One can almost imagine the Berlin Philharmonic publicity department’s exasperation when the programme for this concert was put forward. The number of concerts given by the orchestra with their publicity-shy chief conductor designate is still small. They might have been hoping that for one of the few remaining dates before he takes up his position that he might have showcased some bigger names than Paul Dukas and Franz Schmidt.

Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berlin Philharmonic © Monika Rittershaus
Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berlin Philharmonic
© Monika Rittershaus

Such is the anticipation about Kirill Petrenko’s arrival, though, that he probably could have programmed anything and achieved a sell-out. And, in the event, there was the additional star attraction of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto – a work from the 1920s sandwiched between music from the previous and subsequent decades – which offered a showcase for the fearsome virtuosity of Chinese pianist Yuja Wang.

Before that, Petrenko dusted off Dukas’s La Péri, a 1912 poème dansé of highly charged eroticism, exoticism, dewy delicacy and meandering melisma. Imagine one of Wagner’s Flower Maidens dancing off into a sun-dappled woodland glade with Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé and you get the idea. The hazy opening inevitably brings to mind Dukas’s far more famous L’Apprenti sorcier from 15 years earlier, and I can only assume the echoes from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade are deliberate (the programme note didn't tell us either way).  

It’s a brilliantly composed score, though, and Petrenko brought out playing from the orchestra, performing the work for the first time in nearly six decades, that twinkled, quivered and pulsated, with climaxes achieving a glistening grandeur that bordered on the indecent.

When Wang took to the stage it was in a trademark frock that seemed to have been woven from much the same stuff as Dukas’ score. But she launched into the the Prokofiev’s first movement with steely ferocity: the Allegro was fast, explosive, exciting and with her left hand sternly riveting rhythm and harmony into the texture. With Petrenko and the orchestra matching her, this was a performance of diamantine brilliance and precision, the first movement’s dash to the finish eliciting immediate applause from the audience. The finale was another rollercoaster ride, and the theme-and-variation second movement allowed Wang to showcase playing of remarkable beauty, patience and hush.

Kirill Petrenko, Yuja Wang and the Berlin Philharmonic © Monika Rittershaus
Kirill Petrenko, Yuja Wang and the Berlin Philharmonic
© Monika Rittershaus

The grandest statement of Petrenko’s programme came after the interval, as he added himself to the select list of maestros who promote Schmidt’s symphonic output. In this case it was the Fourth Symphony, composed in the early 1930s as a memorial to his daughter – ‘Kindertotenlied’ was the programme's description of it here – and first performed by this orchestra in 1943.

Beginning and ending with a desolate trumpet cantilena (impeccably performed by Gabor Tarkövi), it charts a 45-minute course through what one feels are the most personal thoughts of a composer not always prone to give much away behind the lavish, richly embroidered surface of his works. Petrenko proved an impassioned and persuasive guide, keeping a firm control over the work’s structure, its four movements flow without gaps. The orchestral sound was thrillingly lucid, and Petrenko kept the melodic flow steady even through the most calorific climaxes.

The first movement was gradually allowed to reveal its warmth through melodies that simmer gently rather than displaying the full flame of inspiration, while the Adagio was by turns tender (in Ludwig Quandt’s soulful cello solos especially) and shattering at its grand climax – a cataclysm followed by slow, dull, funereal drum beats. Only in the fugal writing of the Molto vivace third movement does Schmidt’s somewhat professorial manner seem to get the better of him. But there was no faulting the filigree playing of the Berlin Phil’s strings there, and the final return of the mood of the first movement was movingly managed by Petrenko. A richly rewarding performance.

****1