IN: Reviews

Berliners and Petrenko Exceed Lofty Expectations


Noah Bendix-Balgley (Stephan Rabold photo)

Palpable anticipation filled the Symphony Hall air Sunday evening as Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic, on tour in the United States, prepared to play in Boston on behalf of the Celebrity Series. Judging from the length and intensity of the ovations from the near-capacity audience, Boston’ s expectations of this superlative ensemble were more than fulfilled. More than just achieving the public success, the event led us to new horizons and deepening insights.

It was challenging experience. Avoiding standard repertoire, eschewing the more familiar touring fare of Brahms and Bruckner and Mahler, Petrenko chose three lesser-known works that paid homage, each in its own way, to the orchestra’ s host country, our own imperfect United States. The program comprised a witty, epigrammatic curtain opener Unstuck by the young American composer Andrew Norman (b. 1979), a polished reading of an early Mozart violin concerto, the K207 in B-flat Major, with American-born soloist/concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley [see my interview HERE]; and, post-intermission, a questioning, uncomfortable near-masterpiece from post-World-War II by the Viennese-raised, naturalized American, Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), better known to most of us as a father of American sound-film music [editor’s note: along with emigres Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Frederick Hollander, Hanns Eisler, and Dimitri Tiomkin].

The Berliner is a mighty collective enterprise, and when they make a big, loud tutti sound the effect on the listener is uniquely intense. But it is also full of outstanding individuals and sections (Oh, those horns!). My companion was enthused by the appearance, in the flesh, of some superstar woodwind soloists whose faces and characteristic sounds are now familiar via the orchestra’ s digital streaming channel. Unstuck, witty, hip, and gleefully neurotic, made therefore for a very effective curtain raiser. Bits and pieces of everything float by, providing plenty of places for the various instrumental choirs to shine. And we heard some terrific percussion playing. The final, cello-centered measures were, as they say, a hoot, as principal cellist Ludwig Quandt (another familiar presence from those streaming concerts) skidded up his A string to the utmost heights, producing spooky pitches even as his left hand went north of his fingerboard.

Things became more normal as the touring orchestra on show progressed to the Mozart concerto. In the best of all possible worlds, a topnotch German orchestra performed a piece by a core-repertoire Germanic composer. The K. 207 is a charmer, composed in Salzburg by the 17-year-old prodigy. First concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley performed with sweet tone, impeccable intonation, and a fine, lyrical sense of line. He also composed the well-conceived and effective cadenzas. The orchestra entered fully into it, with many smiles and nods passing around the various desks. Everyone seemed to catch fire in the vigorous finale as Balgley, relaxing a bit, also got fully into the swing of things. In this repertoire, this writer prefers the leaner, lighter sound of period instruments, and perhaps even this modern instrument ensemble could have lightened up just a tad. These excellent players could have done it all without a conductor, but Petrenko beat time affably. Much of the audience gave this performance a standing ovation, something unusual at half-time.

Unusual, too, was Bendix-Balgley’s choice of encore material: two little Yiddish-Klezmer tunes, performed with style, grace and humor. Delightful they were, but something more than that, as we are all aware of this magnificent institution’ s complicated history. Klezmer tunes provided the most moving moment of the first half, providing transition to what followed after intermission.

The Berliners’ major offering, Korngold’ s 1947-1952 Symphony in F-sharp Major, failed at its initial, under-rehearsed radio debut in postwar Vienna. We are told that the conductor of that premiere did not hold the composer in high esteem. And lo, here in Boston, eyebrows rose in certain quarters as it was learned that Petrenko would feature it as the major work in his Boston debut with the Berliners.

Petrenko considers the symphony to be a masterpiece, and he clearly believes in it deeply. His choice also dovetails with his recent programming emphasis on composers, many of them Jewish, who, to smaller or larger extent fell victim to the Nazis, and with his consideration of identity in general. The conductor made the right call. This symphony, contradictions and all, rises to significance and importance.

