Enigma? What enigma? Kirill Petrenko in profile

There's nothing mysterious about the Berliner Philharmoniker's new chief conductor for anyone who's followed his career in the German capital, argues Shirley Apthorp.

Photo © Wilfried Hösl

The story with Kirill Petrenko and Berlin began long ago. Before the long exhalation at his appointment at the Bayerische Staatsoper, itself a source of exultation to those who had followed his time at Berlin's Komische Oper, there had been the bemusement of the Frankfurt Opera's decision not to hire him as chief conductor. The Munich appointment made it all good again.

Petrenko as a man of mystery is not a tale that works in Berlin. The city has known him since his five years at the helm of the Komische Oper (2002–7), a time during which it became clear that the earnest young Russian was equally inspiring with Mozart as Richard Strauss, always fresh, unfailingly in control, and never lacking in things to say with the music. Petrenko (son of a violinist and a dramaturg, who had moved with his parents to Austria at the age of 18), became a name to note, and a steady stream of Berliners began to follow him around Europe. His Wagner was revelatory; his Tchaikovsky riveting. Frankfurt's loss proved Munich's gain, and what had been outstanding before only became better. For those who had watched from the start, it was not surprising, but it was extremely gratifying. 

All the way along, Petrenko had not been marketed in the conventional manner. There were no glamour shots, no promotional videos, no multi-page interviews. Their absence was not striking; it never seemed necessary. Perhaps he is shy; maybe he feels he has little to say; possibly he regards chit-chat as a waste of time he could spend studying scores. For whatever reason, Petrenko gave few interviews, and seemed not to need anybody to create him an image. He already had one. His image was that of a conductor who was not only good, but also unfailingly interesting. Never, ever content to give run-of-the-mill performances, he could be counted upon to look deep for the "why" behind the notes, and to come up with refreshing answers. There would never be provocation for its own sake. You could always depend on profound musicality, clean lines, a touch of astringency, a meticulous sense of architecture, and the kind of delight that grows from witnessing something done extremely well. In this context, photos with a sultry glare or a leather jacket would have seemed absurdly superfluous.

Photo © Wilfried Hösl

Inevitably, Petrenko's name was one of those mentioned when the topic of Simon Rattle's replacement at the helm of the Berliner Philharmoniker arose in 2013. There was barely a successful conductor who wasn't mentioned, but Petrenko was rumoured to have declined an invitation, or to have expressed a lack of interest. There were almost as many rumours as there were purported candidates. In the end, the race was between Christian Thielemann and Andris Nelsons. A deadlock, a re-vote, and a consultation behind closed doors long enough to rival the last Papal conclave kept everyone in suspense. When, along with white smoke, the name of Petrenko finally emerged, the astonishment and the jubilation came in equal measure.

Most of Petrenko's career until then had been in the world of opera, rather than on the symphonic stage. In the field of recordings, generally such a central part of the Berliner's identity, Petrenko was a virtual non-player. On a stage dominated by enormous egos, Petrenko had built a career on stubborn modesty. In a world driven by personality cults, he had kept the focus firmly on the music itself.

None of this makes Petrenko the enigma that a host of publications, devoid of the two-children-and-a-dog personal trivia that sells magazines, have tried to weave around the taciturn 47-year-old. Rather than being a man who is fanatically secretive about his private life, Petrenko is most likely to be exactly what he seems – a man who is simply too busy working to have a private life. And if he does happen to have a furtive hobby breeding angora rabbits, collecting beer-bottle caps, or dressing in latex puppy costumes, do we actually, honestly, care? At all?

Far more interesting is what Petrenko made of his season-opening inauguration concert with the orchestra this September, finally taking the helm after a tortuously long four-year engagement period (elected 2015 for a post beginning in 2019). 

Anyone else might have chosen the moment for a grand gesture. Not Petrenko. The spotlight has never been his comfort zone. He has always wanted to be in control of the music, but never to make a fuss about it.

He slipped into Alban Berg’s Lulu Suite sideways, as though joining step with music that was already sprouting from the floor of Berlin’s Philharmonie. The notes were sinuous and alive, with a tropical over-ripeness that exhaled as the piece unfolded, breathing the city’s troubled history into the room, bitter-sweet, nostalgic and nasty. 

After every summer break, there is a shock to the sound of the Berliner Philharmoniker in their own hall, so lavish, so lush, so vast. But there is usually also an edge of shagginess, a touch of holiday anarchy that will disappear over the next few concerts. This time, there was none. Petrenko had absolute command, and was rewarded with utter discipline. You could see your own reflection in the polish of this sound; each of Berg's characters rose with disconcerting clarity from the orchestra. Nothing was left to chance. It was gorgeous and profoundly unsettling. 

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is hardly the world's most subtle music. Nor is it a piece about which there is much left to be said. Petrenko had at his disposal the best forces that can be had; the only question was what he wanted to say with them. And that, once again, was about taut control, about precise articulation, raw force, fleet agility, emphatic phrasing, and translucent structures.

Petrenko took up the reins at Berlin's Philharmonie at the opening of the Berliner Philharmoniker's 2019-20 Season (Photo © Pedelecs by Wikivoyage and Wikipedia)

When the audience leapt to its feet, Petrenko did not stand on the podium and fling his head back, as most conductors would. Instead, he stood between his colleagues, a diminutive figure, inviting everyone else to take a bow, and then lowering his head, with his hand on his heart.

Petrenko exerts at least as much dominance as his most extroverted colleagues, but with none of the apparent ego. He is clearly tenacious, and determined to get his own way. His repertoire strengths are wide-ranging, his technical mastery is indisputable. He has clearly not underestimated the orchestra's famously fractious habits; he has a strategy. So far, it's hard to see what that will mean in the musical longer term. 

For one, he is evidently more of a disciplinarian than his predecessor, with a tighter focus on perfection and polish and a more instinctive grip on the Romantic repertoire that remains the orchestra's core strength. That absence was, of course, part of what the Berliner Philharmoniker gained from Rattle's tenure – a diversification, a new flexibility, an ability to jive and roll. But they are ready to return to their own musical mainstream, and Petrenko can take them there without going backwards, which is not something Thielemann could have achieved. Petrenko, himself Jewish, has always been able to embrace Wagner and Strauss without neglecting 20th- and 21st-century composers, or overlooking those repressed by the Nazis. 

Whatever else he may be, Petrenko is clearly no fool. He succeeds the first conductor in the orchestra's entire history to leave his post willingly and in good health; Claudio Abbado, Rattle's predecessor, never blamed the orchestra explicitly for the cancer that eventually cost him his life, but he let the implication hover, especially when there was a possibility that guilt and remorse could draw impassioned performances from his players. Rattle has been frank in interviews about needing to retire in order to preserve his good health. 

Petrenko, in keeping the reins so tight for his opening concert, is clearly making a declaration of intent. Don't even think of messing with me, he seems to be saying. We are here to make music, and we're here to get it right. We have no time to waste on the politics of power; so do not question mine.

That, perhaps, is the real Petrenko enigma.

Explore Kirill Petrenko's catalogue here.

Shirley Apthorp · Published
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