The Berlin Philharmonic was there at the start of music’s climb-back when, in the midst of Germany’s Covid lockdown, the city authorities allowed a suitably socially distanced May Day concert to go ahead, though with no audience and at best a large chamber ensemble. Four months or more later and we are now in the position where a reasonably sized orchestra can present a shortened concert to a few hundred lucky audience members scattered around the auditorium of the Berlin Philharmonie.

Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berlin Philharmonic
© Stephan Rabold

Viewing its latest programme via the livestream makes those of us in less-enlightened realms all the more envious. But there are a few upsides to the video experience that one just doesn’t get with the live alternative, not least getting to see the range of facial expressions that Kirill Petrenko uses to inspire and cajole his players. And for this concert of Berg and Dvořák, given as part of the Berlin Festival, we were treated before the music started to simple but perceptive filmed introductions by soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann and Petrenko himself, the latter warmly interviewed by the orchestra’s principal oboist Albrecht Mayer. Now, thanks to that interview, I’ll never be able to hear the slow movement of Dvořák’s Fifth Symphony without being reminded of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto – the two works were written a year apart (the concerto first), were both dedicated to Petrenko’s great predecessor as Berlin music director, Hans von Bülow, and both exhibit a distinct melodic resemblance...

Zimmermann admitted in his piece to camera that he had played Berg’s Violin Concerto some 150 times in his career and it was evident in this performance how deeply at one he is with its music. There was a poeticism to his playing that reminded us that with Berg the concerto had left the realm of soloistic showcase to explore much deeper and darker emotional worlds. Arguments come and go about how crucial the extra-musical inspiration behind the piece was to Berg – the untimely death of the teenage ‘angel’, Manon Gropius – but Zimmermann clearly believes in it, as much for the tragedy behind the second movement as the sympathetic portrait of the young girl in the first – here Petrenko responded to Zimmermann’s lightness of touch in the waltzing Allegretto with a wistful freedom of tempo. When Bach’s chorale “Es ist genug!” crept in at the start of the final Adagio it felt more consoling than admonishing, and Zimmermann’s intricate colouring of the notes made one particularly aware of Berg’s detailed, expressive markings for each phrase of the melody: deciso, doloroso, dolce, risoluto, amoroso (no need for translations from the Italian, one feels).

Frank Peter Zimmermann, Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic
© Stephan Rabold

The open air of Dvořák seemed the best foil for the sometimes claustrophobic Berg, though the Bohemian composer’s Fifth Symphony is no easy emotional ride either, despite its especially sunny opening movement – both the aforementioned slow movement and its finale are dominated by minor keys. This was, according to Mayer, the Berlin Philharmonic’s first encounter with the work in his career with the orchestra, and, it transpires, a first for Petrenko, too, who expressed his feeling that now is the time to explore more of the byways of repertoire than the old warhorses. The Fifth was Dvořák’s first properly mature symphony, once he had expunged the influence of Wagner in favour of an authentically Czech language, and is a work full of fresh melodic and harmonic invention. It received a lovingly crafted performance, with plenty of give and take in the rhythms and some particularly delicious wind solos. Only the upper strings sometimes sounded a little ragged, with the orchestra’s famed upholstered sonority perhaps hindered by the smaller numbers for all the string sections necessitated by distancing requirements.

This performance was reviewed from the video stream on Digital Concert Hall