Now entering his second season as Chief Conductor of the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin, Robin Ticciati is keen to show the breadth of his repertoire and the extent of the orchestra’s abilities. His first programmes of the season paired Debussy with high German romanticism; this concert, his second of the season, featured the Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune alongside Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony.

Robin Ticciati
© Giorgia Bertazzi

Whilst the two composers seem to have little to do with each other on the surface, both were committed Wagnerites, and these two works – written just ten years apart from each other – both deal in very different ways with the older composer’s legacy. Debussy’s Prélude takes Stéphane Mallarmé’s (another Wagner obsessive) poem L’après-midi d’un faune, with its mythological setting and symbolist imagery, as the inspiration for a work that Pierre Boulez called “the beginning of modern music”.

Ticciati and the DSO emphasised the ethereal and the fleeting delicacy of the piece. Their performance was often sotto voce, holding back until the legato melody at the work’s apex, in which the string section cautiously luxuriated. The ensemble was keen to prove itself sensitive and willing under its new chief conductor, creating porcelain pianissimos and finely graduated crescendi.

Their performance of Bruckner’s Seventh, on the other hand, was worlds apart from refined elegance. The symphony is a bombastic hymn to German romanticism, especially to Wagner, who died while Bruckner was composing it. Taken at face value, the symphony is gargantuan and often baffling, a succession of monumental musical building blocks constructed into a constant deafening crescendo.

The orchestra was on high alert and overflowing with passion, imbuing each block with weight and heft. Indeed, the first movement was well-defined with light and shade, and vivid expansive melodies. Yet the second movement, Bruckner’s elegy for Wagner, lacked poignancy and the Scherzo didn’t so much dance as galumph. The final crescendo of the finale, which reaches immense dynamic proportions, seemed absurd and banal rather than a moment of extreme catharsis.

Back in the realm of dreams, Lera Auerbach’s Violin Concerto no. 4 was written for the New York Philharmonic in 2017, who asked the composer for a work inspired by the night. The resulting work is subtitled “NYx: Fractured Dreams”, which refers both to Nyx, the Greek goddess of the night, and the abbreviation for New York, which Auerbach calls the “city of ultimate dreamers”. Like that city, the concerto is a sprawling constellation of disjointed characters, which Auerbach characterises as dreams.

The “fracturing” comes mostly from an extended orchestral palette that distorts the solo violin’s melody, performed here by Leonidas Kavakos, who gave the New York world première. Bowed glockenspiel, vibraphone and tubular bells, as well as ethereal glissandi on the strings and, most strikingly, a musical saw all blurred Kavakos’ solo part with ghostly resonances. Auerbach is a dab hand at creating striking orchestral effects, yet, like dreams, the concerto seemed somewhat insubstantial and indistinct.

Kavakos produced a sweet tone, but was mostly hidden in the orchestral texture, and his talents were under-used. The Deutsches Symphonie Orchester reproduced the concerto’s range of compelling sonic effects sensitively, yet seemed to struggle to find the kernel of the work. However, this ambitious programme and the orchestra’s willingness and commitment under their new chief are promising signs for their future collaboration.