It took just four minutes for all 1,000 tickets to sell out. Clearly, in Berlin at least, the thirst for culture remains undimmed. And in his short but passionate speech before this concert got under way, Berlin’s Senator for Culture, Klaus Lederer, thanked the public for showing their commitment and spoke eloquently of the cultural sector’s efforts to show how it can move forward, and how essential such experiments – even as Germany faces a possible third wave – are to paving a possible road to cultural recovery.

Testing at the Philharmonie Berlin
© Stephan Rabold

And this particular experiment by the Berlin Philharmonic, with help from an array of partners, exemplified the efforts cultural institutions have gone to. The audience had to book a (free) Covid test ahead of the concert, with the Foyer of the Kammermusiksaal turned into an improvised testing centre. Only with a negative result could one then be admitted to the Main Hall, where – in a particularly joyous touch – students of the Karajan-Akademie provided a classy warm-up act: a wind ensemble, a nifty vibraphone and marimba duo, a brass quintet.

By the time concert itself started, the audience’s hunger was unmistakable: cue extended applause for the orchestra’s arrival, then for concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, then for a beaming Kirill Petrenko. And the programme was a feast: a Romantic double bill of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture and Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. Here was a bear hug of warm harmony and generous melody for an audience starved of musical contact, delivered by a full orchestra clearly overjoyed to be playing in front of a live audience for the first time in 120 days.

Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berlin Philharmonic
© Stephan Rabold

But with Petrenko and this orchestra it was never going to be just that. This is repertoire that the conductor reliably excels in, and right from the unusually hushed, muted opening of the Tchaikovsky, it was clear that this was going to be a performance of rare freshness and vivid drama. The tension was built up superbly before being unleashed in the fight music, with the strings’ articulation as sharp any Capulet’s sword. And that love theme, so often dragged unwillingly into the realm of Mills-and-Boon sentimentality? It was urgent and ardent, that famous melody caressingly underpinned Stefan Dohr’s horn counterpoint. When finally revealed in full-orchestral splendour, it was overwhelming – to this listener at least.

With barely time to digest (there was a brief pause to rearrange the stage), we were on to the main course: Rachmaninov’s symphony, served up in full (with none of the once usual trimmings) and including the rarely heard exposition repeat of the first movement. Although its stock has risen over the last decades, the work is still occasionally burdened with various historic charges rooted in lingering suspicion of Rachmaninov’s popularity: of being structurally muddled, of being indulgent, of not necessarily being a “serious” symphony.

Audience back in the Philharmonie Berlin
© Stephan Rabold

This was a performance to put those allegations to bed once and for all: superbly argued and thrillingly dramatic, it revealed the work in all its structural ingenuity, revelling in the richness of its myriad textures: some inherited from Tchaikovsky, some borne of the ingenuity with which Rachmaninov translates the winding, weaving contrapuntal complexity so characteristic of his piano writing – including motoric patterns that look forward much further into the 20th century – into verdant orchestral undergrowth.

We started off again with hushed intensity, the orchestra offering up pallid sighs before starting to breath deeply like a big beast roused from its slumber. After the slow introduction we were thrust into a world of swirling drama and intensity, interspersed with soaring lyricism. The development section dug deep – those shuddering violas! – and the climaxes rocked the Philharmonie’s foundations.

The Scherzo had pace and power, the big melody of its slow section chaste and reined in, the “Trio” a marvel of articulation. The Adagio, ushered in with an almost impossibly hushed and tender clarinet solo (Wenzel Fuchs) and brought to a conclusion with the most minutely controlled diminuendo on the final chord, was superb. The finale, meanwhile, was a perfectly controlled roller coaster.

It provided a rousing conclusion to what would have been an outstanding concert under any circumstances. As it was, it could hardly have given a more potent demonstration of what we’ve been missing.