First night: Kirill Petrenko’s Berlin Philharmonic sounds a tad too polite

First night: Kirill Petrenko’s Berlin Philharmonic sounds a tad too polite


norman lebrecht

November 11, 2022 has the first review (and picture) of last night’s long-awaited return to Carnegie Hall by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, with its chief conductor Kirill Petrenko. Our reviewer is the eminent arts critic and festival organiser, John Rockwell. Here’s John’s report, filed just after midnight.

by John Rockwell

Kirill Petrenko has had a downright astonishing career trajectory, from Omsk in Siberia to training in Austria to the Komische Oper in Berlin to the great opera houses (Munich) and symphony halls (now Berlin) of the world, most everywhere receiving rapturous acclaim.

So his three concerts with his Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall — a joint debut postponed two seasons by the pandemic – naturally drew an excited audience and elicited prolonged cheers.

I haven’t heard him nearly as often as audiences abroad. But I have heard him often enough live and recorded to venture some generalizations, and his work at Thursday night’s opening Carnegie concert, broadcast live worldwide, conformed to previous encounters.

The New York programs opened and will close on Saturday with Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, without intermission or another piece on the program. On Friday comes a mixed program of Andrew Norman, Korngold and Mozart (the First Violin Concerto with the Philharmonic’s American first concertmaster, Noah Bendix-Balgley, as soloist).

So the Mahler Seventh was the prize, to be heard twice and a Petrenko favourite: he recorded it with Ihe Bayerisches Staatsorchester when he was still running the opera in Munich.

First, before we return to Petrenko, the Philharmonic itself, although its superb playing has been sustained, maybe even perfected, under his leadership. The musicians crowded the Carnegie stage and sounded fabulous as a full ensemble. But it was the sectional and solo playing that astonished. Especially in the second movement, the first Nachtmusik, the tiniest details sounded elegant, particularly the wind solos echoed as from afar. It was magical.

Petrenko’s podium manner is restrained, precise, completely in control. He is the opposite of flamboyant, which is refreshing for those who abhor showboating. He knows what he wants and how to get it down to the last detail.

But, and here’s the but: Petrenko didn’t quite achieve the grand climaxes Mahler intended. They were loud; they made their mark. But they didn’t cap a movement in a deeply satisfying manner. Sometimes, as in the concluding Rondo finale, Petrenko seemed to rush the climactic passages in a way that undercut their impact. Wit and excitement were sacrificed first to beauty, finally to speed.

One has to think back to Leonard Bernstein, who did so much to establish the Mahler symphonies as repertory staples. Particularly to memories of his New York Philharmonic concerts in the 60s and his first go at recording them back then, all in Carnegie Hall, make a telling comparison with Petrenko. The Bernstein performances had a brash even if sometimes scrappy urgency missing on Thursday. 

The German word Schwung has multiple translations, but for me it suggests a driving energy that propels a score and a performance. Bernstein’s Mahler, and Mahler Seventh, had that propulsive drive and Petrenko’s did not.

This is a pattern that from what I’ve heard  characterizes Petrenko’s conducting in general. In opera and concerts his mastery is absolute, details pouring forth with entrancing clarity. But the passion can go missing.

Perhaps there is polite Mahler and impolite Mahler: careful, sane articulation of this music and something wilder, maybe cruder but more exciting. And to me, more satisfying. On Thursday Kirill Petrenko and his wonderful orchestra sounded just a bit too polite.


picture: Stephan Rabold


  • william osborne says:

    The German music world does not extol the “brash” and “scrappy” style of New York–though that might be a description of the city that is a bit too “polite.” Blustering, loud, and self-absorbed might be more accurate. Neither the Viennese or the Berliners view Mahler in that manner.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Let’s set aside the words “brash and “scrappy” for the sake of the argument: Bernstein performed plenty of Mahler with the VPO, in his manner—the manner John Rockwell missed— and the orchestra seemed happy to oblige. Or was it transactional?

