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Who is Kirill Petrenko? The incoming Berlin Phil chief conductor – at least for the moment – can do no wrong

Conductor Kirill Petrenko, whose two-night stint with the Bavarian State Opera at Carnegie Hall suggested what’s to come.

Though not a stranger to New York, Kirill Petrenko showed every sign of being discovered by some highly engaged Carnegie Hall audiences during a two-day visit by the Bavarian State Opera – first in an all-orchestral Brahms/Tchaikovsky program and then with a complete concert performance of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.

Two threads ran through both evenings: The bearded, charming, 45-year-old Petrenko is an ace problem solver and has a way of finding chamber-music interplay within all manner of symphonic grandeur. Should that be any surprise from a conductor whose 2004-2007 guest stints at the Metropolitan Opera included performances of Mussorgsky’s problematic, unfinished Khovanshchina that were a season highlight?

The  March 28 orchestral program in particular wasn’t dressed-for-success at all. Two works dominated: Tchaikovsky’s sprawling  Manfred Symphony, the forgotten epic of that composer’s output (some might call it a white elephant) and the Brahms Double Concerto, the last and least of that composer’s symphonic works. While many emerging conductors try to impress you with depth beyond their years, using big sonorities and slowish tempos, Petrenko keeps the music’s pulse moving (though not inappropriately racing) and generally defies expectations that one might have when judging the conductor on what he is.

You can’t point to birth, background or education to account for Petrenko’s strengths. Though of Russian ethnicity (and no relation to Vassily Petrenko) , Kirill Petrenko is Vienna-educated. If he has a special rapport with music of his homeland, it’s not manifested in the fast-and-loud school often associated with emerging Russian conductors. A clear-eyed diagnostician, Petrenko looked into the piece’s inner workings but without reaching the diminishing returns that come with over-analyzing a piece that doesn’t hold up well to intense scrutiny.

The Manfred Symphony has epic scale but nothing close to epic content. There are some musical ideas that pull their weight both melodically and dramatically, and the piece represents a road not often taken by Tchaikovsky: This is his answer to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, with its scenario, visited over four picaresque movements, of the Byronic hero Manfred, starting with fits of melancholy (maybe the most convincing music in the piece), dealing with Alpine fairies and, in the finale, descending into a diabolical orgy with jagged fugal writing that’s impressive if only because it marries nasty thematic content with a typically academic form. But Tchaikovsky didn’t quite have the uninhibited demonic sense that Berlioz did. Recurring themes come back more often than you’d like, and their thematic material doesn’t maintain the consistent inspiration of Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies.

So where did that put Petrenko? He didn’t actually probe the piece’s substance for meaning that others have missed, but rather found the key to salvation on the surface – that is, the orchestration. This is the symphony’s one claim to being first-class Tchaikovsky – a claim made especially clear with Petrenko not only going for a lightness of texture (that inevitably yielded transparency) but taking a special fascination in the surprisingly endless array of interplay among the various instruments. This isn’t the emotionally hottest way to go, but he kept the symphony aloft in ways that others have not.

And Petrenko knows how to deliver a grandiose finish without being vulgar, if only because his phrasing has poetic honesty. It would have to: Nobody asks for Manfred, so anyone taking it on arrives believing in the piece already.

The Brahms Double Concerto often seems like a piano trio with the orchestra doing what the piano would often be there to do – providing a kind of foundation for the piece and the glue that ties violin and cello together. Of course, there are any number of moments when the orchestration explores a range of sound and expression that’s truly orchestral. So it’s a chamber piece, but not exactly, and it works best when played on a far smaller scale than any other Brahms concerto. That’s what Petrenko did – not as much as some conductors, and often in spirit more than in fact, but enough that soloists Julia Fischer and Daniel Müller-Schott had plenty of leeway for subtle, chamber-music like moments. The second movement’s soft playing was particularly intimate, and thanks to the clarity of the Fischer/Müller-Schott artistry, they had no problem projecting that sense to the top balcony of Carnegie Hall.

