While the connections between Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 2 and Lutosławski’s Symphony no. 3 may appear tenuous at first, there is a beautiful symmetry here. In 1878, Brahms had finally started writing symphonies, and though the first was long in gestation the second and third followed fluidly. It was in the midst of this that the second piano concerto was written, and it is something of a hybrid, being neither concerto nor symphony. There’s a sense of the concerto soloist competing for attention with the orchestra, who seem convinced they’re playing a symphony. By contrast, Lutosławski’s third symphony is a virtuosic concerto for orchestra, particularly showcasing the woodwind and percussion. It’s a short utterance, just 35 minutes in length, but in that short time there is a whirlwind of orchestral colour, pushing the players’ tonal palette and technical abilities to the limits.

The Berliner Philharmoniker are always on form, at least where their technique is concerned. The sound of their string section especially is second to none, and there were moments in this performance of the Brahms where they really shone. The first violins sung beautifully, especially during the second movement trio, and there were fantastic pianissimos too, with a truly special and contemplative recapitulation in the first movement. Yefim Bronfman is also a powerhouse in front of the orchestra, producing some spectacular fireworks throughout the performance, while still finding space for moments of extreme intimacy. Sadly, in spite of moments of true brilliance, the overall performance was somewhat underwhelming. It was as if Rattle and Bronfman hadn’t decided what the piece was, and how to collaborate on it. Both performers seemed to pass the musical gauntlet to the other the majority of the time, with neither taking the lead at some key moments in the piece. The result was a nonchalant performance with both orchestra and soloist taking the musical back-seat for most of the work. The cello solo in the slow movement was particularly disappointing; there was an incredibly beautiful cello sound, but the delivery was so matter of fact that we only got a hint of the deep emotions which could have been.

With the move from symphony with soloist to concerto for orchestra, it was as though the orchestra were suddenly released from the bonds of accompanist. Here was all the freedom and intensity the Brahms lacked, and more. Lutosławski’s music is often difficult to make engaging. His style of composition, where individual lines meld together to form masses of sound, is often very evocative, but lacking in drama, and doesn’t sustain musical interest over long periods of time. His third symphony has more of a focus on melody, and he employs a motif of unison hammered Es from the whole orchestra, which bind the work together. Even so, it was a feat of orchestral virtuosity and flawless direction from Rattle, which made this performance gripping from start to finish. They brought out not only the music’s dynamism and intensity, but also the moments of beauty and poise that connect them and made this into a real and cohesive symphony, with a musical narrative and sense of tension, resolution, climax and conflict. All sections of the orchestra are showcased at some point in this work, but particularly notable were the percussionists, whose playing was wonderfully electric, and clarinetist Wenzel Fuchs, who is a true virtuoso. After their stellar performance of the Lutosławski, the Berliners were rightfully applauded with zeal by the full Proms audience, and, as an encore, performed Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance in C major, Op. 72 no. 7, with as much bite and playful energy as one could hope for.

It’s unusual for three- and five-star performances to sit side by side, but that was the situation here. The Berliners’ performance of the Lutosławski is an experience that will stay with me forever, but their Brahms was remarkably forgettable.