Carnegie Hall has always prided itself to have invited the best of the European orchestras and soloists to perform on its famed podium. So, it's quite a surprise that the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, a venerable ensemble, tracing its beginnings in the 16th century and helmed in the last 150 years by a series of luminaries, from Hans von Bülow and Hermann Levy to Bruno Walter to Wolfgang Sawallisch, has never been in front of the New York public. It was not the only belated debut in the Stern Auditorium on Wednesday night. The orchestra’s current General Music Director, Kirill Petrenko, appointed to become, next season, chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the most coveted positions in the musical world, has never conducted here.

Kirill Petrenko © Wilfried Hösl
Kirill Petrenko
© Wilfried Hösl

In the first of their two performances, the orchestra and Petrenko scheduled a pair of significant late Romantic works, composed only a couple of years apart and belonging to the two musical worlds – Russian and German – to which the conductor is most attached. As different as they are, the concerto and the symphony have had quite similar fates: recognized as key works in their composers’ oeuvres, they are not as often played publicly as other orchestral opuses from the Brahms and Tchaikovsky’s canons.

Brahms’ Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, the last of his orchestral scores, a final attack against the conventions of the romantic concerto with its gratuitous display of virtuosity, has had its detractors, made uncomfortable by the work’s peculiarities which appear from the very outset, when the cello and then the violin quickly interrupt the orchestral discourse with rather lengthy laments. Many renditions have been marred by soloists competing for attention or by a lack of a proper balance between outwardness and introspection in the first movement. That was definitely not the case on this occasion. Julia Fischer and Daniel Müller-Schott have played this concerto together many times. The sense of empathy between them was palpable throughout the entire performance. It wasn’t just about perfect rhythmic and dynamic coordination. Violin and the cello truly sounded as one single instrument with an extended range. In the Allegro, wistfulness and passion constantly kept each other in check. The Andante’s simple melody was infused with warmth while the gypsy flavor and the folkdance qualities in the Finale were underlined by an expanded dynamic range. Petrenko’s attention to individual details was as outstanding as always but the sound balance between soloists and ensemble was not always ideal. Maybe the adjustment to the Stern Auditorium’s acoustics was not as smooth as expected.

As an encore, Fischer and Müller-Schott selected Johan Halvorsen’s Passacaglia, a late 19th century adaptation of a Pasacaille included in Handel’s Harpsichord Suite no. 7. The music was another vehicle for displaying the instrumentalists’ amazing interpretative cohesiveness.

The scale, the grand gestures, the mood changes in Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, arguably the composer’s most personal statement, should be well suited for an ensemble that functions as the pit orchestra for the Bavarian State Opera. Paradoxically, it was an interpretation that was as tightly reined as any other and avoided melodrama at all price. Climaxes were never over the top and there was no room for unbridled sentimentality. Always keeping a perfect equilibrium between the orchestral compartments, Kirill Petrenko paid attention to details that many times get lost in all those bombastic renditions. Every time the listener recognized the recurrent idée fixe of Berliozian inspiration, it sounded differently. As in Brahms, the caesurae were filled with tension. The ending of the Lento lugubre was electrifying. Listening to the ephemeral music of the Vivace con spirito, one could truly visualize gleaming fairies. Oboe (Giorgi Gvantseladze) and horns “painted” wonderfully the pastoral landscape. The lyrical passages interspersed between diabolic, thundering whirlwinds had a dreamy quality.

The evening ended with a short encore, the Entr’acte from Scene 6 of Lady Macbeth from Mtsensk (a brief proof that Shostakovich’s music has Tchaikovskian roots) played with the same tremendous level of intensity as the Manfred Symphony. One can only hope that Kirill Petrenko’s felicitous debut at Carnegie Hall will quickly be followed by many returns.