While not exactly a model of risky or unconventional programming, this season opener did include a rare visit by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, an orchestra with a rich pedigree, and had two of the most in-demand young artists of the day – British conductor Robin Ticciati and Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang – sharing the bill.

Vilde Frang © Marco Borggreve
Vilde Frang
© Marco Borggreve

The performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major was a fascinating one. Ticciati has been music director of the DSO since last year and the orchestra seems to have attuned to his rather cryptic conducting style. Dressed informally and conducting without a score or baton, Ticciati carved the opening themes in powerful blocks. Grand, even solemn, it was surprising to hear such a solid, mainly string-driven sound, reminiscent of Beethoven performances from yesteryear. The ensemble, anchored by four double basses, was still quite substantial, but a certain lack of transparency couldn’t be entirely blamed on the acoustics.

However, Vilde Frang’s violin was like a ray of sun. Although entering as on tiptoes, she immediately captured attention through the quality of her playing. The clarity of her articulation and her range of tone were utterly compelling. Moreover she brought Beethoven back to earth with her essentially non-heroic approach. Attentive to dynamics and tempi, Frang meshed her violin with the orchestra, naturally stepping into the footlights or receding into an accompanying role when required. In effect, the performance had a feel of an improvisation, as if Frang was responding spontaneously to what the orchestra proposed. Below the calm surface lurked a vivacious temperament, which manifested itself in the fast, almost edgy runs, but also created a palpable tension throughout the outer movements. On the other hand, the delicacy of her playing in the Larghetto attained moments of true bliss in the dolce and sempre perdendosi passages and with pianissimo notes that seemed to hold forever. Ideally, with a more transparent orchestral sound, the impact could have been even bigger, but the duetting from violin with other soloists was beautifully done, while Ticciati took care not to drown Frang.

A symphony as oft-performed as Dvořák’s “From the New World” has to be a challenge in its own particular way. How do you make this work still fresh and attractive? A couple of months ago, in this very same hall, the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra under Edo de Waart proposed a highly convincing answer, sprinkling Dvořák’s natural flow with a strongly nostalgic perfume. Ticciati, on the other hand, all youthful enthusiasm and energy, seemed to think you should dig into every bar for effect, pay attention to every detail, and pump up the drama on every possible occasion with outsized dynamics and hyperflexible tempi. It's an approach that will have had more than a few supporters. Ostentatious rather than atmospheric, brilliant rather than touching, this was an emphatic, loud “New World”. Tastes differ.

For sure, there was plenty to relish and much of the DSO’s playing deserves praise. Energetic and wholly responsive, the musicians played as if possessed. The orchestra appeared in a larger formation, now anchored by eight basses, and while the loud tutti still tended to blur in this hall, overall the sound opened up considerably and the DSO’s superb woodwinds could finally be fully appreciated. This time conducting with a baton, but still from memory, Ticciati paid a lot of attention to the antiphonally placed strings, who created richly layered canvasses.

But there were some weird choices or simply missed opportunities. The first horn entered like a canon shot at the opening of the symphony, soon echoed by prominent timpani. The repeated Allegro molto exposition was hard-driven only to slow down ostentatiously in the final section. Similarly, the brass chorale, ignoring the ppp marking, bashed into the Largo without much hope of redemption. The DSO brass is fine as it is, so these quirks sounded like definite choices from Ticciati. The cor anglais solo was beautifully played, but the long breaks between phrases grew tiresome, while the charming pastoral episode was unhinged by an ear-splitting statement of the first movement theme. Before the end of the slow movement, a moment of grace was found in the chamber-like passage from the front desk strings. A sense of proportion or balance was missing in the muscular, high-speed Scherzo and in the bluntly orgiastic final movement that opposed a deafening wall of sound to overly delicate, but eventually stale, passages.

The concert season in Antwerp certainly opened with a bang. But leaving the hall I felt none of the emotion that I experienced after de Waart’s Dvořák. Instead it was Vilde Frang’s Beethoven performance that kept lingering on.