“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Dante Alighieri’s stark Inferno warning could have served as the tagline for this first Berlin Philharmonic live stream of 2021, a programme which didn’t exactly scream new year blessings of health, wealth and happiness. Kirill Petrenko chose a pair of tragic Tchaikovsky symphonic poems which featured Shakespeare’s star-cross'd lovers Romeo and Juliet and Dante’s adulterous Francesca and Paolo. And we travelled to the Second Circle of Hell courtesy of the sombre oarsman ferrying souls in Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead. Happy New Year, everybody.

Kirill Petrenko
© Digital Concert Hall

As heard in his seriously impressive Tchaikovsky performances of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies since taking up his Berlin tenure, Petrenko has a special way with Russian repertoire. In a pre-concert interview, he confessed how hearing Rachmaninov’s music, in particular, always evokes in him a sense of homesickness (Petrenko’s family emigrated from Russia when he was 18). It’s obvious from watching the close-up camera shots that Petrenko adores these scores. He often looks beyond the orchestra, as if seeking inspiration from above, beaming with affection as the music pours forth. 

But Petrenko is a remarkably disciplined conductor, not given to grand gestures and emoting for the sake of it. For the most part, these were tightly controlled readings, impeccably played if sometimes lacking that earthy heart-on-sleeve abandon you get from the best Russian orchestras. The Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture was lovingly shaped. The Berlin strings didn’t brood overly darkly in the opening, but the woodwinds’ polished phrasing was winsome. Petrenko kept the emotions in check, his fingers delicately coaxing the love theme into life, while the strings glowed in the harrowing finale. 

The inspiration for Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead was a black and white print of Arnold Böcklin’s painting which depicts a dark, rocky island jutting out of the inky lake, on which an oarsman rows a mysterious figure, clad in white. Petrenko launched the voyage with a sense of propulsion, digging into the lop-sided dip and lurch through the water established by Rachmaninov’s use of the uneven 5/8 time signature. This wasn’t a lugubrious reading, but a swift one that teemed with cinemascopic detail, where the Dies irae quotations pricked the skin like icy needles before we moored at our craggy destination.

Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berlin Philharmonic
© Stephan Rabold

Originally, the Rachmaninov on Petrenko’s programme was to have been a concert performance of his opera Francesca da Rimini, a neat pairing with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem on the same Dante tale, but it was not to be (although they’re still scheduled to play the opera at Baden Baden in April). 

In 1876, Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest that, having read Dante on a train journey to Paris, he was “inflamed with desire” to compose a symphonic poem on the subject of Francesca. The resulting work is one of Tchaikovsky’s most impassioned and he plunges listeners straight into the abyss. There was no holding back from Petrenko and the Berliners here, and the sense of doom as Dante, accompanied by Virgil’s ghost, descends into Hell was palpable from the opening tam-tam ring. Violins sawed furiously as the tormented souls wept and wailed before the Francesca theme was gorgeously played by a particularly oily clarinet, Petrenko smiling broadly. 

Here was unbridled, uninhibited music-making, the strings lush, the trombones imposing – how great to hear a full orchestra let rip in this era of social distancing and chamber reductions. Petrenko squeezed every ounce of drama from the climax, drawing a huge ritardando at the end. You could feel the flames licking at the back of your neck. 

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