Auspicious Prom Debut for Berliner Philharmoniker and Kirill Petrenko Partnership

PromsUnited KingdomUnited Kingdom PROM 66 – Dukas, Prokofiev, Schmidt: Yuja Wang (piano), Berliner Philharmoniker / Kirill Petrenko (conductor0. Royal Albert Hall, London, 1.9.2018. (CC)

Yuja Wang (piano) & Berliner Philharmoniker (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

DukasLa Péri: Fanfare and Poème dansé

Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No.3 in C, Op.26

Schmidt – Symphony No.4 in C (1932/3)

Not a million moons ago, back in May, Sir Simon Rattle brought the Berliners to the London  as part of his farewell tour (review). Fast-forward just three short months, move over to South Kensington, and here we have the orchestra entering a new phase under its Principal Conductor-designate, Kirill Petrenko, whose programming seems as imaginative as his predecessor’s, but perhaps with less of an emphasis on living composers.

The heady world of Paul Dukas was the ideal opener, the brass Fanfare to the 1911/12 ballet La péri was bright and ideally balanced, and faultless in delivery. Petrenko is a joy to watch, always clear in beat and intent, always expressive, always completely immersed in the music’s trajectory. The arrival of the ‘Poème dansé’ brought us to a fragranced world – a carefully chosen adjective, given that the ballet concerns Persian fairies that feast on the perfume of flowers. The story of the dance is beautiful: Alexander the Great (also known as Iskander) seeks the flower of eternal youth, finding it in the hand of the Peri and snatching it away. Using her feminine wiles in the dance, she hypnotises him into returning it, at which point she transfigures into sunlight; shadows and death take Alexander. The journey from daylight brass to an idyllic twilit summerscape is a large one, and one expertly delineated by Petrenko and his forces. Some passages of the Danse might be reminiscent of Ravel in ecstatic mode, some of Debussy’s famously elusive Jeux. The Berlin string sound was perfectly balanced, the double-basses providing at least some grounding to music that seemed to want a permanent state of elevation. Petrenko’s achievement was to meld a sense of flow with alchemical transformations of timbre, all with miraculous clarity. The dance was veiled and deliciously seductive, with some glorious solo violin contributions from the BPO’s concertmaster, Noah Bendix-Balgley. The sheer control of the perfectly balanced brass chord that closed the performance was remarkable.

The most famous of Prokofiev’s piano concertos might have been written for Yuja Wang. Her account with Abbado and the Lucerne orchestra is justly lauded (review); this, too, was one of the finest. The piece must dazzle, but there are deeper elements at work here, and Wang and Petrenko found the ideal balance. The opening Andante was swift, clarinettist Andreas Ottenshamer phrasing delectably. The Allegro that followed sparkled, its light glinting dizzyingly in all directions, and pitting poundings against gossamer pianissimi. Petrenko’s economical but always pertinent conducting ensured a remarkable unanimity of ensemble, not least in the forests of piano semiquavers prior to the return of the opening idea of the Allegro. Wang is about ‘showpersonship’, but with her the gestures make sense: the hand away from the piano at the top of upward glissandi, for example. The Tema con variazioni began with the perfect invocation of a slow gavotte, the BPO all grace and charm; it initiated a journey that included moments of great charm and beauty from Wang. She languished over some passages yet was never indulgent. Careful listening revealed some astonishing instances of several different articulations managed with utmost control simultaneously. It was interesting, too, how there was space left between variations and yet the whole appeared as one arc; this despite the fact that at one point the music seemed to freeze, Prokofiev’s scoring revealed as icy cold as time suspended itself. The finale began deliberately, staider that one might expect from a firebrand pianist; the view was on the long-term, with the big statement of the main tune grand but with no hint of schmaltzy film music. The end was as exciting as one might hope. A shame there was no moment of reflection in Wang’s two encores: Rachmaninov’s G-minor Prelude, Op.23/5, perhaps not quite as attuned and focused as the Prokofiev in its realisation, and finally a Wang party piece, Fazil Say and Arcadi Volodos’ unhinged, crowd-pleasing, post-Lisztian-sprinkled-with-jazz Fantasia on Mozart’s ‘Rondo alla Turca’.

Franz Schmidt’s Fourth Symphony enjoyed a luxury outing; Schmidt’s Second Symphony had a similarly high-profile performance at the Proms in 2015 with the Vienna Philharmonic and Semyon Bychkov (review). Schmidt studied briefly under Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory; Wagner, Reger and Richard Strauss are all discernible influences, and I wonder if one could add Zemlinsky to the list. Schmidt’s orchestration is remarkable, assured, rich and sophisticated. It begins with an unaccompanied trumpet solo that is to recur at its close. The rapt, rich strings were a constant in music that seems free-flow but is actually based on more traditional shapes, not least the sonata form of the first movement and, indeed, the four-movement archetype of a symphony.

Petrenko’s achievement was in the mix of his structural awareness and the realisation of the kaleidoscopic delights of the scoring. String counterpoint was beautifully drawn; and there was no missing the instant of the ‘catastrophe’, a memorable and soul-churning moment all the rawer because of its sudden delivery (the work was written on the death of Schmidt’s only daughter). The pacing of the work’s close, too, was superb, the double-bass pizzicato heartbeats before that finale trumpet solo speaking volumes.

There was no encore, although I could have sworn there was an extra piece on everyone’s music stands. I’m sure the Beethoven Seventh tonight will be appended by a few extras, though. One thing that does seem sure is that the BPO is in fine form, and under Petrenko the future looks bright indeed.

Colin Clarke

3 thoughts on “Auspicious Prom Debut for Berliner Philharmoniker and Kirill Petrenko Partnership”

  1. I heard the Strauss / Beethoven Prom last night, and was underwhelmed. The Beethoven in particular was disappointing – the Berlin sounded unusually coarse in places, appeared to be pushing the volume, and we lost the transparency that we have come to expect. Some of the tempo changes were also eccentric – Beethoven through the prism of early Mahler. I thought that we had left that particular performance practice behind about 80 years ago, thank god. [edited comment]

  2. I too thought there was the music for an encore on the orchestral stands. Might it have been that it was to have been the Brahms First Hungarian Dance (which I have heard the Berliners do as an encore before), but this had been pre-empted by Yuja Wang’s second encore (which was I think based on the Brahms and not on Mozart)?

    • Thanks for your comment. Evidence suggests that it was Mozart not Brahms as you suggest. S&H


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