While some conductors announce a Mahler project that will embrace all the symphonies in chronological order, others start with the most popular or the most spectacular (Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection" for example, or Symphony No. 8 "Of A Thousand"), Kirill Petrenko starts with the darkest (the 6th) and then goes on to the least popular and most mysterious (the 7th), which he chose to the open his season.
The Seventh, a singular symphony
The Seventh was also one of the first symphonies Claudio Abbado programmed in Lucerne (as early as 2005), and the one with which he concluded his tenure as Berliner conductor in 2002 : it was the programme of his last concert at the Vienna Musikverein in May 2002.
This monumental work has the reputation of being an unloved one, and of being rather rarely programmed in the seasons. It is indeed quite enigmatic, as its purpose and meaning have not been understood since the early years after its creation. On the one hand, Mahler left few writings about it, and on the other hand (one might say as a result) it has been the subject of bitter discussions between musicologists and later composers, particularly with regard to the last movement, rondo finale-allegro ordinario. This is not the place to enter into the discussion, but to try to draw some possible directions for interpretation.
After the "tragic" Sixth, to which it is difficult to imagine a sequel, and the Eighth, which some have called the Mahlerian "Hymn to Joy," the Seventh is condemned, by its position, to ambiguity, to tearing perhaps, to cracking surely. Structurally composed of five movements, the first and last of which seem more open to positive breathing, enclosing three other movements, two of which are entitled Nachtmusik (night music), themselves surrounding a more dance-like scherzo, but a dance of the nocturnal spirits, some have called it a dance of death.
The presence of night in the symphony leads to the apocryphal title 'Song of the Night', which may be excessive, but it reflects this interplay of light and shadow, where the disturbing and turbulent darkness allows a few rays of light to pass through, which seem inexplicable and even artificial, towards the end.The question is twofold : on the one hand, the return to the Night seems to be a return to Romanticism (Novalis again and again), and on the other hand, the more positive expressions of the first and last movements can be read as the frank and naive happiness that Mahler draws from the joyful expression of Wagner's Meistersinger, a bit like the final rondo of the Fifth, or as a forced, almost sarcastic expression that will lead to the rondo burlesque of the Ninth.
In Mahler's work, there is a desire to plunge into the mysteries of the night, which inspire anxiety, as in the scherzo described as "Schattenhaft", i.e. full of shadows (in the sense of spirits), ghostly… but also these mysteries of the night are protective of amorous adventures, in this sense the fourth movement is perhaps an elegy for young lovers, a Nachtmusik, which Bruno Walter considered "perhaps the most beautiful piece Mahler ever wrote" (but which he never conducted).
The listener and performer are thus caught between two poles that seem unable to resolve themselves, for the final Rondo, a strangely ordinario allegro, ordinario as if it contained the music and all the sounds of everyday life, in a vertigo of totality that will be even more characteristic of the following symphony.
Ordinario refers to life, with its joys and its moments of depression, and Mahler himself said of his symphony that it is an "affirmation of life" in all its diversity and irreducibility to a line or direction.
We have spoken of Meistersinger, we could perhaps speak even more of Vienna, so much so that certain moments – and this is very noticeable in Petrenko's interpretation – sound like a dance in pre-War Vienna, that which an exhibition at Centre Pompidou called the Vienna of the Joyful Apocalypse. In this symphony there is joy and night, joy and apocalypse, an existential hesitation between the resolution of the Sixth and the mad hope of the Eighth, once again an in-between, which would be like a non-choice, or what Mahler himself calls a "state of mind", that is to say a choice of the disparate, the unclassifiable, like life.
In this presentation of light and shade, which Mahler claimed to be a joyful symphony, how can we not take into account the events of 1907, when the symphony was completed but not premiered, which were to turn the composer's life upside down, the death of his daughter Anna-Maria and the onset of his own heart disease, which would claim him four years later. Even in its chronology, the symphony was born on a ridge.
Kirlll Petrenko, a singular conductor
It is easy to understand the interpretive questions that arise. Claudio Abbado saw a Mahler who was both tender and suffering, often bitter, with that bitterness that gave rise to sarcastic moments, even in the midst of a moment of tenderness. His clear and luminous Mahler ended up winning : I remember the finale, at once explosive, blossoming, an instrumental feast where everything stood out and confirmed the incredible breath that irrigated his rendering, in 2002 with the Berliner, but with the melancholy of the end of a cycle, and in 2005 with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which still had the perfume of beginnings and discoveries (the orchestra still included members of the Berliner, Albrecht Mayer and Stefan Schweigert, for example) and which offered an interpretation of incomparable poetry (the scherzo was hallucinating… ).
