After six decades of concert-going I cannot recall ever having encountered this pairing of symphonies before. On paper little seems to connect a musical representation of Caledonia with Shostakovich’s arguably most personal symphonic statement. However, both begin in enveloping gloom; both, like moths craving the light, emerge from it. Both also include Mars, the bringer of war, in the emotional sub-currents.

Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Stephan Rabold

The disposition of players on the platform at the start of Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony already signalled that Kirill Petrenko and the Berliner Philharmoniker were not aiming for anything on a grand scale but a more intimate exploration of the musical material. With just four double basses and corresponding reductions in the other string departments, this was always going to be chamber-like rather than majestically symphonic, marked by an emphasis on classical proportions as opposed to any indulgence of Walter Scott-like Romantic feeling. So in the first movement the imagination uncovered few rocky coastlines, not much ground swell from stormy seas nor craggy Highland terrain to traverse: no surges in the string lines, no rolls of thunder from the timpani, no manic touches. Instead, there was much transparency and delicacy from the four horns, ably led by Stefan Dohr, and the peerless woodwinds which opened up the orchestral textures. Yet even the fabled Berlin strings could not quite overcome these glacial acoustics: there was a definite chill in the air from their sharp edge.

Petrenko’s ear for felicities was prominently on display in the Scherzo, with a lovely liquid clarinet solo from Wenzel Fuchs and gently chattering strings, the entire corps de ballet visiting from fairyland whilst observing all the usual courtesies. If anything, the playing in the remaining movements was overly manicured, though with immaculately rounded endings of phrases. One unifying feature to all four movements is the presence of fanfares and march rhythms, specifically martial in tone in the Finale, and I suspect Petrenko was much less drawn to such extroversion than to the many dark corners into which he could shine a light.

The Berliner Philharmoniker in the Elbphilharmonie
© Stephan Rabold

 How much of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony was a day of reckoning with Stalin? Nobody really knows, though Tatyana Nikolayeva recalled hearing the composer play the opening of the first movement two years before the tyrant’s death. Initially, at the start of the Moderato movement Petrenko deployed more lightness of touch, keeping the lower strings to a gentle murmur and allowing the violins to carry the momentum. Its elegiac mood was sustained very nobly throughout save for martial incursions from brass and percussion. There are few orchestras that can throw off the fortissimo violin tremolos with such power and sonic impact, few with trombones that not only growl but speak volubly, few with piccolos at the close which pierce the air with such crystalline brilliance. 

The following Allegro was predictably an orchestral tour de force, massed strings like juggernauts, wind counterpoint delivered with razor-sharp savagery, repeated horn chords like machine-gun volleys. If this is what Shostakovich thought of Stalin, decades of deep-seated resentment and bitterness at his treatment by that regime found its full expression here.

Many individual details demonstrated Petrenko’s affinity with the score. I was particularly struck by the way he turned part of the Allegretto into a kind of brisk Turkish march, the janissary elements magnificently exploited. At the other end of the expressive spectrum, he lingered magically at the start of the Finale with hushed muttering from the strings and plaintive solos from both oboe and bassoon. There were those dark corners again: the places where Shostakovich was able to hide and turn away from the grim reality of his day.