      • William Osborne says:

        Interesting thoughts. The VPO gave Bernstein what he wanted, but that doesn’t necessarily imply it is their own taste. The German-speaking world has more subdued perspectives. I first noticed this decades ago reading comments of judges in music competitions. I was surprised to see German judges saying a player was too expressive. It is difficult to generalize and even more difficult to explain, but the general approach of Germans is to be more rhythmically strict, to illustrate the contours and structures of the music with objective clarity, to let the page speak for itself. In terms of spirit, I think Bernstein was more at home with American and UK orchestras, and with Santa Cecilia in Italy. In those places, brass players are more than happy to let it all hang out, as it were.

    • MMcGrath says:

      Well put! Thank you.

  • RW2013 says:

    How does “eminent” describe a critic?

    • William Osborne says:

      A long, distinguished, and influential career. Especially important is that Rockwell was one of the first to recognize the new musical world that would be created by the so-called downtown postmodernists in New York City. He wrote a book in 1983 about them and created a festival at Lincoln Center to celebrate their work–the first time that New York’s Up- and Downtown worlds met to such a degree. The effects of this work strongly influenced the next four decades of musical culture in the USA and abroad.

  • O. man says:

    Even before dealing with the conetnen this is a textbook review. relevant, detailed, clear. Bravo

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    Agree wholeheartedly. I prefer humanity and emotional insight to a high-definition scan of the printed page.

    • RW2013 says:

      Speaking from your experience with him in Bayreuth?

    • TishaDoll says:

      Exactly, when Mahler, of all composers a Cancer with Pisces moon and obsessed with death and this is the Nacht Musik symphony, is played with minimum emotion and great intellectual clarity and swiftness there is a real problem of form triumphing over substance even when played by the great deluxe BMV of an orchestra that is the Berlin Philharmonic

  • Tristan says:

    what does it mean ‘too polite’ ? I haven’t heard such stupidity before – just acknowledge that you normally don’t get such quality in the US, sorry guys! His concert of Mahler 7th in London was just out of this world.

    • Andrew Powell says:

      As indeed was the Mahler 7th in Munich — one of his crowning achievements in fact over the decade, along with Lulu and Meistersinger.

      Odd too is the notion of KP letting the passion “go missing.” Jet-lag? But we weren’t at Carnegie. Rockwell was.

      • Nydo says:

        Rockwell wasn’t alone at Carnegie. While I wasn’t there Thursday, I was there Friday and tonight (Saturday), and there was plenty of passion and expression within the framework of that Berlin sound. When compared to most American orchestras, I always find the phrasing to be much clearer in direction and change in intensity in Berlin. It will be interesting to see if Rockwell feels the same about the Friday night concert.

    • Bradley says:

      You speak the truth. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra (ticker symbol: CSO) gave some amazing Mahler performances back in the day, but it’s a totally different orchestra now. It’s safe to say that we are never going to have a US orchestra that will come anywhere near the standard of the CSO under Reiner. They had all their ducks in a row.

  • Kirk Heriot says:

    The wonderful thing about music is it speaks in different ways to different people, while inspiring all of us. To my ear, Mr. Petrenko did give us stunning climaxes that Mahler would have been pleased with. I found the performance to be a stunning combination of nuance and exploration of subtle melodies, while maintaining great power. I simply did not hear it the way Mr. Rockwell did.

    • Anon says:

      Had the pleasure of being at said symphony with same forces in Salzburg this year and can honestly say it was possibly the best best Mahler that I have ever witnessed. That being said, I’m no Pertrenko fanboy. I recall a Beethoven 7th, also there, a number of years back which had me fit to be tied where as other folk raved about it. I suppose that’s art for you… One person’s rubbish is another’s treasure. Each to their own and all that. Could never fault the playing though.

