After a third curtain call at the conclusion of a gripping Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto, Steven Osborne returned to the Steinway D for an encore, turned to his audience and asked, "Would you like moderately fast or slow?" Not since last autumn and the Party Conferences has Symphony Hall witnessed a call for a show of hands in decision taking. The result: those in favour of moderately fast about 40%, those in favour of slow, clearly the majority. So Osborne carefully prepared the very near full house for an interval reflection on sorrow and grief with Rachmaninov's Prelude in D major, Op.23 no. 4 – an unusual key for this kind of mood setting. John Adams admitted recently that music, above and beyond everything else, is about conveying emotion. With Tchaikovsky's fate-strewn Pathétique to follow, the Osborne encore contribution was highly appropriate.

Steven Osborne © Benjamin Ealovega
Steven Osborne
© Benjamin Ealovega

Rachmaninov's inspiration for composing The Rock might well have been Lermontov or Chekhov; it remains an analysis of a shared emotional story of past failures. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's cellos and double basses' distinctive pizzicato paved the way for prodigious brass-led crescendos. This was a happy return for Alexander Vedernikov to the first work of his professional conducting career.

Rachmaninov achieves the conveying of emotion in spades in his Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor.  Trying hard to recover from the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony in 1897, it was four years of family help before the first emotionally charged performance of his Second was given. Osborne has a remarkable sense of control and, at times, when the pace slowed, he increased that pace noticeably, without grandstanding, whilst maintaining a watchful eye on Vedernikov. Osborne is Artist in Residence at the CBSO and has previously performed Shostakovich's Piano Concerto no. 2 with Vedernikov. They work well together; the magical opening chords to Rachmaninov Second being one of the few occasaions the piano is heard distinct from the orchestra. Oliver Janes' clarinet playing and Elspeth Dutch's horn interventions deserve special mention; a matter not lost on Osborne who supported Vedernikov's recognition of both. The orchestra played with a determined zeal; the search for CBSO's new leader continues with the very capable Sarah Oates on the first desk with Jonathon Martindale.

The all-Russian programme which shows Rachmaninov trying to recover his status and with his mentor's Pathétique, so inappropriately named by his brother, gives Moscow-born Vedernikov a big advantage in having grown up with the great Russian institutions of music and theatre and their distinctive traditions. Very early in his career he was second conductor of the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra. Tchaikovsky's Sixth is at times unforgiveably bleak - a journey from darkness to darkness. Yet there are moments of frivolity together with dramatic and impressive marches, notably in the third movement which ends with a G major coda possibly once considered as the triumphant finale. The B minor key of the opening movement returns for the Adagio, which serves as the last movement and is taken very slowly before fading away.

Vedernikov's Russian career came to an abrupt halt when he left the Bolshoi in 2009 after a disagreement. The triumphant finale of the third movement encouraged a few patrons to applaud, which Vedernikov certainly did not appreciate, turning to look disdainfully at the offenders. This apart, he showed a huge enthusiasm during the demonstrative final applause for the efforts in many sections especially the wind, brass and percussion.