With Kirill Petrenko, the colour is very different. In a way, Kirill Petrenko is first and foremost a reader and deciphererer of scores before being an interpreter. I would be surprised if he wanted to leave a trace of his interpretation, as he is so much in the here and now. With a modesty that strikes all those who approach him, he never reaches the end of his reading in the sense that he always has the impression that something is missing, that there is never enough precision in his approaches. Never at the end, always on the way.
Those who consume concerts as if they were Campbells soup, pre-prepared with fixed ideas about what they expect and therefore what should be, are unable to enter into this logic that philosopher Vladimir Jankelevitch would call the Je ne sais quoi ou le presque rien (the I‑don't‑know-what or the almost-nothing). Kirill Petrenko tries to enter the logic of the score, which was that of the composer, he tries to understand what the original interpretation was, by dint of critical or musicological readings of the time and, of course, readings of the composer himself ; in the case of Mahler's Seventh, no such luck, Mahler did not enlighten contemporaries and posterity with his comments. So it is a plunge into the score, with its shadows and its lights, and with the "uncertainties" of a conductor who is never completely sure of having reached the end, even more obvious when this score, as we wrote above, is itself a kind of mystery that is still being discussed.
Turning to the score means first of all having it constantly in front of you : those who follow this conductor (which has been my case since 2006…) have never seen him conduct in the Italian style, without a score, which was the case with Claudio Abbado and which is still the case with Daniele Gatti. Petrenko needs this security, even if he knows it inside out despite his own doubts.
Thus, the concern for accuracy and fidelity, the work on a sound, a note (an expression or a colour for a singer) can border on a pointillism at the limits of the impossible. I remember a singer in Bayreuth, and not the least important one, who told me that he often asked for things in rehearsal that she considered impossible, and that she was completely destabilised by the certainty that she would not be able to do it, and then, hearing the orchestra and what he managed to get out of it, she "went for it", for the sake of what he managed to produce through his obstinacy.
But Petrenko is a musician, an experienced conductor aware of the possibilities of those in front of him.
When he has the SymphonieorchesterVorarlberg in front of him, a good orchestra but one whose limitations he knows, he knows how to "dose" his demands. And excellent orchestras such as the remarkable Orchestra Nazionale dell' Accademia di Santa Cecilia or L'orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, with whom he has a certain familiarity, love to work with him because they have the feeling that they are working thoroughly on the scores and thus making progress.
With the Berliner Philharmoniker, he has the best orchestra in the world at the moment, despite those who see it sinking from time to time, since Karajan, since Furtwängler, or losing its characteristic sound etc. (one reads that sometimes, for example when Abbado took over after Karajan).
Moreover, the choice they made in electing him was a purely musical one : they knew he didn't like the media, he didn't communicate and he didn't like records (and besides, his records are not worth his concerts, like with some other conductors). They wanted to make music and this seemed the most appropriate choice.
Making music with Petrenko undoubtedly means having concerts that are totally dizzying, as was the case this evening in Lucerne, but at the price of the uncertainties and fussy desires of a conductor who is always in doubt and who knows that he is dealing with exceptional musicians, perhaps the only ones who are capable of producing the sound he wants, the tightest possible reading of a score that he never stops deciphering and that he never stops delving into, in an almost sickly manner.
For as we know from Munich, Petrenko conducts little, mainly with orchestras he knows, rather irregularly, for the security of being on familiar ground. The rest of the time, he works.
Faced with an orchestra that has chosen him, an exceptional one at that, he is undoubtedly all the more demanding. But these demands – which can be very destabilising for excellent musicians who may feel that their competence is put in doubt – are in my opinion much more intended to extinguish all the doubts that they harbour within themselves when faced with a score. The musicians, at the cost of their own insecurity, contribute in a certain way to appeasing it. This obviously creates a palpable tension during the performance, which makes it so 'vital' in a way. The performance becomes a moment of tension for the orchestra, which does what it can within the limits of what is possible or even impossible, and a – temporary – moment of appeasement for the conductor, who smiles most of the time during the concert, but who returns to his structural uncertainty when the concert is over.
