Before the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra catapulted the young Bernard Haitink to fame in the 1960s, the young musician was violinist and later Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. For Haitink’s 60th anniversary as a conductor, the legendary Dutchman opened the new season of the Saturday matinee with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. For this diamond jubilee, Haitink and the RFO celebrated their history with works by three generally heavy-duty composers. But in this uplifting, thoughtfully selected programme, Wagner, Berg and Mahler turned out to be a surprisingly light-hearted, Romantic triumvirate. Each work was refreshingly enriched by the company of the others. The harmonic tension found in the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde recurred in Berg’s early songs and Mahler’s vocal finale to his Symphony no. 4 in G major.

Haitink opened with the work that was also on the programme of his debut concert with the Radio Philharmonic 60 years ago: the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. With his trademark minimalism, Haitink manoeuvred the orchestra, subtly guiding it through the crescendi in the Prelude from its delicate opening to the resounding awakening. During the Liebestod, the maestro just as effectively extinguished Wagner’s passionate music during the diminuendo. With his subtle indications, Haitink produced – seemingly without effort – the overwhelming beauty in Wagner’s melodrama, allowing the melody to undulate between sections with minimal push or pull. It was a fitting opening in which Haitink demonstrated both the muscular and the sensitive qualities of this orchestra.

Alban Berg’s adapation of Romantic German poems in Sieben frühe Lieder is musically quite accessible lacking the direct atonal challenges found in Berg’s mature compositions. The songs fit nicely between Wagner and Mahler: their influences can be clearly heard in the lustre of Berg’s late-Romantic orchestration. Anne Schwanewilms was a last minute substitute for Christiane Karg. Substitute or not, she offered her powerful, but flexible voice, for the extremely high reaching, as well as the simmering low notes, of Berg’s work. In the first song, Nacht, the soprano elegantly held back, while Haitink painted soft, mysterious nightly colours with his accompaniment. The harp particularly enhanced this sense of mystery. The celesta and horns in Schilflied set the tone for a haunting, though never threatening, mood, while Schwanewilms voice travelled like a thick, narrow fog through Berg’s music.  

The highlight of the cycle occurred during Die Nachtigall where the soprano demonstrated her enormous vocal capacity. With “Da sind in Hal und Widerhall/Die Rosen aufgesprongen”, Schwanewilms projected her voice powerfully in the highest notes. Her voice sounded so pure, as if a true Nightingale, it left me imagining the chandeliers in the Main Hall would shatter from its beauty. An ominous and mysterious mood continued in the Traumgekrönt, reminding again of Wagner’s Liebestod. Im Zimmer offered an interlude of winsome enchantment. The torrid Liebesode filled the Concertgebouw with erotic harmonic tension, which the exuberant last song Sommerstag laid subsequently to rest. While Haitink evoked the many different Romantic moods with the orchestra, it was a pity that at time Ms Schwanewilms diction lacked the clarity to discern the text, turning her into a vocal instrument rather than a singer. This worked brilliantly for Mahler’s symphony, but felt imprecise during Berg’s songs.

After the break, the audience was treated to a first-class performance of Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 in G major. Haitink conducted this Mahler with expected superiority, so it was refreshing for a tiny incident halfway through that left Haitink stranded on a chair, waiting for his soprano to merge on stage: apparently someone had forgotten to give her her cue to get ready. But before this happened, Haitink steadily guided the RFO through the joyful, light-hearted opening. Haitink steered the sleighbells away from yuletide tendencies, suggesting the Alpine beauty and not the reindeers of Santa’s sled. In the scherzo and trio of the second movement each instrument let the dainty melody escape from Mahler’s mischievous undercurrent.

At the beginning of the third movement, when the soprano is supposed to emerge for her appearance in the last movement, Haitink took a rest on a chair while waiting for her to appear. For most of Mahler’s symphonies, this break in tension would be a scandalous situation. But for some reason, this interlude, seemed perfectly natural – almost appropriate – for this lighthearted fare. The peaceful dream in the third movement, with its delicate variations did not suffer from the incident. Haitink deftly guided the orchestra through Mahler’s slow part and finale. His left hand controlling the brightness, as if screwing in or unscrewing a lightbulb, while his baton, as if it were a paintbrush, subtly increasing and decreasing the tempi. In the finale, under Haitink’s steady measure, Ms Schwanewilms and the orchestra elevated Mahler’s song Das himmlische Leben with exquisite beauty, offering the audience a taste of that heavenly life.