Berliner Philharmoniker/Kirill Petrenko at Carnegie Hall – Mahler’s Seventh Symphony

Symphony No.7

Berliner Philharmoniker
Kirill Petrenko

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 10 November, 2022
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, the only piece on the Berliner Philharmoniker program for this, the first of its three concerts at Carnegie Hall, received a riveting performance. Sometimes referred to as ‘Song of the Night’, this is the most elusive of the composer’s Symphonies. A Petrenko favorite (he recorded it in 2018 with the Bayerisches Staatsorchester) it leans more toward displaying a fanciful range of colors and textural layers than exploring emotional depths.

The intense first movement opens with a march, hesitant at first, then gradually becomes more animated and builds up to a frenzy. From the start, Petrenko embraced the music’s ambiguity as his refined, precise gestures elicited superbly characterized playing. The pastoral passages near the middle of the first movement sounded tender but tense, and as the music returned to its frantic mode, the musicians dispatched its bizarre assortment of disconnected phrases and thematic threads with extraordinary vigor.

The second and fourth movements, each labeled ‘Nachtmusik’, unfold with disruption and discontinuity. The first evokes a bucolic world interrupted by march rhythms while the second is dreamlike. Petrenko reveled in both. In the first his meticulous attention to detail made even the most inconspicuous or unconventional elements – such as the offstage cowbells – sound elegant. And in the second he allowed the guitar, mandolin and violin exactly the right prominence to suggest a sweet but slightly spooky serenade.

The two nocturnes frame an unearthly Scherzo, which on this occasion came off as a nightmare fantasy. Throughout all five movements, the musicians performed superbly as a full ensemble, but in this central one it was the solo and sectional playing – particularly the ghostly shimmering of the pizzicato cellos and basses and the beguiling work of the woodwinds – that most impressed.The loosely bound Finale displayed just the right hint of emotion and tension with Petrenko unerringly tying all the threads together through to the end where he let the (onstage) cowbells come through with ample clangor, and the closing pages brought real excitement.

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