Korngold represents the “lost generation” master par excellence. Celebrated as a young prodigy, exiled as Germany and Austria embraced Naziism, re-invented as a genius of illustrative film music, he subsequently failed to reclaim his pre-Hitler niche, rejected by both American and Austrian musical elites after the war.

With his late-Romantic musical language, Korngold was hardly the only composer in music history to create “anachronistic” music. The 13th-century troubadour, Guiraut Riquier, one of the last of his line, lamented that he was born too late. And the greatest one of them all, J.S. Bach, remained a crusty contrapuntist as the galant style gained ground in Europe. Closer to our own time, a number of 20th-century composers created largely outside the tenets of modernism: Rachmaninoff, Ernest Bloch, post-Berlin Kurt Weill, even our own Randall Thompson, also went their own ways, apart from the modernist mainstream. Korngold fell from grace more painfully, and I wonder if his relatively early death was not related to the severity of his disappointments.

Although the symphony quotes, so I am told, from some of Korngold’ s film scores, it is not movie music, but rather a four-movement work in the Viennese mold: an opening movement, questioning and challenging, with a “modernist” slant; a scherzo and trio; an elegiac slow movement, arguably its emotional center; and a concluding, upbeat finale mixing new material with motivic and thematic elements from earlier on.

Much of this writing is pictorial in an almost-cinematic sense. In the opening bars of the first movement, the plaintive clarinet solo (beautifully played by principal Wenzel Fuchs) rising abouve harsh, staccato chords, evoked the anguish of the individual during harsh, menacing times (has anyone experienced feeling like that recently?). Berliner flautist Jelke Weber says the swooping horn passages remind her of the American prairie. This writer, too, imagines American pastorale during the passages, in the first movement and the finale, that quote, (perhaps unconsciously?), a motif from Aaron Copland’ s 1944 ballet, Appalachian Spring. And then, Korngold briefly evokes “Over There” at two points in the finale. Notwithstanding these American or neo-American influences, the formal matrix and the harmonic language sounds thoroughly central European, circa 1900. 

Kirill Petrenko (Stephan Rabold photo)

More than one listener has raised the question of coherence. Jelke, in an online conversation available at the Berliner’ s “Digital Concert Hall,” also questions whether the many beautifully conceived and scored episodes that pass us by as we experience it add up to a whole. Is there, she queries, a deeper meaning?

The contradictions within a symphony that may appear partially homeless and uprooted will not go easily away. The New York Times, in its occasionally snarky preview of November 11th, opines that Korngold’s Symphony “sounds weary, burdened, at times even angry to be fighting its battles once again…remarkably hollow.”

This writer begs to differ, and strongly, with the evaluation of the august Times (and he notes that the paper of record got a lot wrong about the recent election, too). We may be facing a contradictory, imperfect work. It is, however, anything but hollow. The composer clearly wanted to make a serious statement, and he deployed his very considerable musical gifts, and his lived experience as an exile, to that end.

Insofar as an instrumental expression can be about something other than itself, this one clearly evokes the between-two-worlds cursus of the composer, and his fears and hopes during the war and immediate-postwar years. Korngold insisted that no program applied. But he clearly baked the late 1940’ s willy-nilly into it. The title page offers one key to comprehension in its dedication to the memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the president is present, not simply as a dedicatee, but also as an actor in the symphony. Roosevelt becomes the center/subject of the extensive slow movement, and his signature motif forms a significant presence moving forward afterwards. Was this Korngold’ s Eroica?

Korngold, we are told, created leitmotivs for the characters in the films he scored. Has anyone previously noticed in this symphony that the three-note motif, permeating the entire Adagio, and returning again in the finale, derives from the late president’ s name? The motif can be solfèged Fa-Do-Re. That gives us, of course, “F.D.R.,” and his initials drive the musical material, creating through this movement a genuinely loving and reverential memorial to a great man.

