Proms 66 & 68: Berlin Philharmonic/Petrenko review –superlative music making

Royal Albert Hall, London
Two Proms with its new chief conductor saw the Berlin Phil playing with total assurance and ravishing refinement

By unexpected coincidence, two of Europe’s leading orchestras are going in to their 2018-2019 seasons without chief conductors at the helm. In the case of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, it was an entirely unexpected loss of leadership – the result of the sudden departure of Daniele Gatti a month ago – but the Berlin Philharmonic had always planned for an interregnum after Simon Rattle’s final concert with the orchestra in June. Kirill Petrenko, the chief conductor designate, does not officially take over until autumn next year.

But Petrenko is already working regularly with the orchestra. Last week he opened the new season in Berlin, and he was in charge for their visit to the Proms. Though he appeared at the Barbican in June, conducting the orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera where he’s currently music director, he has otherwise hardly ever worked in the UK, and this pair of programmes offered the most substantial chance so far to appreciate the strengths of a conductor who has steadily risen to the highest levels of the musical pyramid.

On this evidence those strengths are very considerable. The benign, wonderfully expressive yet self-effacing persona that Petrenko projects from the podium seems to bring the best from orchestral players. The main works in the first programme, Dukas’s exquisitely scored poème dansé, La Péri, and Franz Schmidt’s Fourth Symphony, are certainly not regular Proms fare – the Dukas had been played there four times previously, the Schmidt just once – and, I’d guess, they are not a regular part of the repertory in Berlin either, but both were delivered with total assurance and ravishing refinement.

Yuja Wang, Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic
Immensely impressive technique … Yuja Wang (left), Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou

The diaphanous string textures in the Dukas, and the long, sinuously chromatic melodic lines that thread through the four linked movements of Schmidt’s powerfully tragic symphony, were in their totally different ways utterly compelling, as was Petrenko’s ability to conceive and present each work as a whole, in which the final destination of the music was never in doubt. It helps a lot to have such a superb orchestra to play it, of course, but Petrenko was clearly doing a lot more than holding things together.

In between came Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, with Yuja Wang as the soloist. It’s a showy superficial work that suits Wang’s immensely impressive technique very well, though it has a lot more emotional depth than her flying fingers brought to it here. Two encores – Rachmaninov’s G minor Prelude and Arcadi Volodos’s extravagant paraphrase of Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca – became displays of shallow brilliance, too.

Without the distraction of the solo pyrotechnics, the second of Petrenko’s concerts was perhaps even more impressive. If his first programme had hinted at areas of the repertory he might explore further, then this was rooted very firmly in the Berlin tradition – two Strauss tone poems followed by a Beethoven symphony could easily have been a Herbert Von Karajan programme of the 60s or 70s. But everything about Petrenko’s performances of these familiar pieces suggested fresh thinking, from the way in which he uncorked the effervescence at the very opening of Don Juan, to the irresistible, cavorting energy that coursed through the finale of Beethoven’s Seventh.

Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) is one of those Strauss works that can easily lend itself to grandiosity and grandstanding, but there was no hint of either here, nothing about the performance that was self-conscious or attention-seeking. Yet every detail was present, balanced precisely and played quite wonderfully; this was immensely thoughtful as well as superlative music making.

The Proms continue until 8 September.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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