Mahler’s Sixth Symphony drags with it so much extramusical baggage that it was perhaps appropriate that Kirill Petrenko’s first performances of the work with the Berliner Philharmoniker should also come freighted with extra significance. Petrenko was supposed to have conducted it with the orchestra five years ago – just months before he was elected Simon Rattle’s successor – but cancelled. The fact that the work is something of a Rattle calling card, and was chosen by him for his farewell concerts 18 months ago, adds extra piquancy.

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

It’s perhaps typical of Petrenko, though, that his performance should have been one that felt little concerned with anything but Mahler’s notes on the page: fiercely concentrated, unflinchingly focused, superbly lucid both in terms of texture and structure. It also showed once more that this relationship is pushing the great Berlin orchestra to the very highest level of execution. The result, at the third of three consecutive Berlin performances ahead of work being taken on tour, was exhilarating.

An essay in the programme emphasised Mahler’s upbringing among the marching bands of Iglau (today’s Jihlava) and Petrenko brought a tight discipline and thrust to the opening bars – he often kept his gestures to a minimum, the beat all but invisible from behind. The violin accents cut through the texture like swishing sabres, percussion rattled and cellos and basses dug deep. The so-called “Alma” theme was allowed to sing out ardently, but both here and in the Andante (placed second), Petrenko steered well clear of sentimentality.

Indeed, others have brought more passion and warmth to the famous slow movement, but there was much to admire in an approach that never actively sought to tug at the heartstrings. The grand climax had tremendous sweep but was just one of the many moments where the conductor took Mahler’s injunctions not to drag to heart. In all, this felt less like a recreation and reliving of passions than a recollection of them; it was certainly none the worse for that.

The Scherzo was delivered with blistering force, its outer sections pushed forward at an unusually swift tempo, although the wonky Ländler of the “Altväterisch” segments were deliciously done. The massive finale, with its almost cosmic alternation between big bangs (although only two hammer strokes here) and the gradual coalescence of its elements, never lost sight of its dark goal. There was desolation, but also a compelling drive through those the sections that struggle towards the promise of something like triumph.

Musically and technically, this was a performance that was superb in every way, with fabulous playing the orchestra both individually and in combination; Albrecht Meyer’s oboe playing stood out, as did the unnamed horn soloist, and the baleful trombone chorale at the close conveyed a desolate beauty. Rarely, either, can this score have come across with such clarity and purpose. Petrenko, it’s worth noting, seems happy to let his players express themselves without the extra intervention that can be a feature of Rattle’s Mahler.

Why, then, was I not quite as moved as I should have been? Petrenko’s ordering of the movements perhaps reduced the performance’s cumulative power, while there were also moments where he could have dug even deeper or – though one should be careful what one wishes for – let the work’s passions flare up a little more. What’s in many ways a spectacular interpretation of this great work has, one suspects, the potential to become even better.

****1