The “Roosevelt” symphony’ s celebratory finale clearly constitutes some sort of summing-up. Program annotator Steven Ledbetter notes a somber self-quotation from the composer’ s score to the film King’ s Row. The dream of American pastoral returns with the Coplandesque tune first heard in the opening movement, now morphed into a vigorous, angular theme, then reprised in a nostalgically. And the F.D.R. theme/motif reemerges both in a quick passage and a reprise of the third-movement elegy. Shortly before the end, Korngold restates a menacing marcia-ostinato from the opening movement, as if to say, “The war is over, but the menace is not dead.”

The eccentricities of the music remain, but may be heard, in this writer’ s view, as features rather than bugs. Korngold juxtaposed Viennese tonal language with formal schema, and cinematic dream images, with Americanisms, while he contrasted the anxieties of the war years with hopes for a happier future. These multitudes coexist in this big, quasi-epic, produced by someone whom we now see was an important creator of the 20th century.

Petrenko is deeply invested in this music, and as he directed, his small frame became a vessel for transmitting Korngold’ s vision, most remarkably perhaps in the profoundly moving Adagio. One could sense the electricity flowing from the conductor to these deeply engaged, supremely gifted musicians. Every second conveyed energy and meaning; this close-to-ideal performance entirely merited the standing ovation that followed on the last note. Thanks to this orchestra and its leader for a memorable evening!

Joel Cohen is director of Camerata Mediterranea and music director emeritus of The Boston Camerata. He most recently created  “We’ll Be There,” a program of American spirituals, Black and White, for Camerata appearances in Boston and New York.


20 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. “This writer begs to differ..” Oy!
    Why pretend you have a difference of opinion with “the evaluation of the august Times … the paper of record”? You disagree with Zachary Woolfe, who reviewed the Korngold for that paper. You’re not David and he’s not Goliath.

    Comment by Raymond — November 14, 2022 at 9:04 pm

  2. Actually, that negative-leaning feature piece on the Korngold symphony was by David Allen. For better or for worse, an evaluation of that kind in the Times makes more of an impact than just any Joe’s opinion spouted out at some bar. You are right, however, Raymond. The NYT is not, or is no longer, Goliath.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — November 14, 2022 at 9:42 pm

  3. Thank you, Joel Cohen for this excellent review, and thanks as well to the Celebrity Series for bringing the Berlin Phil to Boston once again. For this concert and its previous concert in Symphony Hall under Sir Simon Rattle, the orchestra used risers. I noticed in a photo of the orchestra with Koussevitsky hung in the corridor outside the BSO gift shop, that our orchestra was pictured on risers. Is it time for the BSO to consider using risers in concerts? To my ears, the risers improved sound, and to my eyes, they improved visibility as well. Also, like the LA Phil, the Berlin Phil places second violins to the right of the conductor. That seating, I think, contributed to the magnificent sound from both orchestras.
    Robert J. Scholnick

    Comment by Robert J. Scholnick — November 15, 2022 at 8:11 am

  4. Yes! Risers! Also save ears of players in front of brass. and perhaps obviates needs for sound shields.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 15, 2022 at 9:04 am

  5. I, too, vote for the risers.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — November 15, 2022 at 9:29 am

  6. Risers? Aye!

    A wonderful account of this terrific, ear-opening concert – so imaginatively conceived, and played with such virtuosity and conviction. The performance I found especially moving: Noah Bendix-Balgley’s fluent, spirited encore wedding two klezmorim of Leone Sinigaglie.

    Comment by nimitta — November 15, 2022 at 10:47 am

  7. Yes, the klezmer tunes (not by the excellent Italian-Jewish Sinigaglia btw) had, in this particular context, a deeper resonance despite their playful surface. History can be unbearable to contemplate. Dancing on the graves of the departed represents the courage we all need to continue. Kudos to Noah, to Petrenko, and to the orchestra.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — November 15, 2022 at 10:59 am

  8. A very insightful review, which sees the work as it is and not what someone believes it should have been. I have known the score since the first stereo LP, but I have missed the FDR allusions until now. Thanks. It gives me another reason to listen again to this sumptuous work.