At the same time, this play on the razor's edge produces moments of incredible intensity, rarely reached in a concert, which first physically inhabit the listener before inhabiting him emotionally. And that is almost unique.
It is easy to understand the meaning of the programmes for the two concerts he had devised for this tour : Mahler's Seventh for the first, Schnittke's Viola Concerto and Shostakovich's Tenth for the second. Schnittke's was his last work before his stroke, so it sounds darker, more tense, and Symphony No. 10, premiered in December 1953 after Stalin's death, feels the prevailing fear, with a tension in which even joy remains compressed, and it is in E minor, like Mahler's 7th. There was that unity in the heartbreak and tension that would have made these two evenings particularly dark.
Shadows and light, tension and physical effect on the listener, listening to this performance of Mahler’s Seventh will remain in the annals of the audience. It is not a question of taste, it is not a question of liking or disliking, but of noting the effect of a work that never ceases to destabilise the listener, through its perfection in execution and the hallucinatory risks taken to make the listener hear a music that constantly sounds on the edge of the abyss. In this sense, as we shall see, it sounds like an immense expressionist symphony before its time, a painting by Otto Dix ((One remembers Dix’s tryptic Der Krieg, which was enthroned in the middle of the set of Die Soldaten in Munich conducted by the same Petrenko, in the staging of Andreas Kriegenburg.)) with roots in Goya’s art.
1 – Adagio : Langsam. Allegro risoluto, ma non troppo
At the beginning, a dark quivering like a hostile forest, dominated by the rare Tenorhorn (a baritone saxhorn) and the brass, the underlying double bass, like the sounds of nature vibrating to the rhythm of a military march, more and more extended, but constantly returning to the darkness, to the darkness, as if traversed by lines of brass. At the beginning there is a hostile colour, and at the same time like a noise of nature that would wake up in a kind of dull violence. Nothing leaves any space for light. One enters tragedy without any discussion. A general and disquieting explosion that returns to the sound of the Tenorhorn, which seems to be giving rhythm to a monstrous march with the other (phenomenal) brass instruments. Even the flute (Pahud!) sounds sinister like a will‑o'-the-wisp. This is the beginning of the physical grip on the listener, and hearing becomes a palpitation. The impression is that of a struggle of telluric, primal forces. We emerge from this first moment in a march-like acceleration (one thinks of the Sixth…), with an entry of the strings, more luminous, but the march-like rhythm resumes, as if in a struggle between antagonistic dark/light forces. It is so tense that even moments of calm seem to be shot through with relentless rays of sound from the brass.
One hears an incredible instrumental complexity, and at the same time a legibility and clarity of reading that has no equal today. This is a vital Mahler, in the sense of a struggle for life, where the sonic presence of each instrument is necessary to render to the ear the diversity of features, the multiplicity of colours, the wild overflow of a nature that is crushing and threatening. Everything here is tension and at the same time this intensity produces an incredible presence of life. As is often the case, Petrenko refuses a fluidity that would be bland, the line is brutal, choppy, jolting, never allowing the listener to catch his breath.
The soothing call to the horn after fifteen minutes, taken up by the flute, seems to be a moment of suspension, and indeed the flute takes up the discourse again, followed by the strings, but still in the background hover the low strings and then the brass, then again a calming that at this point is not breathing : we hear a slightly more cheerful nature, less distressing noises (the woodwinds ! ) and a violin solo taken up like a ray of light, a sort of reassuring reprise of each instrument going in a crescendo until an ineffable moment when the harp (Langlamet!) launches a marvellous glissando into a suspended, liquid moment, taken up by all the strings, as if this light had overcome the darkness. The blinding and ecstatic sunshine of a chord from the whole orchestra, chanted by the cymbals. And again, without a break, the dark tones resume. Their going back and forth is almost unbearable. Dark tones in the horns, brass, again leaving the listener exhausted, with blows worthy of the Sixth, once again. With an even more tense struggle between the bright strings and the dark brass, everything that seems light and hopeful is shot through with this dark tension, in an incredibly ordered mess. There is something epic about it, but at the same time a gigantic epic, a sonic Trojan war, which at the same time seems irrevocably doomed. A sense of fundamental despair takes hold of you, making the string and harp moments brighter and perhaps even more bitter, without ever sounding sarcastic. The determined march at the beginning resumes dizzyingly before coming to an abrupt halt.