Der Rosenkavalier, played March 29, obviously doesn’t require much (if any) interventionist sympathy, and that perhaps freed up Petrenko to enjoy the intricate wit of the piece. Never was that more apparent than in the miniature scherzo that ends the piece. The music accompanies stage directions that have a cute child servant dashing in for some forgotten item – a nice counterbalance to the profound emotional outpouring earlier in the final scene – while all kinds of wind instruments dart in and out of the foreground. It’s chamber music, which Petrenko and his orchestra dispatched with speed and vitality that made every quicksilver turn a fun little surprise.

Elsewhere in Der Rosenkavalier, Petrenko got the piece in touch with its inner waltzes. Of course, the opera contains some of the most famous waltz music ever written, but the likes of Herbert von Karajan seemed bent on revealing the exterior refinement of the mid-18th-century Viennese aristocracy that’s portrayed with such linguistic authority in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto. But just as the opera’s very first scene opens on the most interior of matters – a middle-aged princess waking up in bed with a 17-year-old boy – Petrenko’s concept is that waltzes of some sort are generally bouncing around the landscape. And with that concept came healthy rhythmic vitality, while interior monologues gained more emotional impact because that’s where the waltzing is conspicuously absent.

Also welcome was Petrenko’s light Mozartean texture. The performance never sagged, though lack of heat was sometimes evident amid Petrenko’s interpretive engineering. The performance played well by its own rules, but a broader set of rules is something to hope for in future Petrenko performances.

The depth of his rapport with the cast was difficult to ascertain. Most of the singers were deeply familiar with their roles and could take care of themselves. In place of the usually obnoxious Baron Ochs, Peter Rose was vocally nimble and aristocratically dignified. Here, he was no interloper in this refined world, just comically unfiltered: What went through his mind immediately came out his mouth. Purely in vocal terms, he was superb. Also superb (though in a different way) was Lawrence Brownlee in his brief cameo as the Italian tenor, with an extroverted manner that was especially refreshing amid so much dignity around him. His warmth of tone immediately brought a smile to my face. The other singers were all excellent, with Adrianne Pieczonka bringing the sort of clean, low-vibrato line that one fondly recalls from Felicity Lott. Angela Brower was a fine Octavian though Hanna-Elisabeth Müller as Sophie forced her voice far more than she needed to in the acoustically sympathetic Carnegie Hall.

Petrenko may not be an operatic animal like, say, Christian Thielemann. Yet whatever forum Petrenko is in benefits from his natural buoyancy. I recently caught a radio broadcast of a Mahler Symphony No. 5 in which he was still finding his way into the work, and his Bavarians often remind you that the orchestra isn’t of the caliber of the Bavarian Radio Symphony. But the buoyancy kept me listening, and that’s a quality that the Berlin Philharmonic, with its imperious chrome-plated sonority, could certainly use. Will the players adapt without a fight? I doubt it. Sorry to sound worried. But it’s possible that conducting the Berlin Philharmonic is like conquering China: You can try, but anyone who succeeds ends up conquered.

Comments

  1. I caught the WQXR archived broadcast of this concert via their “Carnegie Hall Live” feed. This was a splendid concert, showing off a tight, polished ensemble (with very, very few blips in the moment in the Tchaikovsky) to great effect, and also Julia Fischer and Daniel Muller-Schott as terrific soloists in the Brahms Double Concerto. They also seemed to bring the house down with their encore, of the Handel / Johan Halverson ‘Passacaglia’. My experience of Julia Fischer in concert is that after she plays a concerto, she takes a seat in the hall to hear the second half of the concert. It would be nice to know if she did that here.

    Well, metaphorically speaking, I ask for Tchaikovsky’s “Manfred”, but then I have no sway over orchestra programming anywhere. But Bychkov is taking it to Chicago next month, and YNS covers it in Philly next March. This is actually my very favorite Tchaikovsky work, which puts me in a very select minority, probably. It has its flaws and issues, to be sure, but in spite of those, and acknowledging them, I adore it anyway. BTW, wonder what you thought of the orchestra’s encore from DSCH’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”.

    I’d actually thought of traveling for this concert, but it seemed like an awful carbon footprint for just one concert. Now, after hearing it, I rather wish that I had traveled for it.

