Just days after officially taking over the position of Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Kirill Petrenko brought his orchestra to one of the most idyllic Swiss landscapes. Their Lucerne Festival programme – also presented earlier this year in Berlin – juxtaposed two works that, at least on paper, couldn’t be more contrasting. Composed just half a century apart, Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony and Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto are worlds apart in terms of the musical language employed, their creators’ backgrounds and personalities and even the works’ posterity.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic © Peter Fischli | Lucerne Festival
Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic
© Peter Fischli | Lucerne Festival

Composed in 1936, after Schoenberg was forced to leave Europe for good, and premiered in 1940 by Louis Krasner, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski, the Violin Concerto plays a marginal role in the repertory not just because it’s composed in the still “incomprehensible” – for many – language of serialism, but also because it’s devilishly difficult to play. It is said that when Jascha Heifetz was offered the solo part, his comment was “You will need to wait for a violinist with six fingers to play it”. The composer replied “I will wait”.

Nothing ever seems too difficult to the immensely talented Patricia Kopatchinskaja. Besides her phenomenal musicality, the violinist’s ability to play with unaffected ease the most difficult of passages is outstanding. Her sound is never overwhelming. Capable of being defiant when needed, she impresses with the seemingly infinite timbral variety of her pianissimos. Always carefully listening to her partners in the orchestra, the Moldovan-born musician evoked both a childish insouciance and the image of a Delphi priestess revealing the oracle’s message to the mere mortals.

The absence of hummable melodies and the dogmatic harshness that is associated with a rigorous application of the 12-tone method were irrelevant for this interpretation. It was all about different timbral and rhythmic nuances. Short, seemingly spontaneous phrases were flowing in all directions, as if painted with a fine brush. Every little detail of the musical landscape was carefully nurtured. In Petrenko’s vision, Schoenberg is a master of orchestration, a worthy inheritor of the Viennese musical traditions as much as a radical innovator.

Andreas Ottensamer, Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the Berlin Philharmonic © Peter Fischli | Lucerne Festival
Andreas Ottensamer, Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the Berlin Philharmonic
© Peter Fischli | Lucerne Festival

For an encore, Kopatchinskaja invited Principal Clarinettist Andreas Ottensamer to join her for a brief performance of the third movement – Jeu – from Darius Milhaud’s Suite for Clarinet, Violin and Piano. Also composed in 1936, the folksy and witty little gem fitted well with the ludic rendition of the Schoenberg Concerto that Kopatchinskaja and Petrenko proposed.

The clarinet’s distinctive sound was also very much present in the first bars of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 in E minor, introducing a version of the widely played score that lacked any sign of bombastic showiness. Petrenko used the full orchestral force when needed, but the fact that “power” is the theme of this year’s Lucerne Summer Festival didn’t seem to matter too much to the conductor. Revealing the delicacy of various details was more important. He led the orchestra with elegant and precise gestures while letting the Berlin Philharmonic shine. Stephan Dohr’s legato was as formidable as expected in the famous horn theme in the Andante cantabile. Pairings between different woodwinds were faultless. The warm sound of the strings basked everything in a wonderfully golden glow.

Petrenko and the Berliner are at the beginning of what could well be remembered as a glorious epoch. Any occasion to watch their collaboration bloom should not be missed.

*****