Expectations for this concert were bound to be high. Matthias Goerne, one of the foremost Lieder singers of our time, joined the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, an institution with Mahler in its blood, in songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). On the rostrum leading the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was Manfred Honeck, completing the programme with Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A major. Mr Honeck has recorded one of the most thrilling versions of this symphony with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The anticipation was fully rewarded in the Mahler, less so in the Beethoven. 

There was nothing truly amiss with Beethoven’s Seventh. The orchestra played alluringly and transparently. In this most exhilaratingly rhythmic of Beethoven symphonies, Mr Honeck kept the rhythmic reins taut and the feel light, opening up the volume only where it mattered, in the mass crescendos. The flowering ensembles beautifully illustrated how Beethoven’s grand, enveloping climaxes emerge from an instrumental mix similar to Mozart’s. Mr Honeck’s contouring of the rhythmic clusters was pronouncedly individual, stressing longer notes to sharpen the pulsating lines. Despite the artistry, however, the performance as a whole lacked a sense of sustained vigour. Ideally, Beethoven’s Seventh bounds forwards, creating the illusion of a self-perpetuating source of combustive energy. This performance seemed held back by its rhythmic correctness, which affected the scherzo of the third movement the most, robbing it of playfulness and humour. Mr Honeck’s light but tight approach worked best in the steeplechase of the final movement, the Allegro con brio, through which the RCO dashed with fleet-footed grace.

Any dissatisfaction with the first part of the evening was expunged by the Mahler songs, during which singer and orchestra breathed and moved as one. More than a decade ago, Matthias Goerne collaborated on Des Knaben Wunderhorn with the RCO under Riccardo Chailly, on a CD recording with three other soloists. This time around, he tackled the whole programme by himself, choosing eleven of the German folk poems, and accomplishing the feat with complete mastery. The musicians were no less impressive, whether in military pomp, comedy or elegy. With dynamic fine-tuning, Mr Honeck highlighted the changing textures of the songs. In the soldier-themed poems, where death is omnipresent, the spectral melancholy in the orchestra was spellbinding — the faraway, forlorn brass in Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the Beautiful Trumpets Sound), for example, or the unearthly strings mimicking the rattling bones of dead soldiers in Revelge (Reveille). In their every sighing phrase and dance turn the players proved as eloquent as Mr Goerne, whose bewildering range of expression made this a performance to remember. His technical grip on his powerful and many-coloured voice allows him to taper it into a soft, liquified piano as easily as he casts it into a huge, roaring forte. His wizardry, however, lies in coupling this technical facility with expressive detail. If one only heard the way he described the fish tails in the parodic tale of St Anthony preaching to the fish, one would instantly recognise a great interpreter. He sent out “glänzen, sie glänzen, sie glänzen,  glänzen!" (they glisten…) skimming across the hall, creating the illusion of dancing light.

In the dialogue songs, it was fascinating to hear Mr Goerne switching from one character to another without manifest impersonation, just by colouring character traits into the words. In Verlorne Müh! (Vain Effort) both the clumsily flirty girl and the boorish boy were vividly, touchingly sketched in this way. Another master stroke was his delivery of the donkey’s lines in Lob des hohen Verstandes (In Praise of Higher Understanding). When judging the singing competition between the creative nightingale and the dull cuckoo, Mr Goerne intoned with wooden vehemence, like a bureaucrat droning off the rule book. And that told us all we need to know about this fable. Das irdische Leben (The Earthly Life), in which a starving boy keeps asking his mother for bread, displayed the depth of emotion Mr Goerne mined from these deceptively simple texts. In his insightful elucidation, the anguish of the boy and the hopeless desperation of the mother became a chilling parallel to the Erl King stealing the boy’s life in Schubert’s horror thriller song Erlkönig.

Although he included humorous songs, Mr Goerne’s configuration centred around the theme of mortality and ended with two of the darkest poems, Revelge and Der Tamboursg’sell (The Drummer Boy). A fantastic decision, because the encroaching menace in Revelge showed off the dramatic impact of his baritone in full sail, while the devastating farewell of the soldier waiting to be hanged was the crown on top of this sovereign performance. After protracted applause, Mr Goerne, visibly tired, sang another Wunderhorn dialogue as an encore, Trost im Unglück (Solace in Misfortune)­ – a generous gesture after such a hefty stretch.