In choosing Petrenko, the Berlin players are putting the music first

His symphonic repertoire is small, and his media experience even smaller, but Kirill Petrenko is a bold and an inspired choice for music director of the Berlin Philharmonic

From a narrowly British perspective, the first response to the announcement that Kirill Petrenko is new chief conductor designate of the Berlin Philharmonic might be: “Who on Earth is he?” Or maybe: “Haven’t you got his first name wrong? Surely it’s Vasily Petrenko?”

Well, it’s definitely not. And although Petrenko, K, (no relation, incidentally, to the music director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra) may be relatively unfamiliar in the UK – despite appearances with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and a production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden – he has been one of the outstanding conductors of his generation in the rest of Europe.

43-year-old Petrenko’s admission of feeling euphoric and overwhelmed at his appointment is no PR-guff: he is a conductor of huge talent and a person of absolute seriousness and complete commitment to the music he’s performing, as well as a musician of deep humility.

Petrenko has spoken, in an interview with Sarah Willis, a Berlin Phil horn player, about being “very shy” the first time he conducted this “great orchestra” in 2006 (the first of only three programmes he has led with them – a planned performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony at the end of last year was cancelled). But by far the biggest recommendations on his CV so far are his current job running the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich and his seasons leading Bayreuth’s latest production of the Ring cycle – a disaster theatrically, not brilliant vocally, but redeemed orchestrally and musically by Petrenko’s performance in the pit.

With Petrenko’s dedication to his opera house, and to the world of opera more generally (he was in charge of the Komische Oper in Berlin between 2002 and 2007), his experience in the symphonic repertoire is strikingly small, despite his engagements with orchestras including the Concertgebouw, the Chicago Symphony, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. His discography is relatively minute, and he is someone for whom the idea of media-savviness is cosmically remote. (Petrenko hasn’t given interviews to journalists for years – the German paper Die Welt called him “the most unknown famous conductor in the world”, who, when approached for an interview, refused, because they’re “not worth anything, and cost only time”, so he’s unlikely to change his ways soon.) All of which makes him totally unlike his predecessor on the Berliner’s podium, and begs the question of what future he symbolises for the orchestra.

What’s obvious for anyone who has seen him live is the incandescent intensity he brings to his performances. Unlike the more obvious stars among today’s youngish maestros, Petrenko’s depth of feeling seems connected to a searching musical intelligence, as well as an unmistakable sense of personal connection with the works he programmes. You can see that even from this short clip of the end of Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy taken from his 2012 programme with the Berliners.

Where Rattle brought a musical and social revolution to Berlin, transforming the orchestra’s repertoire and its relationship with its audiences and the diverse communities of the city, thanks to the continuing projects he established, Petrenko will bring something apparently simpler, but no less potentially profound: an absolute focus on the music he is conducting, and a desire to make every concert scale the heights of musical and expressive experience. If that’s enough for a chief conductor in today’s world – or the world of 2018 – remains to be seen. But in choosing Petrenko, the Berlin players are defiantly, boldly, and rightly, putting the music first.

Martin Kettle writes: Kirill Petrenko has been a rare visitor to the UK in recent years. I first heard him conduct when he took charge of a revival of John Schlesinger’s Royal Opera production of Der Rosenkavalier in 2009. It was clear in Petrenko’s reading that here was a conductor with a firm mind of his own. Reviewing, I noted:

From the brazen whooping of the first bar’s horns, it’s clear that Petrenko eschews the cosy approach. The effect is sometimes indiscriminate, and a few of the score’s great moments suffer, but one is constantly reminded that this composer was also the composer of Elektra.

Four years later, I heard Petrenko conduct Wagner’s Ring at the Wagner theatre in Bayreuth. He was the one person involved in that production to emerge with real credit, guiding a performance of the cycle that, orchestrally at least, got better and better as it went on. In my review of Rheingold I found the conducting fluent but a bit self-effacing, yet by the end of the cycle it was clear that Petrenko was just about the one serious musical mind at work in Frank Castorf’s self-indulgent and misconceived production. I have never heard booing to match the audience anger that greeted the end of the production, but when Petrenko was finally able to take his own bow the booing changed instantly to cheers.

In the pit, Petrenko saved the best for the last two parts of the cycle, which had all the musical weight they require. The conductor emerged covered in glory. But Castorf’s production should be binned.

This is a man who is already in charge of the Bavarian state opera, one of the best and most ambitious houses in Europe. But Petrenko now ascends to an even higher step on the musical ladder. It is a bold selection, and let’s hope he is not just everyone’s second choice in the long argument between bigger and more established names. But anyone who can negotiate the politics of Bayreuth will find the politics of being chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic a doddle.


Tom Service, Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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