A few days had elapsed between this exact programme opening the Berliner Philharmoniker’s season and this, its repeat at the Philharmonie. In the interim, orchestra and conductor squeezed in an appearance at the Salzburg Festival, plus performances in Berlin of a different programme, with pianist Daniil Trifonov.

Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Stephan Rabold

There was nevertheless a special atmosphere, informed largely by that familiar mixture of thankfulness that such a concert can now take place and nervousness that, with the potential arrival of a second wave or whatever else 2020 might still have in store, nascent concert seasons, hastily replanned and rearranged, might yet be stopped in their tracks.

Perhaps that’s projection on my part, and perhaps it’s a subjective reaction to see each new concert as somehow a response to the crisis we’re living in: a statement of defiance, a symbol of renewal. Nevertheless, it was difficult not to perceive this programme as such, charting as it did a course from the hazy, nervous uncertainty of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (laced with quivering, almost unbearable sensuousness as it is) through to the defiant conclusion of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, at least as presented in Kirill Petrenko’s fierce, unflinching performance.

It was difficult, too, not simply to revel in the sheer quality of the playing, the pleasure of hearing the massed ranks of one of the world’s greatest string sections, and then, when joined by their outstanding colleagues, of the whole orchestra. Away from such circumstances, though, and viewed objectively as possible, this was still a special concert.

Verklärte Nacht shimmered delicately in the moonlight, solo work superbly shaped and coloured into dewy filigree that contrasted with the overwhelming heft of the tutti sound – a special mention for concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, whose solos conveyed a heartbreaking tenderness. On the podium, Petrenko probed and coaxed, lingering over pauses and exploring the extremes of the dynamic range, balancing the vividly evocative with the structurally compelling.

And structure was also a primary feature in Petrenko’s Brahms. The programme booklet reproduced a painting of the composer’s luxuriously upholstered Viennese apartment, a riot of rugs and comfy chairs. Here, by contrast, was a performance of his symphony where the cold iron of the underlying girders was exposed, which was more about the bracing air of the great, awesome outdoors, its vistas often forbidding – rarely has the solo flute in the finale (the superb Mathieu Dufour) sounded so alone.

Kirill Petrenko and the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Stephan Rabold

The lilting opening of the first movement had an austerity to it, a nervous energy emphasised by the occasional tentative pause. Above all, though, it had a remarkable sense of forward momentum (a momentum unimpeded by an exposition repeat) that drove us forward towards the thrilling final minutes.

The Andante moderato was tightly controlled, its moments of lyricism hard won; there was almost a sense of relief when the violins unleashed in their big melody. Even here, though, a sense of nervous tension was detectable, even if it was only rarely allowed to bubble up – in the thundering timpani trills shortly before the end, for example, to my mind Petrenko’s only misjudgement.

Arguably the Allegro giocoso was too fast, too, the quicker passages ending up a little garbled, but it was undoubtedly thrilling, and of a piece with an account of the finale in which visceral excitement swept all before it. The opening statement of the theme was almost brutish, the final minutes titanic, the moments of lyrical contrast – that flute solo; the trombone chorale, here almost heartbreakingly poignant – provided only temporary relief in a performance of elemental power. It was a stunning conclusion to a truly memorable concert.