This was a concert of firsts: two works performed for the first time by the Berliner Philharmoniker, plus a blistering debut with the orchestra by Anna Vinnitskaya in Prokofiev – not his first, admittedly, but the mighty virtuoso juggernaut that is his Second Piano Concerto. It was impressive, too, that Iván Fischer, stepping in late in the day for the indisposed Mikko Franck, had left the programme unchanged.

Anna Vinnitskaya
© Marco Borggreve

I was glad he did, for it proved a satisfying mixture of the well-known and rarely-heard, and the conductor did an excellent job with the opener, the “Apotheosis” fourth movement of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Sixth Symphony – an extract from a symphony that itself is built on music from his opera Vincent. It was the first time that the orchestra had performed any music by the Finnish composer – and perhaps the first time Fischer had tackled the score too. Whatever the case, they presented a highly persuasive account, from the gentle, sensuous throb of strings and bass clarinet mutterings of its opening to the grand marimba-laced climax. It’s a beautifully atmospheric work, a gentle, slow-burn sort of apotheosis, and one that was built up here lovingly and patiently.

There’s not much that’s gentle about Prokofiev’s concerto, but it’s hard to imagine a more fiercely single-minded performance than we heard here. Vinnitskaya comes armed with the sturdiest of techniques – steely rather than mercurial – and launched into the opening movement powerfully, despatching its gargantuan cadenza with jaw-dropping assurance. The Scherzo was rattled off at breathtaking speed, the pianist gleefully bobbing about to its rhythms and clearly enjoying herself. She negotiated the finale’s various challenges without ever breaking sweat, but never lost track of the musical meaning that so many notes can obscure. The orchestral playing under Fischer was superbly taut and controlled, the lower strings’ powerful way with the craggy opening of the Intermezzo especially sticking in the mind.

Vinnitskaya responded to a well-earned ovation with a touching encore, and her gentle account of the “Song of the Lark”, (March from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons), whether by accident by design, provided an appropriate foretaste of a second half that began with Debussy’s Printemps. The original score for this early “Suite symphonique” (1887), initially composed for the unusual combination of piano duet, women’s chorus and orchestra, was lost in a fire. We heard the 1912 reconstruction that dropped the chorus. It’s a strange work: it opens with a recognisably Debussian soundscape of dappled colours, in which the piano duo nevertheless feel like unexpected guests, but its second movement develops into a kind of brassy march – its final moments struck me as dimly reminiscent of, of all things, Bruckner.

It hardly seemed fair, either, to juxtapose this early Debussy, though appealingly orchestrated and superbly played (this was the other work making its Berlin Phil debut), with music from what must be one of the most perfectly orchestrated works in the whole repertoire, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé – or at least the highlights that are included in the second suite Ravel prepared from the complete ballet score.

The opening Lever du jour offers a miraculous blend of ardent, soaring melody with stylised depictions of nature bustling back to life. It was performed here with the brilliance one would expect, Fischer controlling the colour expertly and unleashing a shattering climax. Mathieu Dufour was the outstanding flute soloist in the Pantomime, with Walter Seyfarth offering raucous counterpoint on the E flat clarinet before merrily leading a whirling Danse générale. With the whole orchestra seemingly let off the leash by Fischer and revelling so joyously in its virtuosity, this was thrilling, irresistible stuff.