So, finally it came to pass. Four years after his – for many – surprise announcement as Simon Rattle’s replacement as the chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Kirill Petrenko stepped out onto the podium at the Philharmonie to direct as his first concert in his new role. The orchestra’s publicity machine had been doing all it could to stir up the froth of anticipation, making up for the fact that Petrenko is notoriously interview shy. And whoever came up with “eine neue Energie” (a new energy) as the motto for the Siberian-born, Austrian-trained maestro’s reign deserves a promotion: the phrase in many ways summed up this concert.

Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker © Stephan Rabold
Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Stephan Rabold

At the end of a week in which Berlin had hosted the new British prime minister, moreover, Petrenko unveiled a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth that seemed singlehandedly to reinvigorate, if not the European project itself, then at least the symphony with which it is now inextricably linked, giving fresh momentum and force to a work whose familiarity – particularly of course when it comes to its final movement – is always in danger of breeding contempt, among players as much as audiences.

No such danger here, where its hard-won message of joy came across with intense power, all the more so after a first half featuring the pessimistic, dusky eroticism of Berg’s Lulu-Suite, the composer’s half-hour musical précis of his unfinished opera. The suite received a superb performance; Petrenko’s approach was unapologetically beautiful and brutal, from the delicate tender yearning of the opening Rondo to the Mahlerian passions of the Adagio, crowned with a climax of crushing power, and – unusually – left unadorned by the words of Countess Geschwitz (which were nevertheless printed in the programme). The “Ostinato” was despatched at a fearless pace by an orchestra on fiercely virtuosic form, and Marlis Petersen was an eloquent, if slightly breathless, soloist in the “Lied der Lulu”.

Petrenko’s “new energy” announced itself even more strikingly immediately after the interval with Beethoven that was lean and powerful – viscerally so on occasion – walking a cleverly negotiated path between the urgency and lightness now more usually associated with period-instrument performance and the weight and tonal richness of a great orchestra that first performed the work over 130 years ago. Tempos were swift, but the sheer force and concentration of the playing brought with it the necessary gravitas.

The fortissimo of the first movement’s recapitulation was shattering, while in the Scherzo the timpani shot its dotted rhythms down like thunderbolts into the dancing woodwinds. Here was the Ninth, one felt, less as a work of Romantic visionary power than one that harnessed the craggy, awesome rhetorical force of the Baroque. And though the texture seemed on occasion at risk of tearing into so many molten fissures as Petrenko pushed his players the edge, they reacted superbly.

The slow movement ended up closer to mere Adagio rather than Beethoven’s prescribed Adagio molto, but was deftly controlled, the violins’ filigree retaining an almost miraculous lightness and unanimity. The finale was a thrilling ride, in which Petrenko achieved an impressive feat of piling on the energy without the music ever feeling pushed or breathless. And he still found time for loving touches – the little lift he gave the wind phrase that heralds the first full-throated appearance of the Ode to Joy helped bring an added dash of optimism and exhilaration, and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the cello and bass’s recitative more eloquently phrased.

Kwangchul Youn was perhaps a little woolly as the bass soloist among a quartet that was otherwise tight and disciplined – Petersen returning as soprano, alongside Elisabeth Kulman and Benjamin Bruns. The Runfunkchor Berlin sang with focus and power rather than warmth, in keeping with Petrenko’s interpretation. There was room for some quibbles, perhaps, and as time goes on, the conductor might well find more grandeur and expansiveness to match the energy. As it was, though, this bracing, brilliant Ninth announced the arrival of an exciting new era with irresistible conviction.

*****