You can hear the audience catch their breath after these suffocating thirty minutes.
2 – Nachtmusik : Allegro moderato. Molto moderato (Andante)
It all starts again with the horn, and once again with Stefan Dohr the magician. The "Wunderhorn", the magic horn, in this beginning that Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, in his notes on the score, says was inspired by Rembrandt's Night Watch in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The atmosphere is indeed military, with echoes and the intrusion of other instruments giving the impression of a Nocturne. But very quickly the march takes over. A military march with birds : it is less tragic and more fluid, almost dance-like – the kind of dance-like movements that Petrenko likes. The music seems light, or lightened, a little vulgar, until we hear the cowbells, an intrusion of bucolic nature : A waltz that begins with a military evocation and turns into a vision of a landscape of peaceful pastures (with the double basses keeping watch, however, in the darkness); one perceives here something of a nocturne that is both poetic and vaguely sarcastic, but Petrenko never presses the sarcasm, he lets the notes pass by, he eventually makes them clash, letting the music deliver its truth without necessarily pressing what might seem bitter or snide. Once again, the idea of a "state of mind" landscape comes to mind, with the interplay of instruments near and far giving this strange landscape something very spatial (the acoustics of the KKL obviously help), but also the interplay of the volumes of the instruments, in rhythmic variations, full of colours that arise and die. A strange movement, a night where everything seems to mix in a dizzying whirlpool. With an alternation of unexpected sound planes and always this incredible limpidity of sounds : we hear all the sounds, in a night of all the noises, harmonious as well as shrill, reassuring and disturbing. We are carried along until the finale in two parts, where all the instruments seem to fade away, separated by a silence of the imperceptible final note, suspended and marvellous, like an unexpected but not brutal stop, which disappears in a mist. Astonishing, and fascinating.
3 – Scherzo. Schattenhaft (Ghostly). Fliessend aber nicht schnell (Fluid, but not fast)
The waltz of shadows.
The nocturnal atmosphere that pervades the three central movements of the symphony is continued with a movement described as schattenhaft. The original meaning is shadowy, but it is rightly translated by De La Grange as 'ghostly', (for Schatten also means ghost) which clearly gives the general colour of this Scherzo. It is a dance that is less macabre than disquieting. Petrenko shows himself to be both more fluid than in the previous movements, but the fluidity is crossed by breaks in rhythm, by the play of nuances scandalised from the start by the muted timpani (excellent debut by the young Vincent Vogel, who has joined the Berliner), by dissonant lines in the brass and especially in the woodwinds (the clarinet!). The theme is given to the flute with oboe and English horn in shadow. This dancing rhythm is particularly tense. It is perhaps here that one can observe and admire the millimetre precision of the interventions where Petrenko, with a sure and direct gesture, seems to multiply himself to indicate to all the attacks and interventions (I have sometimes called him the Shiva of conducting). Despite the foot injury, he conducts standing up and his whole body is nothing but indications of tempo and rhythm. This disturbing waltz is a ballet of spirits that seem to be in the forest : During the three central movements, one cannot project oneself out of a deep forest, a romantic place if ever there was one, but revived by Debussy in Pelléas, and barely later than this symphony, by Schoenberg in Erwartung (1909); But here, it is tension that dominates, an almost paradoxical tension, marked by instruments that almost never play loudly except in violent flashes (the plucked strings…) but which accentuate sounds that are never thunderous, giving an atmosphere that is both hushed and almost heavy, accompanied obstinately by the timpani. This is a far cry from Weber's Freischütz, but Petrenko manages to convey the same atmosphere, on the verge of terror, with sounds that emerge from the shadows clearer in a strange crescendo on the verge of unease. A disquieting pastoral (in the Beethovenian sense) with an impossible appeasement that would be a hymn to the spirits of the woods. A waltz of shadows certainly, but on the brink of the abyss. The nightmarish atmosphere of a Scherzo which is a scherzo (in Italian, a joke, a prank) in name only. Petrenko manages to maintain an even volume, rather low, rather dark, almost intimate, while making each intervention clear and audible : deconstructing Mahler with an infrared telescope.