      • Tristan says:

        The 7th Beethoven was the best since Kleiber

      • Pedro says:

        I was also in Salzburg and left the concert a little disappointed. The three middle movements (which have some of the best music Mahler ever wrote) sounded hard-driven and without much sympathy for the beauty of the work. The finale was too fast. It semedo that the last chords mattered. No match for a recent wonderful performance in Paris by the Czech Phil. and Bychkov and no match also for the Vienna Phil. Turangalila with Salonen in the morning of the Berlin. Phil Mahler concert in Salzburg.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      I agree completely with Mr. Heriot. I was in the audience last night, and was utterly swept away by the performance. It had all the passion
      one could want, far more nuance than most performances of the seventh. Petrenko particularly astonished by the structural clarity he brought to music that can so easily seem merely chaotic: he combined the ideals of Szell and Bernstein; Apollo and Dionysus met in perfect accord.

  • Albert says:

    Respectfully disagree about the “polite” aspect. If anything, it was a bit too driven and brash, a la Solti at his worst. I do think there’s a craggier, earthier, more soulful element that Lenny brought to this piece and that was missing last night. But the orchestra sounds fabulous. From a technical standpoint, they are really untouchable.

  • Shalom Rackovsky says:

    I was there. Mr. Rockwell’s comment strikes me as utter nonsense. This performance was absolutely cosmic, up to and including the climaxes. Maybe what has him confused is the fact that, even at the most earth-shaking moments, the members of the orchestra were in complete, absolute control of their instruments.

    Critics have to find something to write, and they have a carefully hoarded stock of delicately nuanced negative comments which they can draw on to indicate that they actually know more than the audience members who actually loved the concert. They don’t.

  • John Kelly says:

    I cannot agree completely with Mr Rockwell here. I also was there last evening. It was a tour de force of orchestral playing certainly. Stefan Dohr was his usual sensational self for example. I found the performance ideal in tempi except for the finale which was definitely too fast. Here I agree that the climactic moments didn’t make the impact they did in performances I’ve heard (live) by Bernstein, Tennstedt and Maazel. But aside from this, absolutely brilliant. I’ve heard Petrenko a few times at the Proms for example. Mr. Rockwell’s characterization of his approach certainly didn’t apply to Tod and Verklarung or Beethovens 7th or Schmidts 4th. Korngold tonight. How wonderful the BPO now tours with something other than Brahms Symphonies and Heldenleben. And yes, I miss Rockwells outstanding reviews in the NY Times. Those were the days!

    • norman lebrecht says:

      But from now you can read him in

      • John Kelly says:

        Bravo. I will enjoy that. One line I remember from Mr. Rockwell was the first line of a review of Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic in Bruckner 8 around 1988 or 89 at Carnegie. “This was a concert to tell your grandchildren about……”. It was.

        • Andrew Powell says:

          That wasn’t Rockwell. It was Crutchfield.

          And it was the greatest night: Karajan had the orchestra rehearsing for it morning and afternoon, at the hall, even before the first Schubert/Strauß, as if venturing new territory. I remember standing at the schedule board thinking, he really works their asses off, and his own.

        • Andrew Powell says:

          No, you’re right. Crutchfield did the Schubert/Strauß, with eloquence.

          Five months later Karajan was dead.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        Something to look forward to. I fondly remember John Rockwell’s reviews in my favorite newspaper.

    • Tristan says:

      all rubbish as he is simply the most exciting around and poor folks in the US have boring ones like FWM for instance and overrated Dudamel and Muti who bores us since years
      Ok Nelsons is great and Yannick from time to time
      No one though comes close to Petrenko and the sound of the Berliner the Americans can only dream of….Harnoncourt I wasn’t a fan but he was wright about European sound!
      Vienna Berlin Leipzig Dresden Munich and Amsterdam – no others top them and the least Rattle with the LSO

  • John Kelly says:

    A further thought. The Berlin trombones are, like those in the Concertgebouw “not American” instruments. This makes for climaxes less impactful than say Bernsteins NYPO concerts…..Denis Wick converted the LSO to US made instruments in the 1960s and you hear the sound on the Previn Walton 1st recording for RCA. Big sound, heavy impact. I thought last evening how perfect this performance would have been with the Philadelphia orchestra trombones subbed in.

