Kirill Petrenko is making a habit of introducing less well-known repertoire into the schedule of the Berlin Philharmonic. After his highly regarded 2018 performances of the neglected Fourth Symphony by Franz Schmidt, this premiere of Kurt Weill’s First Symphony, in a new edition by James Holmes, now earns Petrenko's powerful advocacy. Written in 1921 when the composer was 21 and still a student of Busoni, it oozes talent. What it lacks in structural control it makes up for in the fertility of its invention, even if the influences of other composers such as Berg, Busoni and Schoenberg are yet to be fully digested.

Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berlin Philharmonic
© Monika Rittershaus

Petrenko and the Berlin Phil got straight to the heart of the matter; everything about their performance was authentic and fresh, as if the work were freshly minted. The pacing was superb and there was never a sense of flagging tension. The richness of the orchestration was projected with clarity and depth of tone. The closing bars with their resonant chords for full orchestra produced a wonderful balanced sound so vivid in the bass notes that it carried on resonating in the mind long after.

If I had to choose one work by Stravinsky to take to a desert island it would be Oedipus Rex. Written in 1927, it purports to be a neoclassical work à la mode, but even though it literally aims to reproduce some of the monumental qualities of ancient theatre, it is deeply passionate and tragic. The Latin libretto by Jean Cocteau contributes to the feeling of timelessness, while the inclusion of the narrated commentary in French brings the listener back to the here and now. Stravinsky manages to brilliantly characterise his protagonists, the vulnerable and deluded Oedipus, the fierce and desperate Jocasta and the cunning Tiresias. The choral contribution is also vital and Stravinsky never fails to find strikingly dramatic material for it.

Ekaterina Semenchuk, Michael Spyres and Kirill Petrenko
© Monika Rittershaus

This performance emphasised the human elements in the score, aided by a line-up of soloists who did not shirk from the drama of the situation in which their characters find themselves. Michael Spyres managed to combine kingly strength with an acute sense of susceptibility. His large voice was mostly scaled down, only showing the power available to him at key moments. Ekaterina Semenchuk was the most terrifying Jocasta, entering the proceedings with a force that quickly degenerated into panic and fear when the terrible truth was revealed. All the smaller roles were well taken and characterful, particularly the resonant bass of Derek Welton as Creon and the messenger. The men of the Runkfunkchor Berlin were potent throughout, spread out as per social distancing behind the orchestra.

The orchestra was rhythmically alert and appropriately lean under the direction of Petrenko, who understood how to pace the work to achieve the maximum emotional reaction. In his hands, this was not a ‘clever’, dry neoclassical work from 1920s Paris, but a work of emotional depth and cruel fatalism. The only element that fell short of these high standards was the narration in German by Bibiana Beglau which lacked bite, drama and pace. However, this gutsy performance resonates in the memory as a terrifically powerful operatic experience, even in its online guise. 

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