The week in classical: Proms 66 & 68; Paul Bunyan review – Berlin passes the baton

Royal Albert Hall; Wilton’s Music Hall, London
The enigmatic Kirill Petrenko makes a dazzling Proms debut with the Berlin Phil, while ENO takes Britten to the music hall

Just as the BBC Proms began that familiar, home-straight burst of intensity before the Last Night – top foreign orchestras, big star names – there was a thrilling debut. The first Royal Albert Hall appearance of Kirill Petrenko, new chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, could have passed without much incident, given everything else going on. Instead, unforgettably, it eclipsed the week’s other events.

Before his appointment in 2015 to succeed Simon Rattle, the Russian-Austrian Petrenko, 46, was little known in the UK. Based in Munich since 2013, he has hardly worked here. Since he shuns publicity, refuses to give interviews or name his favourite football team, he might give the impression of caring little whether we welcome him to music’s holy see or not. Footage of the press conference held when his appointment was announced shows a man who smiles rather than laughs, and is open and honest while giving little away. He also seems shy. “As a conductor I have to do what I burn to do most of all,” he said, admitting that some repertoire – naturally he didn’t say which – would be best left to colleagues.

Yuja Wang with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Proms.
Yuja Wang with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Proms. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou

His two Proms with the Berliners, part of a European tour, had a decidedly scorching fervour. The first consisted of unusual repertoire: Dukas’s ballet score La péri (1911-12), seductive and atmospheric, requiring extreme delicacy of orchestral texture and shading, and Franz Schmidt’s elegiac Symphony No 4 (1932-3), only heard at the Proms once before. Opening with a long trumpet solo and rising to a cataclysmic fortissimo before falling away again as the trumpet returns, it ends softly, pensively. The evening’s extrovert element was provided by Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3 in C, with Yuja Wang as soloist, her playing – wild, percussive, silken, sinewy – winning matchless responses from the Berlin Philharmonic players. Their rapport is self-evident.

Theorchestra’s second Prom opened with two Richard Strauss tone poems, the restlessly euphoric Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration, urgent and febrile. Petrenko’s technical hallmarks are not so different from any other conductor’s, but he prizes economy of movement: clean, muscular baton work with the right hand, left hand making taut but expressive gestures – triangles, zigzags, alphabetical shapes – so compact and precise you could translate them into a graphic. At times he marks each detail, at others he shapes only the phrase, ready to let his self-assured players perform, full tilt, with risky abandon.

This vital collision of immaculate preparation in rehearsal and freedom in performance is the most we can ask of a conductor. The concluding work, Beethoven’s Symphony No 7, sounded fiery, almost feral and strange, yet glistening and new. You might question the balance, brass and woodwind sometimes bursting forth as if in a different sound zone from the strings. If anything it added a raw vigour. In the symphony’s closing moments, the players were almost rising from their seats to meet Petrenko’s enigmatic, tight-coiled energy. How will this fascinating relationship develop? It’s early days. Still technically “designate”, he only begins full-time in the 2019-20 season. So far, it looks like love.

Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic at the Proms.
Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic at the Proms. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou

Ending a successful summer away from its London Coliseum home, first with Handel’s Acis and Galatea in West Hampstead, then with Britten’s The Turn of the Screw at Regent’s Park Open Air theatre, English National Opera presented a third work written to an English text, Britten’s early operetta Paul Bunyan (1941). The venue for this ENO Studio Live event, in which the chorus and emerging young singers are given the spotlight, was Wilton’s Music Hall – the company’s debut production in this charmed but challengingly cramped space.

This is a rum old piece, broadly speaking about lumberjacks and the American dream, which Britten and his librettist, WH Auden, hoped might be destined for Broadway. Instead it ran for a week on a US campus. Auden and Britten ended their collaboration. The work’s elements don’t coalesce. The toe-tapping tunes are squirmingly folksy, yet the orchestration and stirring choruses remind us, in flashes, that this is by the composer of Peter Grimes (1945).

The staging by Jamie Manton, lively in detail and well drilled though it was, didn’t add clarity. Never mind. Musical standards, under the baton of Matthew Kofi Waldren, were excellent, with first-class singing from the many soloists, notably Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Matthew Durkan and Rowan Pierce. It was the chorus’s night. Their united voices filled Wilton’s to the rafters. In ENO chorus’s hands, if no one else’s, the American dream is alive and strong.

The ENO chorus carry the day in Paul Bunyan at Wilton’s Music Hall.
The ENO chorus carry the day in Paul Bunyan at Wilton’s Music Hall. Photograph: Genevieve Girling

Star ratings (out of five)
Proms 66 & 68 ★★★★★
Paul Bunyan ★★★

• Both Proms and more are available on BBC iPlayer


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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