  • oberon481 says:

    How does the writer know what Mahler “intended”?

    • Mark says:

      Exactly! No one knows, including musicians. All we can do is make educated guesses based on a life full of dedicated work. If people don’t want to dedicate themselves to doing the “impossible,” then they really need to leave the profession. I’m so tired of robots and clones.

  • Stuart says:

    A very odd review. The comparison through the haze of 50 years to performances by Bernstein is dubious. [redacted]

    Did anyone else find this sentence (is it even a sentence) awkward: First, before we return to Petrenko, the Philharmonic itself, although its superb playing has been sustained, maybe even perfected, under his leadership?

    • norman lebrecht says:

      The answer to your question is, No.

      • William says:

        How so? That sentence doesn’t make any sense.

        “First, before we return to Petrenko, the Philharmonic itself, although its superb playing has been sustained, maybe even perfected, under his leadership.”

        How is that a complete thought? What is the “although” about? It’s like the sentence is about to make a negative point, but never does.

        Something like this would make much more sense:

        “First, before we return to Petrenko, the Philharmonic itself: although its superb playing has been sustained—maybe even perfected—under his leadership, [insert negative statement here]”

        The “although” being tied to something positive makes it seem as though something negative will follow… but it never does.

        And you can’t argue that the positive statement tied to the “although” is in contrast to something negative which had just been said about Mr. Petrenko, because up to that point in the review, nothing negative about him had been said yet… It just doesn’t make sense. Honestly kind of surprised that an author like yourself would defend it.

    • mmmmmkay says:

      That sentence, among others, would have benefited from having an exacting editor by the author’s side. You are completely correct that it is not even grammatical, as the main clause is missing a verb.

    • Scott says:

      Sentence in question: “First, before we return to Petrenko, the Philharmonic itself, although its superb playing has been sustained, maybe even perfected, under his leadership.” It a reduced version of “First, before we return to Petrenko, let’s look at the Philharmonic itself, although its superb playing has been sustained, maybe even perfected, under his leadership.”

    • Scott says:

      No. It isn’t awkward; it is wrong. It isn’t a sentence. There is no independent clause.

    • MMcGrath says:

      My high school English teacher would have marked that contorted messy sentence “awk” for awkward!

  • operacentric says:

    How typical that a NY reviewer should draw a comparison with the flamboyant, emotional, emotive, and rather out-of-date Bernstein;, a little like we, in London in the 1980s, used to compare Haitink’s cool Mahler to Tennstedt’s neurotic one, or Solti or Bernstein’s near-hysterical one. There’s room for all, of course.

    • John Kelly says:

      There is. For “too polite” Mahler, Franz Welser Most is the guy. Not my cup of tea at all. And I still miss Bernstein. The greatest in Mahler.

      • Nydo says:

        Welser-Most’s Mahler 9 at Carnegie Hall a few years ago was rushed and unstable, and didn’t allow for any long line or shape. His 5th a couple years later was similar, though it ultimately survived by virtue of the fabulous ensemble playing of Cleveland (the 9th sadly did not). Neither was what I would consider “too polite”, but more too shallow and much too mannered. We are probably referring to the same things with some semantic differences, though.

    • Michal Kaznowski says:

      ===there’s room for all==
      Yes ! Finally, a reasoned comment

    • Rafael Enrique Irizarry says:

      Excuse, fellow participant, but when did Maestro Bernstein’s Mahler become -as you wrote- “out-of-date”?
      I beg to differ, sir.

    • Wilbur says:

      What a boring world it would be without such “friction.”

  • Mark Cogley says:

    Actually Bernstein’s first performances of Mahler’s Symphonies 5 to 9 all took place in Philharmonic Hall, not Carnegie Hall. It doesn’t really seem reasonable to blame today’s conductors for not being Leonard Bernstein.

    • Karden says:

      Moreover, since the acoustics of that hall were notorious, how can a performance of anything or anyone in it be judged without dealing with the elephant standing in the corner of the room? Namely, the sound quality of a concert venue: Carnegie Hall, Boston Symphony Hall, Philharmonic Hall (later Avery Fisher, not David Geffen), the Musikverein, the Concertgebouw, the Royal Festival Hall, the Philharmonie, etc?

