This concert by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Tugan Sokhiev was somewhat unusual for this ensemble in that it featured nary a single "warhorse" on the program. Rimsky-Korsakov's overture to The Tsar's Bride made for a highly effective opener. Sokhiev conducted without a baton, which can sometimes be distracting but in his case was highly effective, with the Berliners responding adroitly to his subtle cues. Strings were creamy in the middle big theme, although the brass sounded a bit out of tune in tutti moments. Flute and clarinet phrasings were particularly winsome in the coda – an unusually quiet ending for an opera overture, but highly effective nonetheless.

Tugan Sokhiev, Nikolai Lugansky and the Berlin Philharmonic
© Lena Laine

Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto no. 1 in F sharp minor was written very early in the composer's career; indeed, he was just 18 years old. Twenty-five years later Rachmaninov revised the concerto extensively, so what sounds in places like a cousin of Scriabin's Piano Concerto or those of Scharwenka also sounds like mature Rachmaninov as well.

Nikolai Lugansky seemed to be steering a middle ground between these two characteristics, but I'm not sure how successful he was in balancing the two. In the first movement, the pianist failed to create an overarching narrative, the music sounding too episodic instead. The color inherent in the score was prone to be lost in the discursive treatment of the material, and the cadenza seemed labored.

The second movement Andante cantabile brought a marked improvement, with poetic pianism and silky strings in the poignant major theme. The interplay between piano and various solo instrumentalists was also effective, with horn and bassoon particularly memorable. In the final Allegro scherzando movement, the opening attacks by the orchestra were thrilling, but even more memorable was the lyrical middle section with Rachmaninov's trademark sweep and rhapsodic passages, leading to a spirited conclusion. In the end, this was a satisfying performance of the concerto but not an exceptional one. As an encore, Lugansky presented more Rachmaninov, Lilacs. It was a poetic reading – noteworthy in its understatement and reminding us that oftentimes, “less is more”.

The final work was the Symphony in B flat major by Ernest Chausson. While it can lay claim to being one of the “big three” French symphonies, it isn't performed all that often. Indeed, this is the first time the Berlin Philharmonic had played it in nearly a half-century. Sokhiev's Chausson was truly a journey, shaping the first movement beautifully with its progression from dim darkness to bright lights. The Allegro section had notable propulsion, with effective instrumental solos balanced against the larger ensemble. Every detail was perfection, from pizzicato strings to memorable oboe and clarinet passages.

Wisely, Sokhiev took an extended pause before proceeding to the deep pathos of the second movement. If any movement can lay claim to being the French answer to the Funeral March from Beethoven's Eroica, it's this one... and the Berliners brought it off completely convincingly. All of the passion and grief inherent in the score were there, and emotionally wrenching, too. In the final movement Animé, Sokhiev and the BPO dived into the ferocious opening but also conveyed delicate finesse in the middle section with its hints of sunlight. After a return of the Agitato, the closing chorale was akin to a musical benediction, with winds and strings joining together in the reverential spirit. Sokhiev took particular care to spotlight the five-note motif at the conclusion – the same one that begins and ends the symphony – and it was masterfully done.

This performance was reviewed from the Digital Concert Hall live video stream