Kirill Petrenko conducts Strauss, Shostakovich and Norman
31 Oct 2020
Sabina (arr. for string orchestra) (12 min.)
Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings (31 min.)
Symphony No. 9 in E flat major, op. 70 (30 min.)
4′33″ (4 min.)
Kirill Petrenko in conversation with Eva-Maria Tomasi (19 min.)
Death without Transfiguration
Richard Richard Strauss and Dmitri Shostakovich, four decades apart, both experienced the outcome of World War II. One was at the end of his life, the other in the middle of his; one was an artistic representative of the collapsing Third Reich, the other a figurehead of the victorious Soviet Union. In 1945, both produced highly personal reactions to their experiences of the last war years. These two works, as one might suspect, could hardly be more different.
For a number of years, Richard Strauss had been writing only for himself (he called this pastime “wrist exercises”) and long ago had declared his actual creative output finished. Following the destruction of Munich’s National Theatre and after propaganda minister Goebbels had stopped musical life entirely to concentrate on “total war”, Strauss’s mission in life lay in ruins. In Metamorphosen, begun in 1944 and completed on 12 April 1945, he gave expression to his grief over this cultural loss in a densely woven, melancholy, nearly half-hour “study for 23 solo strings”: death – only without transfiguration. At the very end, the basses quote the funeral march from Beethoven’s “Eroica”, which Strauss underlaid with the words “In memoriam!”. Exactly to what or whom he was referring remains ambivalent. Musically at least the constant transformation is quite clear, because practically all the themes and motifs are interrelated. Everything is constantly in flux and seems to be growing out of everything else.
Dmitri Shostakovich was burdened with the expectations of a giant socialist state and its rulers, who after the war wanted to hear a large-scale victory symphony with chorus and soloists from the Soviet Union’s most prominent composer. But instead of the triumphant piece he promised to provide, Shostakovich delivered something completely unheroic, modestly scored and buoyant as his Ninth Symphony. It too eschews transfiguration and avoids pathos. Instead we get piping in the woods. Haydn and Mozart couldn’t have pulled off a more classical sonata-form first movement, although its themes admittedly burst metrical frameworks, elongate bars and trip up listeners. In the slow movement, every attempted upturn by the clarinet and the other woodwind joining or following it is followed by a slump. The piccolo’s last long note dies away – “morendo”. In the Largo inserted between the scherzo and finale, the bassoon voices its grievance against the imperious brass. The last movement’s overwrought exuberance may in the end strike one as disingenuous. The audience was disconcerted, the critics indignant: this is not how one imagined rejoicing over peace. Did Shostakovich refuse to write a work of glorification because he was incapable of it, or might this have been the encrypted protest of a dissident? Stalin couldn’t make heads or tails of it, and that was fatal. Before long the composer would have to pay bitterly with a ban by the Stalinist cultural authorities.
At this moment, the Berliner Philharmoniker had actually expected to be playing a large-scale work by Andrew Norman on a tour of the USA. Norman is already well known to the orchestra and has written several works for the Berlin Philharmonic Foundation. Sabina was originally composed for string trio as the last movement of The Companion Guide to Rome, a cycle comprising nine miniatures inspired by Roman churches, which was given its world premiere ten years ago by the Scharoun Ensemble at the American Academy in Rome. The composer visited “the ancient church of Santa Sabina on Rome's Aventine Hill” and while listening to the morning mass, he watches the sunrise from within the church. As “the light shines through these intricately patterned windows” and “luminous designs appear all over the church’s marble and mosaic surfaces”, he is “struck by both its enveloping, golden warmth and the delicacy and complexity of its effects”. As the intensity builds in Sabina, the ratio between music and noise in the mixture of sounds is constantly rebalanced to correspond with the changing light. In addition to the original version, there are already versions for solo viola and solo cello. Now the composer has augmented his study of light for full string orchestra.
Since the 2019/20 season, Kirill Petrenko has been chief conductor and artistic director of the Berliner Philharmoniker. He received his training first in Russia, then in Austria. The international music world first became aware of him when he premiered Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung at the Meiningen Theater in 2001, directed by Christine Mielitz and designed by Alfred Hrdlicka, performed on four consecutive days. He conducted the cycle for the second time twelve years later at the Bayreuth Festival. At the same time, Kirill Petrenko took up his post as general music director of Bayerische Staatsoper, his third leading position at an opera house after Meiningen and the Komische Oper Berlin. He also made guest appearances at the world’s top opera houses (from the Wiener Staatsoper, Covent Garden in London and the Opéra National in Paris to the Metropolitan Opera in New York) as well as with the great international symphony orchestras – in Vienna, Munich, Dresden, Paris, Amsterdam, London, Rome, Chicago, Cleveland and Israel. He made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2006. Kirill Petrenko also appears with the Berliner Philharmoniker outside of Berlin – on tour and of course in the Digital Concert Hall. Selected performances are also available as recordings; most recently released was an edition with symphonic works by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Franz Schmidt and Rudi Stephan.