SUK: Asrael Symphony, Op. 27. A Summer’s Tale, Op. 29. The Ripening, Op. 34. Tale of a Winter’s Evening, Op. 9. LIADOV: The Enchanted Lake, Op. 62. Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin, Kirill Petrenko. CPO 555 009 (3 CDs) Total Time: 171:54.
PFITZNER: Palestrina. Soloists, Frankfurt Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Kirill Petrenko. Oehms 930; & RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 2; Moments musicaux, Op. 16. Dejan Lazic, piano. London Philharmonic Orchestra, Kirill Petrenko. Channel Classics 26308.
By Paul E. Robinson
DIGITAL REVIEW — To millions of musicians and music lovers around the world, the name Kirill Petrenko may mean very little. But the Russian conductor boasts an impressive resume, and his talent on the podium inspired members of the Berlin Philharmonic to choose him as their next chief conductor starting with the 2019-20 season.
It was only after considering the biggest names in the business – Andris Nelsons, Gustavo Dudamel, Christian Thielemann, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and Riccardo Chailly among them – that the Berliners settled on the relatively unknown Petrenko, and now time will tell whether or not they made the correct decision. But one must respect their collective judgment; they had performed under all these conductors, Petrenko included, and presumably knew what they wanted.
Still, you might ask, who is this guy? (His entire discography is summed up in the works you see listed above.)
Petrenko was born in Omsk, Siberia, in 1972. At the age of 18, he and his family moved to Vienna, Austria, where he took advanced courses in conducting. He worked his way up through the ranks at various opera houses in Austria and Germany. He was music director at the opera house in Meiningen and moved to the same position at the Komische Oper in Berlin, in 2002. In 2013, he became General Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, where his contract has just been extended to 2021.
Between 2013 and 2015, Petrenko conducted annual performances of the Ring cycle at the Bayreuth Festival. He has also led several productions at the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the Vienna State Opera. As a concert conductor, he has appeared with many of the world’s leading orchestras, including Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Although Petrenko was a surprise choice to head the Berlin Philharmonic, following in the footsteps of Rattle, Abbado, Karajan, Furtwängler, and Nikisch, he has conducted the orchestra on numerous occasions, and two of these concerts are available in the orchestra’s video library.
The major work in this compendium is not a Beethoven, Brahms, or Bruckner symphony, but Elgar’s Symphony No. 2, which says something for the breadth of Petrenko’s musical interests. Few European conductors have paid much attention to Elgar over the years, but judging by this performance, Petrenko loves the Second Symphony; with deep understanding, he conducts a highly energized and beautiful account with the Berlin Philharmonic. The video library also includes exemplary performances of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, excerpted above.
From an audience’s point of view, Petrenko is not a flamboyant conductor. His gestures are restrained and economical, though not particularly graceful as compared to those of Karajan or Abbado, for example. From the orchestra’s perspective, Petrenko’s facial gestures are equally restrained, quite unlike those of Rattle, who often seems to be trying to reflect every musical mood change in his face.
Petrenko is not constantly cuing individual players or sections for important entries. What one sees in these videos is that he has an obvious rapport with the Berlin musicians. They have confidence that he knows what he is doing and has a gift for inspiring them to give their very best. With or without a conductor, Berlin can play extraordinarily well, but with a new conductor they respect, they know they can reach yet another level. For the moment at least, they are convinced Petrenko is that conductor.
What do the audio recordings tell us about Petrenko? As in the case of the Elgar, Petrenko surprises us with his choice of repertoire. With the Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin, he has recorded a set of major works by Josef Suk (1874-1935), a seriously neglected Czech composer of the early 20th century. Suk was a professional violinist and a student of Dvořák. He later married Dvořák’s daughter, Otilie. Then came the major tragedies in his life: Dvořák died in 1904, and just 14 months later, after eight years of marriage, Suk’s wife died at the age of 27.
Suk’s major work, the Asrael Symphony (1905-6), is essentially a requiem for both his beloved teacher and his young wife. Asrael is a figure taken from both Jewish and Islamic folklore, an angel who bears away the souls of the dead to either paradise or hell. In spite of the “Asrael” subtitle, Suk left no specific program for the movements of the symphony.
The Asrael Symphony is a late-Romantic masterpiece, worthy of being ranked with the best of Richard Strauss and Mahler. Václav Talich and the Czech Philharmonic made a fine recording of the work more than 60 years ago, and other Czech recordings followed over the years. But more recently, there have been signs of wider interest in the piece, including excellent recent recordings conducted by Charles Mackerras and Vladimir Ashkenazy, and there are indications that JoAnn Falletta and Vladimir Jurowski also plan to record it.
The symphony is thematically tight, in the sense that almost everything in the work grows out of what has come before. It is also masterly in its orchestration, with inventive textures in the strings. The second movement is striking where the flute and trumpet sustain the D-flat note for pages while the musical argument goes on around them, serving as a kind of mesmerizing pedal-point in the middle of the orchestra. The symphony begins in C minor but finishes in a very somber C major with soft muted trumpet and trombone chords and four-part muted double bass chords — a magical effect.
Petrenko’s performance (2002) of the Asrael Symphony is one of the best I have heard. He knows how to get that something extra in the climaxes and, at the other extreme, bring out the utmost tenderness when required. This is a live performance, obviously preceded by numerous intensive rehearsals.
Petrenko shows equal affinity for the music of Suk in the other works in this set, A Summer’s Tale, the Ripening — with a wordless women’s chorus in the last movement — and Tale of a Winter’s Evening. Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake is added to this boxed set. It, too, is beautifully played.
The recording of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 with Dejan Lazić is also remarkable. The 38-year-old Croatian pianist was in the news last year as he attempted to use the European Union’s “Right to Be Forgotten” law to remove a review he didn’t like from the internet. The review in question — by Anne Midgette, in The Washington Post — was mainly critical of Lazić’s stage manner, which she found contrived and annoying, while at the same time applauding his enormous talent.
A CD obviously doesn’t give us the benefit, or liability, of Lazić’s stage manner. What we do get is an inspired and exciting performance of an old warhorse. Petrenko elicits playing of hair-trigger precision and enormous power from the London Philharmonic.
Performances of Hans Pfitzner’s opera Palestrina are few and far between. First given in 1917, it is a dense and weighty score in the manner of Richard Strauss or Max Reger. This work deserves to be better known, and Petrenko leads a performance of great eloquence.
Listening to these recordings, one senses that Petrenko is a man who believes in careful preparation and 100 percent effort in performance — a hard-working and inspirational conductor. Starting in the fall of 2019, when he will finally begin to spend most of his time with the Berlin Philharmonic, we would appear to be in for some memorable music-making.
Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.