    Comment by Steve Schwartz — November 15, 2022 at 11:52 am

  9. My sense, Steve, is that Korngold felt he needed to camouflage some of the clearly programmatic/pictorial elements of the first movement and the finale, lest he be accused of falling back into his cinema ethos. So he left some dimensions of his symphony, such as the literalness of the F.D.R. motif, to be uncovered and discussed later. I don’t know all of the literature around this piece, but has anyone else heretofore gone deeper into the Roosevelt/war aspect?

    Comment by Joel Cohen — November 15, 2022 at 2:39 pm

  10. Risers? NO! We’ve been through this before. They kill the bass and also force the orchestra to use the stage extension more often. Sabine noted that the stage is too small for many works and that when the extension was to be used, the acoustics would be compromised. Indeed this is true.

    Comment by John F Allen — November 15, 2022 at 2:41 pm

  11. What a wonderfully perceptive and evocative review, Joel. I had no idea about the FDR reference! I agree the Korngold deserves to be heard more, as a snapshot of an era, in addition to its expressive value – although I think it offers more memorable “licks” (especially those horns!) than it does coherent narrative unity.

    I watched a different presentation of this concert (from Nov 4) via the BPO’s Digital Concert Hall (for me, the gold standard for digital integration of classical concerts) and will note that Bendix-Balgley played a (rather cheeky) movement from a Hindemith sonata, based on variations of Mozart’s “Komm, lieber Mai,” as his encore. Interesting to see the switch-up to klezmer for an audience of his countryfolk – or perhaps he was aware of the long tradition of klezmer played right down the road at NEC!

    Comment by Jason McCool — November 15, 2022 at 5:10 pm

  12. Jason, there is more on Bendix-Balgley’s relation to klezmer music in the interview he gave the Intelligencer a few days ago.

    Regarding the episodic nature of the Korngold symphony: it is certainly a characteristic of this sometimes-uncomfortable piece. But the work as a whole coheres better on rehearing, as the motivic symbolism and the narrative journey become more evident.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — November 16, 2022 at 10:04 am

  13. Thanks for a very comprehensive review. I heard the Berliners play this program at Carnegie Hall. Your commentary on the Korngold Symphony is very thorough. It’s not an easy work and I must’ve listened to the John Wilson recording about 30 times to familiarize myself with it. I also have the (less good) recordings by Kempe and Welser Most. Petrenko kept it moving which is certainly what this piece needs, and usually doesn’t get….without that it becomes very difficult to follow and it can just become even boring. Of course it helps to have the Berlin Phil playing it with their plush, deep, robust sound.
    I have been to numerous concerts at Symphony Hall, which in my opinion is the finest concert hall in the United States and is even better than the Musikverein. Some people have mentioned risers. The BPO use them routinely when they come to Carnegie and that matches their arrangement in the Philharmonie in Berlin. I hope that the BSO doesn’t use them. As someone mentioned, risers diminish the bass sound significantly. Basses on the left facing the audience – yes (as per Petrenko), on risers – no unless they are, Stokowski-style, arrayed across the whole back of the orchestra. At Carnegie the Philadelphia Orchestra always plays on the floor (no risers). The difference is palpable. They’ve been playing at Carnegie over 100 years pretty much every month during the season. They know what they’re doing.

    Comment by John F Kelly — November 16, 2022 at 10:53 am

  14. That is, by the way, one hell of a bass section. I learn from some documentation that a full bass sound has been a characteristic of the Berliner across the years. The current two principals (the younger one of them absent from this tour) are awesome players.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — November 16, 2022 at 11:48 am

  15. The Berliners posted this very informative video essay and interview with composer Andrew Norman. One of the players walks along New York’s High Line as they explore the city and its connection with “Unstuck”—well worth watching.

    Comment by Stephen Owades — November 16, 2022 at 11:50 am

  16. Re risers:

    An engaging, if factually unreliable, book of memoirs by a BSO violist spent a fair bit of time mourning the loss of risers. I think he said Munch got rid of most of them, and Leinsdorf swept the stage quite clean. The author was convinced that a lot of the Koussevitzky magic vanished in the process.

    I know he didn’t make a great impression with the orchestra, but might the records show what Sir Roger Norrington used in his visits to the BSO? IIRC, he did put the basses at the center of the back wall, but I don’t know if there were risers there, or if I am even remembering that correctly. Anyway, one of their broadcasts together of a RVW symphony had a wonderfully transparent and engaging sound.

    Comment by SD Gagliano — November 26, 2022 at 4:59 pm

  17. In his 2018 lecture on “Hearing Boston and Leipzig” the acoustician David Griesinger adds the following comment below a picture of the BSO at Symphony Hall: “Notice that the direct sound of the woodwinds and brass from the current stage is blocked by the strings and sometimes by the piano. Risers for the back half of the orchestra would improve the proximity of many instruments for the audience on the floor.” I might add that for its recent performance of “Figaro” at Symphony Hall, H&H used risers for the woodwinds. From my seat in the second balcony left, row A, seat 14, the sound of the entire orchestra was glorious.

    Robert J. Scholnick

    Comment by Robert J. Scholnick — November 27, 2022 at 11:52 am

  18. Risers : absolutely. Sitting front of center second balcony, the unforced blend and cohesion from Berlin was something magical. And yes, those horns.

    Korngold is a fascinating composer, from his early operas, to his 20s work as a ‘pasticheur’ of others’ operettae, to his beautifully crafted film work of the ’30s and ’40s. His sum output was given a thorough and typicaly Bardsian (Bavian?) overview in summer 2019 at the 30th Bard summer festival, which produced a fine companion book of essays “Korngold and his world” (Princeton University Press 2019 —

    In the Symphony, we heard material from the films “Elizabeth and Essex” (1939) and “Kings Row” (1942), either in quotation or adaptation. Korngold’s scores for Warner Bros. 1936-1946 vary in quality, but at their best — “Robin Hood”, “The Sea Hawk,” “Kings Row” — are masterpieces of the genre. The idea of leitmotiv attaches not only to characters but also themes, places, or objects. The debt to Strauss and Puccini is clear, to be sure, and the general lushness and lavish provision of harp glissandi aren’t, of course, for everyone. But in their complexity, craft, and intricacy these scores highlight the limitation of so much other film scoring, then and now.

    Certain readers will remember the electrifying “West Side Story” at Symphony Hall several years ago, accompanied by full orchestra. It would be tremendous to have a similar experience with one of the great Korngold scores.

    Comment by Jonathan Ambrosino — November 27, 2022 at 12:29 pm

  19. For a symphonic, no-holds-barred performance of a Korngold film score, I can recommend, on the Berlin Phil streaming channel, Simon Rattle leading excerpts from the Robin Hood score, with all the players in topnotch form. As I recall, John Mauceri made the edition.

    This said, I think the symphony moves beyond the composer’s Vienna phase and the Hollywood phase, and successfully reaches into new, profounder territory. All the more regret, therefore, that Korngold faced late-career rejection, and an early death.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — November 28, 2022 at 6:34 pm

  20. Risers? Again no. I was the one who brought WEST SIDE STORY to the Boston Symphony, Symphony Hall and Tanglewood. I also arraigned for Marni Nixon to join us. Yes it truly did sound wonderful, probably better than anywhere else it has been performed. That’s why I did it. And yes the orchestra performed without risers. I should also point out that both James Levine and Bernard Haitink refused to use them.

    Comment by John F Allen — November 30, 2022 at 1:24 am

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