Sir Antonio Pappano conducted a moving and original Rachmaninov Second Symphony as the highlight of the first of two Proms concerts with his Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia at the Proms.

Pappano is better known to London audiences as an operatic conductor, and much of the success of the symphony lay in his ability to shape long stretches of music – an hour in total – into a coherent whole. Such was the level of engagement, the musical paragraphs so clear, that the performance seemed to be over in a flash. There was plenty of feeling behind the music too, without ever threatening to wallow in the slow movement. The dialogue between drama, melancholy and festive cheer was a joy to witness through the piece.

The first movement’s introduction was wonderfully slow, opening with sonorous basses and building to an early display of string intensity. The second theme had an expansive sense of dreaminess in the string playing, where Pappano, batonless all evening, gave a great deal of detail in his broad, fluid beat. The climax at the head of a long, steady crescendo seemed to reinforce the turmoil set by the introduction, before the reappearance of the second theme gave it in an even airier sense with some lovely flute playing. The second movement, attacked with little pause, continued the fiery passion left by the end of the first. The crisp attack of the strings made for a transparent texture which neatly highlighted a number of details throughout the movement, much helped by oppositely seated violins. In the middle passage, the optimistic brass entry offered a very quiet glimpse of the festive cheer of the finale.

The famous slow movement was set up by a superbly well played clarinet solo from Alessandro Carbonare. The strings responded with similar feeling, before a hesitant, tentative second theme. The emotional peaks of the movement were deeply affecting at the slow tempo employed. Pappano took plenty of time in various pauses and slow upbeats, and the almost attacca progression to the finale was therefore quite a jolt. The dancing cheer of the final movement came with some big drops in tempo for the more melancholic moments. In particular, there was a very large slowing down for the reappearance of the third movement theme: the emotion of that movement was not to be overcome lightly. The final minutes brought a very hard-won resolution, with long crescendos from very soft starting points leading to a thrilling close. An encore of the Dance of the Hours ballet from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda was played with great vivacity.

In a style a very long way from the Rachmaninov, the evening had begun with Mozart’s Haffner Symphony, no. 35. Without repeats, this worked well as an overture. The crisp, clean string playing, which was to give so much clarity to parts of the second half, here made for a charming and articulate performance. In the second moment, communication between first and second violins in some tight staccato, even at soft dynamics, was more suggestive of a chamber orchestra than a large symphony orchestra. Pappano was quite active, for Mozart, which brought great excitement to the finale, zipping along between big timpani accents. It was a very well polished performance, and impressive that the orchestra should give such proficient accounts of two symphonies so different as those on tonight’s programme.

The Schumann concerto was very ably played by 18-year-old Canadian Jan Lisiecki, an excellent soloist. He gave a mature and refined performance, showing great authority in front of audience and orchestra, with a very powerful, tormented cadenza in the second movement. I wondered if he might have engaged slightly more with the orchestra when accompanying, but otherwise he played very well. In the third movement, he and Pappano did a good job of gently pushing away the tinges of sadness they had found in the first two movements. The orchestra gave some pleasing moments of their own in these parts, notably in the warm-centred string lines of the second movement. It was a graceful, elegant performance, and was neatly followed by an encore of Chopin's C sharp minor Nocturne.

The concert as a whole was very well received by a sell-out audience, who will have left keenly anticipating the orchestra’s Verdi programme the next day.