    • Hi….the Shostakovich encore was terrific, but being an encore, it should’ve been. Some people I know commented that it was the best music of the whole concert. I wouldn’t go that far.It’s interesting about YNS taking on Manfred…he’s a good problem solver. And did you that Vladimir Jurowski chose the piece for his Philadelphia Orchestra debut a few years ago? I wasn’t assigned to the opening concert, but was told to not miss the Friday matinee. Unfortunately, it was one of those cursed performances. There was hardly a clean attack in the whole thing. Sometimes I wonder if the success of Manfred depends on the weather….

      • I do remember reading about Vladimir Jurowski tackling “Manfred” for his Philadelphia Orchestra debut, your colleague’s ga-ga review that started him on the road of VJ-worship and campaigning to get him as the orchestra’s next music director. (Didn’t turn out that way, obviously.) Sorry that the matinee didn’t seem to go so well, which does make one wonder about the night before.

        I’ve only heard “Manfred” once live, with the Svetlanov-ized (and thus incorrect) ending. So I’m still hoping for the day when I get to hear it in the original version. I read somewhere that the final peroration actually uses harmonium, rather than organ, as Manfred dies and his soul ascends (or at least doesn’t descend).

        Plus, any evening with Julia Fischer and Daniel Muller-Schott as soloists strikes me as worth it. We get DM-S as a guest soloist next season, in perhaps even lighter fare, Lalo’s Cello Concerto (which I’ve never heard, so I might be misjudging it ears unheard).

        • David P Stearns says:

          I came to join in the V-J worship, but I think he turned out to be a conductor of highly specialized taste. He’s perfect for London, where there are many orchestras all trying to create a distinct identity in the market place. Philadelphia needs a musical mayor, and I don’t think he quite had the common touch for that.

          • From looking at the LPO season schedules in recent years, Jurowski can do populist programming in his own concerts when the mood suits him, AFAICT. (I haven’t looked in detail at his 1st season in Berlin.) Compared to YNS, VJ’s musical interests and tastes look considerably broader to me. However, I do take your point about a musical mayor and Philly, where YNS looks like the better match in terms of “the common touch”.

            Plus, in terms of personal life logistics, it would be understandable if VJ wants to avoid the stress and drain of multiple trans-Atlantic flights that a US music directorship would entail, even if his docket already looks pretty overloaded, with 3 chief conductorships to his name. Maybe that’s why he seems to have fallen off the musical radar with the Philadelphia Orchestra? I certainly hope that this isn’t the case (and also the same with Simon Rattle).

          • From looking at the LPO season schedules in recent years, Jurowski can do populist programming in his own concerts when the mood suits him, AFAICT. (I haven’t looked in detail at his 1st season in Berlin.) Compared to YNS, VJ’s musical interests and tastes look considerably broader to me. However, I do take your point about a musical mayor and Philly, where YNS looks like the better match in terms of “the common touch”.

            Plus, in terms of personal life logistics, it would be understandable if VJ wants to avoid the stress and drain of multiple trans-Atlantic flights that a US music directorship would entail, even if his docket already looks pretty overloaded, with 3 chief conductorships to his name. Maybe that’s why he seems to have fallen off the musical radar with the Philadelphia Orchestra? I certainly hope that this isn’t the case (and also the same with Simon Rattle).

            PS: The “boots collection” comment looks like spam to me, IMHO.

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  1. […] Who is Kirill Petrenko? The incoming Berlin Phil chief conductor – at least for the moment – can…Though not a stranger to New York, Kirill Petrenko showed every sign of being discovered by some highly engaged Carnegie Hall audiences in a two-day visit by the Bavarian State Opera, … read more AJBlog: Condemned to Music Published 2018-04-02 […]

  2. […] Who is Kirill Petrenko? The incoming Berlin Phil chief conductor – at least for the moment – can…Though not a stranger to New York, Kirill Petrenko showed every sign of being discovered by some highly engaged Carnegie Hall audiences in a two-day visit by the Bavarian State Opera, … read more AJBlog: Condemned to Music Published 2018-04-02 […]

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