that taking the stage here, at least when functioning away from the Bavarian State Opera. It was nevertheless the visitors who gave us the real thing, a Mahler reading of freshness and originality, closer to the excitement of Leonard Bernstein and the LSO in the sixties than the featureless efficiency displayed for Noseda in 2017.
That Kirill Petrenko has risen to the top of his profession without the usual publicity drives and record deals has added to his mystique but, rather shockingly given his scarcity value in the UK, the hall was not absolutely full. The Central line may have been partially to blame for that! As might have been expected from a reluctant maestro with a Carlos Kleiber-ish career profile, violins were seated antiphonally, cellos centred and the (eight) double basses placed hard left close to your reviewer’s ear. Again, as was once the case under Kleiber, who conducted this orchestra as much (or as little) as any other, detail was etched with obsessive clarity, the basic sonority light and tensile. Anyone looking for black-forest-cherry-cake warmth and depth of string tone may have come away disappointed.
The interpretation, much less marmoreal than the kind of Mahler Bernard Haitink regularly elicits from one of Munich’s other stellar institutions, flickered with a distinctly modernist anxiety and self-consciousness. Tempos were more likely to be pressed than sluggish although the very opening was measured. What impressed above all was the willingness to take risks and embrace extremes that even Bernstein might have eschewed. There was some blotchy horn-playing early on but enough technical excellence to suggest that the repertoire had been performed serially on home turf, only not often enough for it to become stale. Perhaps the most remarkable movement was the Finale, taken at a remarkable lick yet doing justice to its endlessly contradictory moods and textures, Mahler’s crazy shifts negotiated with split-second precision as if turning on the head of a pin.
Petrenko’s hyperactivity on the podium is, like Bernstein’s, likely to repel as well as attract, and he sometimes loses himself in an explosion of huffing and puffing. He uses a stick and a score, turning its pages with inexplicably noisy aplomb. It was difficult to assess whether his impatience with phrase ends (moving on abruptly in the sort of places where Lorin Maazel might have dawdled) is a general tendency or a tactical ploy in this particularly unsettled music. The deep-pile Berlin Philharmonic will certainly be challenged by Petrenko’s heady, wind-dominated re-voicings and all-round impetuousness. There is more to it than that of course. The subtlety and detail of the first movement’s Alpine interlude was simply breathtaking, a rare moment of repose. The dynamic range, difficult to calculate in this of all venues, seemed for once suitably immense without hurting the ears. The reception was rightly enthusiastic at the close.