4 – Nachtmusik : andante amoroso. Mit Aufschwung (with vigour)
An incredible moment of suspension, where a sort of chamber symphony or intimate concerto is played for three instruments, harp, guitar, mandolin. After the "Schattenhaft", "l'amoroso", with a mysterious atmosphere, always nocturnal. A haunting rhythm, a light atmosphere, a sort of tender mark before the final movement that is so much in the news. A serenade-like atmosphere, according to De la Grange, a great refinement, which would please Schoenberg so much. This intimacy is marked first of all by the many singular instruments on display, soft and tender, but with a volume so contained that one perceives a tension between the lines. It is Stefan Dohr's horn, Jonathan Kelly's oboe and Pahud's flute, it is a set of woodwinds that sometimes border on the imperceptible and yet are so present (Wollenweber on the English horn). We also hear the solo violin (Daishin Kashimoto) from the very beginning, which will remain present like a discreet angel throughout the movement. But what makes the movement unique and gives it a "serenade" aspect is the harp-guitar-mandolin line (Detlev Tewes on mandolin, Matthew Hunter on guitar), which is often exposed, not always, and the haunting sound of the last two instruments is heard systematically, tenderly in the solos, and in the tutti, this very perceptible sound of the two instruments immediately gives a colour of strangeness. Schoenberg said that the guitar, present from the beginning (with clarinet and harp), is "the living organ of the piece". This is a moment of undeniable magic, which Bruno Walter described as "soft and tender eroticism", but which at the same time, after the darkness and marked anxiety of the preceding movements, retains a certain ambiguity, it is another colour of the night that is depicted, more than a specific love. In any case, for the instrumentalists, this is a moment of particular precision and tension, for it is an example of that "I don't know what and almost nothing" that we mentioned earlier, where everything is a fragile balance, once again on the razor's edge, in a delicacy that nothing could destroy. Only a phalanx of this calibre is capable of achieving such a success for the orchestra and the singular instrumentalists.
5 – Rondo Finale. Allegro ordinario
The finale is, as some have said, a "hymn to joy". A vision of a joyous and overflowing totality. And yet Mahler calls it ordinario, like the disorderly profusion of ordinary life. The key of C major obviously reinforces this idea of exuberant joy, even though Mahler never ceases to play with different keys in this symphony, and with a complexity of writing that will make this symphony one of the referential roots of a certain 20th century. From Wagner (Die Meistersinger) to Vienna (Mozart or Lehar), Mahler, as we said above, signs here his version of the Vienna Joyful Apocalypse (Title of an Exhibition in Beaubourg, 1986). This movement is like the ascent to Walhalla of the gods in Rheingold, a rousing and overflowing ascent, when all is lost. There is something of that in this movement as seen by Kirill Petrenko. I remember a greater brightness in Abbado's work, perhaps a more assertive optimism. There is a fast-paced reading here that sets the orchestra on fire. And in fact the idea is that of "flamboyant" chaos : that is the adjective that immediately comes to mind on hearing, with a sort of concentration of what we have heard up to now : mastery of volumes, with very restrained moments (certain moments of the violins) which in fact announce the final explosions with incredible rhythms, with dizzying velocity. The orchestra is driven at a breathtaking pace that leaves the listener stunned, with brutal breaks and breathtaking repeats, final phrases of incredible clarity where each instrument can be distinguished (the cowbells in the middle of the brass, very much in evidence in the last bars), all of which leaves the listener initially stunned.
This joy is a practically infernal whirlwind, where everything comes to the surface : that's why I referred to Otto Dix, there is colour, distortion of figures, concentration, anxiety, this Mahler is connected to what is going to be the terrible continuation of the world, or already is : versions of Munch's Scream (the first so-called "expressionist" painting) run from 1893 to 1917.
As conducted by Petrenko, this final rondo comes after a particularly dark, tense symphony, and is experienced as an explosion in which everything is allowed to run wild on purpose, in which one is giddy to the breaking point, and always on the same razor edge. It's a drunken boat with sidereal archipelagos à la Rimbaud but, to quote Rimbaud, “a reasoned disturbance”. God, what concentration it takes to be able to render all these singularities, this multiplicity and this totality at the same time. God, what an orchestra !