It seems absurd that Kirill Petrenko should be making his Proms debut only once appointed as Chief Conductor Elect of the Berlin Philharmonic. Surely no musician could have reached so exalted a position without appearing in SW7? Such is this country's musical blindspot, though, that somehow the quiet Russian has slipped under the radar. Here, he brought every ounce of class one could hope for to a programme of thrilling originality.

Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berlin Philharmonic © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berlin Philharmonic
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The evening's Dukas made one wonder why we seldom hear any of the Frenchman's works other than a certain better-known curtain raiser. Two back-to-back excerpts from La Péri, a 1912 ballet on Persian mythology, made a compelling case for the composer. Much of this was thanks to the immediately apparent brilliance of the musicians on stage. Surely no brass fanfare has ever started with such softness of attack, their sound seeming to radiate up from the stage without so much as a hint of a sharp edge. The intricacies of the ascending horn and trumpet lines in the fanfare gave way to the silkiest of string sounds in the Poème dansé, whole sections swaying as one in their seats, and the percussive climax gave more sense of magic than bombast. Textures remained crystalline even when more heavily scored, a remarkable achievement in such an unforgiving acoustic, but there was also something intoxicatingly sensual and magical in the music too.

Prokofiev's Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major was a shrewd choice for the unabashedly showy Yuja Wang. It provided fireworks aplenty, with all her thrilling dexteric agility on show, but didn't offer a great deal of depth beyond the pyrotechnics. Much of the concerto hared along at a breathlessly vigorous pace, though for all the unerring precision of the soloist, a glance up from the keyboard here or there might have patched up a couple of slightly loose changes of tempo. This was wild entertainment though, a visual as well as auditory spectacle as Wang threw her glissandos off the upper end of the keyboard and out into the prommers. The orchestra clearly enjoyed the circus too, most of all in a tramping march for castanets and col legno double basses. 

Yuja Wang plays Prokofiev © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Yuja Wang plays Prokofiev
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The slow movement saw some wandering trails of pleasingly weighted piano chords holding the sell-out audience to complete silence. Though I wished that this had been indulged for a moment longer, the bustling dash of the finale soon dragged the concerto to a bravura-ridden finish. The showiness didn't stop there – after eeking out the ovation for slightly longer than was probably necessary, Wang returned for Rachmaninov's G minor Prelude and the mother of all party pieces, the Rondo alla Turca jazzed up by Arcadi Volodos, Fazil Say and Wang herself. 

The atmosphere after the interval, for Franz Schmidt's Fourth Symphony, could not have been further from the party of the first half. Written in 1932-33, it carries clear scars from the difficulties of the composer's life at the time, in his own ill health and the death of his daughter. The 45-minute symphony is bookended by a bleak trumpet solo, so exposed as to make Mahler 5 look relatively straightforward. Gábor Tarkövi, needless to say, executed these with complete assurance, unhurried and desolate. Elsewhere there was beautiful warmth in the softly undulating string lines of the first movement. Here, Petrenko gave the 3-in-a-bar pulse a sense of inexorable progression, rolling ever onwards towards the slow movement (all four movements are played without a break). The sound world of the Adagio's funeral march was darkened immensely by some fine timpani solos, and though there was some brief respite in the faux-jollity of the Scherzo, the finale was perfectly weighted to give a sense of the last embers of some great fire slowly burning out. Tarkövi had the last word, unwavering in the darkness.

****1