      To sidestep that basic factor is similar to the saying, “And other than THAT, Mrs Lincoln, how was the play?”

    • Billy says:

      Lenny (God bless his soul) was overrated as a conductor. Huge personality, intelligent, full of passion, jest for life, decent pianist, full of charisma, etc., but not at the level of someone like Furtwaengler or Tennstedt. They were literally gods amongst mortals.

    • Nydo says:

      And the recordings of 1-3 took place in the Manhattan Center (4 was recorded in the St. George Hotel). And let’s not forget that 8 wasn’t with the NYP, it was with the London Symphony, recorded in Walthamstow Town Hall. None of these recordings were in Carnegie Hall.

  • JB says:

    What we heard yesterday was orchestral playing on a stratospheric level. Petrenko’s approach was perfect in the three middle movements, where soloists could shine. It was a bit less convincing in the finale, but then this is for me anyhow a problematic movement and never a complete success.

  • sammy says:

    I mean this as a compliment, Petrenko is the Lang Lang of conductors: technically brilliant, doing things with details at tempi and precision no other pianist/orchestra can do and that you didn’t think was even possible. Technically stunning and perfect. But you do get the sense you’re being subjugated by virtuosic flawlessness, at the expense of organic vision, if there is one.

  • Pastore says:

    De gustibus- – – – .

  • Rafael Enrique Irizarry says:

    About music criticism, friends and fellow Mahlerians, here is a gem: decades ago, the ensemble library at the Indiana University (Bloomington) School of Music, pointedly displayed this tidbit of critical misfortune, which I paraphrase: “…among other troubles, the trumpet section had the audacity to arrive late on stage, not even caring to sneak in, right after the performance of the symphony (Mahler 1st) had begun.” I rest my case.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      Perhaps he thought a local drum and bugle corps volunteered a few players to play the off-stage trumpet calls. Thus, the orchestra’s own trumpets were in such awe, they forgot to go out on stage.

    • Nydo says:

      And here is another gem, by one New York Times Critic about twenty years ago, of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Carnegie performance of Mahler 3: “and its towering climax, extended almost beyond endurance over the bulls-eye strikes of the bass drum, a fittingly monumental — and meaningful — conclusion.”

      Um, there is no bass drum in the final minutes of the 3rd Symphony, but there are two sets of Timpani.

  • J says:

    The performance was smug, arrogant, and the ensemble playing distractingly bad.

  • mmmmmkay says:

    When a critic reviewing a Mahler concert writes “one has to think back to Leonard Bernstein” I already know they weren’t listening.

    It is really sad how many people are so imprinted by their formative musical experiences that they judge everything that follows by whether or not it conforms to that one single precedent. Great music is great because it can sustain myriad plausible, compelling, interesting and convincing interpretations. Anyone who doesn’t get that has no business writing about music.

    A critic should be telling me what a performers interpretive concept actually is and whether or not they succeeded at bringing *that* particular concept across in a logical and compelling fashion. They shouldn’t be telling me who their childhood favorite was.

  • Mock Mahler says:

    I’d be interested to hear more about how soloists and sections can astonish, and the full ensemble sound fabulous, and yet it is all too polite? While we’re at it, what exactly is the definition of “tad” in the critical lexicon?

    Perhaps Mr. Petrenko could have yelled the climaxes and gurned the wit? That might’ve been too much for octogenarians in the audience.

  • trumpetherald says:

    I was at their performance in Frankfurt this week.It was out of this world! Simply phenomenal!

  • Thornhill says:

    Mr. Rockwell needs to check his facts — he says that Bernstein recorded Mahler in Carnegie Hall during the 1960s. Nope. None were recorded there.

    And if his intent was to say that Bernstein conducted the symphonies during the 1960s in Carnegie Hall, the NYP moved to Lincoln Center in 1962.

