There was no complaining about the generosity of this programme: a 15-minute entrée and a 45-minute concerto followed by an hour-long symphony. Throw in a solo Bach encore from the violin soloist and the whole evening lasted not much less than three hours. It says a great deal for the purpose, clarity and thrust of Robin Ticciati’s conducting of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony – a work that can bloat and balloon in the wrong hands – that I left at the end properly exhilarated rather than exhausted.

Robin Ticciati
© Giorgia Bertazzi

Rachmaninov is certainly not a composer who jumps immediately to mind when one thinks of the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin’s young tousle-haired chief conductor. And his conducting of the work had the elegance and stylishness familiar from his conducting of other repertoire. The fact that Ticciati himself, slim and rangy of limb, seems incapable of a heavy or lugubrious gesture maybe has something to do with it, even if his way with the first movement’s opening Largo was deliberate and distinctly unrushed. 

With the launch into the Allegro moderato, though, came a powerful sense of momentum, allied to a fine ear for texture, revealing plenty of detail in Rachmaninov’s orchestration – I noticed, in particular, how important the viola line is throughout the whole work. Both here and in the Allegro molto second movement, there came a sense of Brucknerian logic and inevitability, an unexpected playfulness. In neither movement, nor in the Adagio’s languid passions, though, did one feel shortchanged in terms of melodic sweep or lyrical generosity. But it was a richness rooted in a warm, lighter place than often: not that “Russian”, perhaps, but often revelatory. And it continued into a rousing and exciting account of the finale. 

Christian Tetzlaff’s way with Beethoven's concerto felt similarly exploratory before the interval, but without quite the same sense of coherence. Ticciati set the scene with small, hard-sticked timpani ushering in vibrato-light strings and a woodwind section finely woven into a tight-knit harmonie group, breathing and phrasing as one. It was a tale of dynamic extremes, between pared-down pianos and full-on fortes, even before Tetzlaff entered, bringing an array of imaginative, almost improvisatory touches. 

He dug into an earthy lower register and soared with gloriously sweet tone to the ethereal heights, and there was a constant sense of storytelling, of whispered confidences and firm assertions, of a keenness to emphasise the elements of the dance, to bear the melodies aloft. As violin playing it was supremely assured, even if the freedom of Tetzlaff’s playing occasionally led to minor intonation lapses that those with a more sturdily upholstered romantic approach would certainly not admit. 

Tetzlaff’s own cadenzas, retooled from Beethoven’s for his piano version of the work, occasionally risked taking us into a rather incongruent parallel musical universe. There were times, too, where I longed for a little more level-headed serenity and through-line, where the search for extremes seemed to go too far – the central dancelike episode in the Larghetto was played with such delicacy that it almost disappeared. I’m not sure I was convinced by it all, but Tetzlaff’s committed and probing reading kept me on the edge of my seat. That Bach encore, meanwhile, was a marvel of sweetness and delicacy. 

With such riches elsewhere in the programme, I wondered whether the evening might have managed without George Benjamin’s Sudden Time to kick it off. The score dates from 25 years go and is big on texture and the manipulation of a large orchestra into a series of brilliantly shifting palettes – a swirling sense of threat dissolves at one point into babbling wind dimly reminiscent of The Rite of Spring. It doesn’t give up its meaning easily, perhaps, but made for bracing opener, performed with admirable conviction.