CHICAGO — When the Berlin Philharmonic made its Covid-deferred return to the U.S. with a five-city tour in mid-November, the storied orchestra and its music director brought a reminder and, surely for most American concertgoers, a revelation. At a time when orchestral recordings have become rare if not quaint, touring is once again the chief means of expanding public awareness of an orchestra beyond its home base. The Berlin Philharmonic, with its legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan, began coming to the U.S. in the 1950s and had returned some two dozen times, but the most recent appearance was six years ago, during the directorship of Simon Rattle. Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, the centerpiece of this latest visit, offered ringing affirmation of an orchestra that has stood for generations among the finest in the world.
The revelation was the figure on the podium, Kirill Petrenko, chief conductor and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic since 2019. Although the 50-year-old Siberian-born Petrenko has conducted American orchestras and at the Metropolitan Opera, those appearances have been few. His reputation in Europe, however, is huge, fashioned largely in Germany and mainly in opera houses. He put in a lengthy stint as music director of the Bayerische Staatsoper. The opera pit has always been a proving ground for eminent orchestra conductors; Mahler himself was such an example. And Petrenko’s Mahler Seventh paraded opera’s lessons in matters of line and voicing, balance and clarity.
The Seventh Symphony, its five movements running just over 80 minutes, was the sole work on the Berliners’ program Nov. 16 at Orchestra Hall, the home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. At Berlin’s four other stops — New York; Boston; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Naples, Fla. — Petrenko led two programs, the second spotlighting Erich Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp and Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the orchestra’s American-born first concertmaster, Noah Bendix-Balgley, as soloist.
But nothing was required beyond the Mahler Seventh — grand, closely knit, subtly hued, and technically brilliant — to provide a complete picture of orchestra and conductor alike.
The Seventh Symphony, composed in the summers of 1904 and 1905, recalls the Fifth in its arch design, with a scherzo at its midpoint and a contrapuntal finale as exuberant as it is rigorous. But the similarities essentially end there. And neither work shares the darkness bordering on terror of the Sixth Symphony — notwithstanding Mahler’s designation of Nachtmusik for the Seventh Symphony’s second and fourth movements or the marking Schattenhaft (Shadowy) over the skittering scherzo in between.
Indeed, that middle sequence is essentially three different night-musics, all cast in the gossamer raiment of chamber music and forming not just the symphony’ s physical heart but also its spiritual soul. And in its trek across this interior landscape mystical and magical, the Berliners bannered their strengths in a thousand nuances of light and shadow, lyrical indulgence and ghostly tension. Petrenko’s fluid, long-lined approach to the darkly luminous march of first Nachtmusik invoked Mahler’s early songs of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, just as the gentle romanza of the second Nachtmusik, with its tinkling guitar and mandolin, recalled the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony. If one’s whole impression of the Berliners under Petrenko were reduced to two or three words, the first would be precision — of rhythmic pulse and ensemble attack, the very qualities that made the “shadowy” Scherzo a heady, enthralling, out-of-mind-and-body experience.
Yet, with the same supple inflection and control, the Berliners can blaze, too. The Seventh’s opening movement, built from a steady “rowing” pulse to great surges of golden sound, showed off the finesse of the French horns as well as the fine gleam of trumpets and low brasses. Across the entire panoply of this remarkable and idiosyncratic symphony, Berlin’s woodwinds and strings shone in both their respective voices and their interplay. Mahler’s creative palette was on eloquent display.
The final movement must have left its early audiences quite bewildered. Even now, when the public has had decades of generous exposure to Mahler’s intricate handiwork, the headlong flight and contrapuntal convolutions of the Seventh Symphony’s finale are remarkable to behold. It’s the rigor of the last movement of the Fifth Symphony taken to another level of elaboration, at once dazzling and defiant. Petrenko imposed an embraceable logic on this cascading music, and thereby brought the whole hour and 20-minute excursion to a thrilling finish.
To be sure, the packed house was thrilled. The response wasn’t so much an ovation as a great and sustained shout, a vocal roar that kept resurging in waves as Petrenko acknowledged principals and sections of his orchestra. As this listener left, the noise kept up unabated — a delirious Nachtmusik all its own.