Kirill Petrenko, the just-elected chief conductor designate of the Berlin Philharmonic and artistic director of the orchestra’s foundation, has a history with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The Russian-born conductor, who will succeed Sir Simon Rattle at Berlin in August 2018, made his CSO debut in March 2012 with an all-Russian program. Chicago critics were divided on his performance, with John von Rhein giving him a rave in the Chicago Tribune, and Andrew Patner of the Sun-Times and Lawrence A. Johnson of Chicago Classical Review expressing qualms.
Excerpts follow below. Click on the links for full reviews, where available:
Von Rhein: Whenever a conductor gets up in front of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the first time, that person stands or falls according to his ability to meet certain criteria. Solidity of technique, quality of leadership, depth of musical ideas and ability to strike a firm rapport with CSO members (within only a couple of rehearsals) are among the most basic criteria.
By all these standards, Kirill Petrenko sent the needle off the symphonic Richter scale at his first concert with the orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Center. Too bad the CSO management has allotted him a measly two subscription concerts for his weekend debut. A talent this remarkable deserves better.
Petrenko, who turns 40 this year, has been making a name for himself, most notably as an operatic conductor. … [In 2013] he will succeed Kent Nagano at the helm of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. His symphonic career is progressing apace: Already under his belt are debuts with the Berlin, London and Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestras.
Petrenko conducts in a clear, purposeful manner that plays to the music and musicians, not the gallery. There was no mistaking the strength of his command, or the chemistry he has achieved with the orchestra. He had a fine opportunity to demonstrate both, in an attractive program representing three different faces of Russian music, with Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 3 (1936) as its pivot point.
Petrenko’s performance moved with tremendous sweep, spontaneity and cohesion. … He was always sure of his destination and knew exactly how to realize that certainty in the orchestra. The floodgates of melody were opened with just enough rubato and warmth of expression to keep it recognizably Russian, but not so much as to thicken the textures or to bog the musical flow down in swooning indulgence.
Patner: [Petrenko’s] conjuring of the mysterious and languorous prelude from [Khovanshchina] (in Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1958 orchestration) with the CSO was both moving and perfectly balanced.
But where was Petrenko in … the no-concerto-soloists-or-big-tunes-to-carry-you Rachmaninoff Third Symphony? This choppy and often dull reading of the composer’s last symphony was evidence either of a conductor with little to say or difficulty communicating with players in rehearsal. The Third is isolated in Rachmaninoff’s late composing career — after fleeing the Russian Revolution in 1917 he wrote nothing for nine years and then only six works in the remaining 17 years of his life. And this, and its falling in between the Romantic and Modern styles in music history, make it a piece that needs great insight and inspirational advocacy to succeed. Both were lacking here.
Johnson: Petrenko began the evening with two orchestral excerpts from Mussorgsky’s long-neglected opera [Khovanshchina]. For most of the past century, music from this bleak, uber-Russian work was best-known in arrangements by Rimsky-Korsakov. Petrenko wisely opted for Shostakovich’s 1958 retooling instead. The opening Prelude is less subtly colored than in Rimsky’s more iridescent version, but Shostakovich’s clear-cut scoring sounds more authentically like Mussorgsky. Petrenko led a refined and unsentimnetal account of the Prelude, followed by the opera’s frenzied Dance of the Persian Maidens.
[In Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 3] Petrenko proved a generally admirable guide through this work, opting for a mix of tonal refinement and sharp attacks at climaxes. At times one felt that he could have been less literal with markings — this attractive but rather uneven score needs all the help it can get — and some stodgy tempos and the overemphatic final chords made the work seem rather lumbering and episodic at times.
VIDEO: Kirill Petrenko is introduced as Berlin’s next artistic leader at a press conference June 22, via YouTube: