Music: Elegant, meticulous…but still Karajan-lite

When Simon Rattle left the Berlin Philharmonic – by tradition, expectation and occasional reality the finest orchestra on earth – the job of chief conductor passed to Kirill Petrenko. Leaving many earthlings asking: “Kirill who?”

Outside Germany, where he held opera house positions in Berlin and Munich, Petrenko wasn’t high profile. And here in Britain he was confused with Vasily Petrenko (no relation) who conducts the Liverpool Philharmonic. So there was some sorting out to do. And his appearance with the Berliners over two nights at the Proms last week drew packed audiences, curious to see him.

His Berlin appointment doesn’t start officially until next year, but he’s already in the saddle with a quietly commanding manner that made sense of unfamiliar music in these concerts: pieces such as Dukas’s ballet score La Péri, and Franz Schmidt’s magnificent but little-known 4th Symphony.

Schmidt’s reputation suffers, still, from an alleged association with the Nazis. But it was equivocal, and anyway he died in 1939; there’s no good cause to shun his work. And at its best it’s great work that can bear the meticulous performance it received here: elegant, intelligent and unbombastic.

That said, a legitimate complaint about the way the Berlin Philharmonic sounds these days, compared to how it sounded under Karajan, is that it’s “lite”. The epic grandeur, saturated with authority, is gone. And it was missing from the orchestra’s performance of Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto, which struck me as a sleekly modern reading of a piece that alternates between acerbic brilliance and dreamlike dissolves. Petrenko and the pianist Yuja Wang handled the to and fro with fine musicianship, and Wang is truly a phenomenon – a sort of female Lang Lang but with better taste (something her concert wardrobe doesn’t always show). But there’s more Russian grit and grind within this score than came across. And somebody like Martha Argerich would have provided richer, fuller colours – though I’m not complaining: it was a still a fabulous account.

The word “surreal” was coined by the poet Apollinaire; and one of its first outings was in reference to his own play Les Mamelles de Tiresias, which Poulenc later turned into a loopy opera. I’ve just seen it done by students on the Les Azuriales course run by Brits in Cap Ferrat near Monaco (yes, it’s a hard life), where Mamelles is notionally set – steeped in the crazy hedonism of the Côte d’Azur. And it was fun. But one line of the text leapt out at me: a comment about journalists abandoning the truth for fake news. This was written back in 1917. And as the French say, plus ça change