Often, people ask critics, “What is the best orchestra? What’s your favorite orchestra? Who’s better, this one or that one?” I always say, it depends on the conductor. Orchestras cannot be judged independently—without consideration of the conductor. It all comes down to the man, or woman, on the podium, leading.
Take the Big Five orchestras in the United States—plus Pittsburgh, L.A., San Francisco, and any other orchestra you fancy. Which is best? What’s the ranking? As I hear it, these orchestras are roughly equal, in personnel—in overall ability. Who’s conducting? That’s the question.
These orchestras are like an excellent Steinway piano, or a Stradivarius violin. Okay—who’s playing?
So, I don’t really have opinions of orchestras. Except for two—and they are in Europe, about 420 miles apart: the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. They are gleaming, glowing, glorious machines, or “players.” The conductor matters, of course. He or she always does. But strictly on their own—regardless of who’s conducting—these orchestras are a pleasure to hear.
One of them, the Berlin Philharmonic, was in Carnegie Hall on Saturday night, to play one piece, one masterpiece: the Symphony No. 7 of Mahler. On the podium was Kirill Petrenko, Russian-born, who has been the chief conductor of the orchestra since 2019.
Think of it: You’re sitting in your seat and the orchestra takes the stage. There, sitting in the principal flute’s chair, is Emmanuel Pahud. There, sitting in the principal French horn’s chair, is Stefan Dohr. These are two of the best instrumentalists in all the world. The other principals, though less famous, are in the same league (or near it). And the very last player in any section is surely no slouch.
Saturday night, the acoustics of Carnegie Hall were an excellent partner. The Berlin Philharmonic and these acoustics are a formidable, and sumptuous, and technicolor, combination.
The Mahler Seventh is a strange work, from a strange composer. I use “strange” in the sense of Harold Bloom, the late literary critic. It was one of his highest compliments. By “strange” he meant unusual, different, new, original, maybe a little eccentric—its own thing. Maestro Petrenko’s approach to the Seventh was essentially Classical. He was rigorous. He wanted the piece to cohere. He did not let it wander or linger much. Toscanini might have conducted Mahler this way, if he had conducted it at all.
Was Petrenko cold and hard? No, not in my judgment—although I have quarrels about the last movement, which I will get to in due course.
The first movement was intelligent, comprehensible, and beautiful. When it was over, some in the audience applauded—and were immediately shushed by others. I can’t tell you how much I hate that shushing. It is far worse, always, than any applause. And I believe Mahler would have expected you to applaud after the first movement, and would have been bewildered if you didn’t.
I first heard Stefan Dohr, the French-horn player, in the 2002–3 season, here in New York. He played with the Ensemble Wien-Berlin in Alice Tully Hall. “He did things on that instrument that are just not supposed to be done on that instrument,” I wrote. He “is almost a coloratura French hornist, which is a ridiculous phrase, until you actually hear Dohr. In addition, he can summon up any number of colors. A young man, he may well be the king of his instrument.”
In the Mahler Seventh, he was unbelievably—though characteristically—supple and nuanced. If a horn is stout and uncracking, I am satisfied. But Dohr adheres to a higher standard. He also plays with extraordinary confidence (as we would too, if we played like that). Horn-playing is supposed to be a high-wire act. For this guy, it’s a walk down a country lane.
About the second movement, here is something specific: the unison playing of the double basses was exemplary. It was accurate, but also full of character. And here is something general: the entire performance, from Petrenko and the Berliners, was full of character. Incisive. Exciting. Alive. There were little explosions of sound, leaping off the page.
Talk about leaping: the dancing in the third movement, the Scherzo, had you practically out of your chair. Also, the rhythm in this movement is exceptionally tricky. Petrenko was alert, and so were his forces.
In the fourth movement, where were the guitar and the mandolin? I mean, where were they physically? My friend and fellow critic Fred Kirshnit likes them front and center. On Saturday night, they were stage left, next to the harps. But they were audible and fine. This movement had its dearness. It was sentimental without falling into sentimentalism—an excess of sentiment. The clarinet at the end fluttered memorably.
The last movement—that glorious, wedding-like C-major celebration—was virtuosic, and dazzling, and loud. But, in my judgment, it was also cold and hard: bulled through. I would have liked more warmth, more exaltation. And I will give you a small detail: the violins suffered some weird intonation, which goes to show you that the Berlin Philharmonic, like other orchestras, and other things, is mortal, after all.
No matter. This had been a mightily impressive performance, and the audience screamed as I had not heard an audience scream—hoot and holler—in some time.
A footnote: principal players, as they stood and bowed, always gestured to other members of their section.
A second footnote: One night, many years ago, I arrived at Carnegie Hall to hear a Mahler Seventh. I said to Patrick J. Smith, the distinguished critic, well-known to readers of The New Criterion, “This is a long sit.” “No,” he said, nonchalantly. “It’s less long than an act of Götterdämmerung, and an act of Die Meistersinger.” So true, so true.
And a third: Lorin Maazel said of Beethoven something like this: “He’s your best friend. He’ll rejoice with you when you’re up; he’ll console you when you’re down. He’ll be with you through thick and thin.” I believe the same is true of Gustav Mahler.