Not surprisingly, most German orchestras are amongst the oldest anywhere, a legacy of the Kleinstaaterei when ruling houses vied with one another for cultural supremacy. Today’s Bavarian State Orchestra will soon be celebrating its quincentenary: it is primarily an opera orchestra, but like many others of its kind it has a regular concert series. Over time some of the biggest names have been closely associated with it: Richard Strauss, Bruno Walter, Carlos Kleiber, Wolfgang Sawallisch and, currently, Kirill Petrenko, who will shortly be departing for the Berlin Philharmonic.

Kirill Petrenko © Wilfried Hösl
Kirill Petrenko
© Wilfried Hösl

There was only one work which he and his Bavarians brought with them to London. Long considered to be the Cinderella of the canon, this was Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. The problem, if indeed there is one, is that this work with its constantly shifting tonalities and idiosyncratic instrumentation doesn’t yield to easy categorisation. Nothing seems to connect the three inner movements thematically with the two outer ones. Moreover, how can you have the spookiest music this composer ever wrote (the central Scherzo) sitting side-by-side with arguably the most erotic (the Andante amoroso that immediately follows)? And yet the overall structure does correspond to a pattern recognisable from at least the second and fifth symphonies, that of a journey from darkness into light.

Right from the opening bars Petrenko’s approach became evident. He had no intention of prettifying, or de-fanging the venomous snake in the score. This was Mahler with a bite, with nothing comfortable or accommodating to distract from the quirkiness and unsettledness in the writing. The boat was rowed across by the strings with a clear sense of purpose, the oarsmen (and women) displaying plenty of powerful energy and thrust to accompany a slightly fruity tenor horn solo, while the woodwind added splashes of wild, expressionist colour and the brass cut through the textures like blades of naked steel. It was the brightness of the sound which commanded attention, accentuated by the unavoidable glare of the Barbican acoustic, and which gave the lie to the notion that German orchestras unwaveringly produce a dark huskiness in the string department. It would be idle to pretend that this orchestra’s strings have the tonal richness or refinement of some top-notch ensembles, but their agility was never in doubt, nor their commitment, and they delivered neat and effective punches when called upon to do so. At the same time, even with relatively brisk tempi throughout, Petrenko knew when to relax and allow individual details in this intricately woven tapestry to register with the listener, from the oboe-led secondary theme in the first Nachtmusik wrapped in wistfulness to the pastel-like delicacy of mandolin and guitar in the second Nachtmusik.

Bavarian State Orchestra © Wilfried Hösl
Bavarian State Orchestra
© Wilfried Hösl

When the seventh was premiered in September 1908 in Prague, a full three years after its completion, some of Mahler’s friends suggested the title Nachtwanderung (“Journey through the Night”) in an attempt to make its reception more favourable. This dark, troubled, anxious beauty of a work inhabits the Stygian gloom for most of the first four movements. There is one obvious visual inspiration that the composer himself recorded, namely the colossal canvas of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch and its inescapable debt to tenebrism. In the two Nachtmusik movements there are also traces of the stylistic model of the nocturne with its serenade-like function dating back to the late 18th century. An equally strong influence for a composer with a magpie tendency like Mahler must surely have been one of the poems by Eichendorff (Zwielicht) which Schumann set to music in his Liederkreis: this is all about the uncertainties of twilight and the shadows that surround us even in the brightest daylight. It is almost as though Mahler had been able to read the thoughts of his contemporary Kafka: existential angst, after all, had many fathers.

Petrenko’s forward-thinking approach did much to clarify such influences on Mahler’s music. There was a vicious snarl from the second violins and ominous growls from the bassoons in the first Nachtmusik, the fffff-thwack of the lower strings towards the end of the Scherzo was given with real menace, and in the same movement the sharpness of the timbres resembled the flash of knives glinting in the moonlight. This was never intended to be music for the faint-hearted.

Great Mahler conducting is all about risk-taking, recognising the extremes of expressiveness that the composer wanted and going that bit further. Petrenko’s tempo for the finale conceivably bordered on the over-ferocious. There was not much that reminded you of the world of Wagner’s Meistersinger, but enough in the swirling string figurations, imposingly savage brass and emphatic timpani to send you headlong down the helter-skelter. You might not always want your steak served blue, but when somebody like Petrenko presents you with such compelling raw energy, you yield to the dish in front of you.