  • Sol Siegel says:

    My thought while listening to this performance (and I had to listen, because I could hardly see anything from my side-balcony seat, except for the brass and the guitar and mandolin players way off to the side) was that it was like listening to a kaleidoscope. This is meant as praise: The symphony is such a crazed landscape of shifting moods and orchestral colors, and I thought Petrenko made the most of it. Fabulously played, of course. There are many ways to play this symphony, and this was as valid as any.

  • MMcGrath says:

    Ah well. One man’s opinion.
    Pure twaddle: “A tad too polite.” I found their 7th a breath-taking experience.

    Different from Bernstein’s rendition? Sure. Less Schmalz. But I loved that version, too, esp. live at Avery Fischer.

    How tedious for performers to have to measure up to analytic, fault-finding critics. While at the same time the deafening roar of approval envelopes them from the auditorium.

  • microview says:

    So what would a ‘flamboyant’ Petrenko look like? (!)

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    As a rabid enthusiast of Mahler’s music, I’m just happy that we’re now having such high caliber performances of Mahler this soon after the pandemic lock-down – high caliber to such a degree, that they lend us the luxury of debating the extent to which they might or might not be, ‘too polite’. Vanska and the Minnesota Symphony are wrapping up their Mahler cycle this weekend with the third symphony. Mahler 3, 9 and 8 will eventually show up on the BIS label (cd/sacd hybrid discs). S.F. Symphony has give three fine Mahler performances since the lock-down. I’m grateful.

  • JB says:

    When the Berlin Philharmonic played the last time in Carnegie Hall, in 2016 with Rattle, they also played Mahler 7. Anybody heard both and can compare ?

    • Nydo says:

      I heard both. I actually think that Rockwell’s observations fit that Rattle performance better than the current one. The Rattle performance wasn’t nearly as involving, in my opinion. As the last time for me to hear Rattle with Berlin, it was a bit disappointing, given the quality of some of the appearances a few years before (the Schonberg performances, some of the Beethoven cycle, and the Rite of Spring Project come to mind).

  • Tony Sanderson says:

    I was at the BBC Proms when the Berlin Phil played Mahler’s seventh and I agree that Petrenko brought out the finer points of detail exceptionally well and brought great transparency to the orchestral texture. Whether he brought out the climaxes as well as Bernstein, I can’t say, but I thought it a fine performance.

    So here are some related points.

    How well can we really compare with artists of decades ago? I remember a Bernstein concert at the Royal Albert Hall with the LSO commemorating the first anniversary of Stravinsky’s death. The preformance of the Symphony of Psalms really blew me away. I wouldn’t try to comapre with a contemporary perfomance though. The perfomance of the Rite of Spring at that concert lacked energy I thought. I found a performance of the Rite by Dudamel with the LAPO far more exciting, but I couldn’t give an analysis of why at such a distance of time. I can imaging why Bernstein’s Rite may have seemed subdued given the circumstances.

    It was Jansons who said that Bernstein’s way with Mahler had gone out of fashion.

    How much does it matter what the critics think? I was at the Brbican last Sunday for the LSO concerts and on the London Underground, a fellow concert goer not known to me saw our programmes and said how much she enjoyed the concert. The concert was panned in the Daily Telegraph. Isn’t the main thing that the punters go away happy that they have had a great evening?

    • Graham Elliott says:

      I played in that LSO concert commemorating the first anniversary of Stravinsky death. Bernstein was unwell during the first rehearsal which is another story. The rehearsals were taken over by David Meeshum the LSO principal second violinist. Bernstein returned on the day of the concert which is why the Rite might have not had it’s usual energy.

  • Tony Sanderson says:

    Graham, Thanks for your interesting post. As I said, the Symphony of Psalms was wonderful and I came away feeling very uplifted and so the evening was a very positive experience overall despite the sad nature of the occasion.

  • Ben says:

    I was there in the 2nd Mahler 7th concert. It reminds me: I am living a great life.

    Thank you Maestro Petrenko & the Berliner Philharmoniker!