The Royal Albert Hall might have been justified in stationing medical staff at every entrance to the auditorium for the care of over-excited promenaders on a balmy Sunday that featured visits from not just one, but two top tier orchestras. Following an afternoon performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons, the stage emptied in readiness for the Berlin Philharmonic’s second concert of this year’s festival. The previous appearance featured a daring and stimulating itinerary from the Berliners’ incoming Principal Conductor, Kirill Petrenko, an intriguing mix of Dukas, Prokofiev and Schmidt which suggests we’ll be seeing a diversification of the Berlin Phil’s programming once Petrenko is bedded in. The second concert, however, was a clear statement that Petrenko can lead the orchestra in its staple repertoire – and it lead it well.

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

The first half of the Prom was devoted to Richard Strauss in a pairing of tone poems. Don Juan was the piece that kickstarted Strauss’ career as a major composer at the tender age of 24; drawing on Lenau’s unfinished play, Strauss evoked character and setting in a way that became one of his calling cards. There was much to enjoy in Petrenko’s vivid reading of the piece; the urgent burst from the timpani that hurled us into the Don’s wanton life, the clarity and texture of the BPO’s brass section, the shimmering solo from leader Daishin Kashimoto spun out on the thinnest of silver threads. The shifts from warmth to bleak demoralisation were caught superbly, and the oboe solo at the centre of the deeply felt central affair at the work’s centre was immaculately shaped.

Don Juan is a dramatic musical narrative of a life being lived; the piece that followed, Tod und Verklärung is a deathbed contemplation. Petrenko’s opening was wreathed in funereal gloom and the depth of feeling that emanated from the orchestra stood out; remorse, anger, desperation, acceptance. The velvety textures of the strings, underlain by the plush double basses were counteracted by the fragility of the violin solo, and the lyricism of the flute solo was a vein of clarity before the swell. Petrenko engulfed us, drawing us into the Verklärung as the music swirled, prolonging the moment until it snapped, the climax a moment of collective cleansing. It was an extraordinary moment and highlighted the musical intelligence that Petrenko brings to his performances. 

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

To Beethoven for the second half, in a reading of the Symphony no. 7 in A major of startling freshness. Petrenko’s tempi were highly flexible; the second movement, which is so often played at walking pace, was urgent and driven, and there were moments in the first when Petrenko pulled back, allowing phrases to unfurl. Particularly impressive was the balance and control showed in the fourth movement, which tends to be string and brass dominated; here, every element of the BPO was audible with some lovely woodwind playing providing textural layers. There seemed to be something made of the pauses too; meaning found in the little gaps of silence before the orchestra rushed us into the next argument. Shifts in sound and dynamic – Petrenko seemed keen to focus on adjustments on the size of the music – gave the reading an edge, but it was not an over-intellectualised interpretation. The final movement was edge-of-seat material where Petrenko maintained exhilarating pacing, but his players never lost control and the shape remained firmly in place.

No encores were given, despite the obvious yearning from the audience, which I think on balance was the right decision. To follow the Beethoven with a short piece just to please the crowd would have lessened the symphony’s impact. It’s the kind of concert to live for and one hopes that we are at the start of a long and fruitful tenure for Petrenko at the BPO.