After dividing reviewers diametrically in last November’s Mahler 6, conductor Daniele Gatti, who takes over RCO leadership in 2016, presented his vigorous reading of the Symphony no. 3 in D minor, the composer's longest symphony. Gustav Mahler himself conducted the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s first performance of the Third in 1903, 16 months after its world première. Amsterdam rewarded him with a warm reception of the work, which encompasses no less than “the whole of nature”. Its six movements scale the evolution of life itself, from the first tremblings emerging from inorganic matter, through the plant and animal kingdoms and human consciousness.

Its final movement, titled “What Love Tells Me”, is an expression of Mahler’s belief, echoing Schopenhauer, that a state of peaceful, eternal joy can only be achieved through compassion for all creation and the love of God. Although Mahler prohibited the inclusion of movement titles in concert programmes, preferring “absolute music”, it is clear from his writings that the work is programmatic in thematic structure, and last Thursday's programme included the movement titles.

Theatricality and beauty characterized the first movement, named “Pan Awakes: Summer marches in”, and indeed most of the performance. That the RCO is capable of ravishing playing is a given, and their current crop of soloists is top-notch, but such nobility of sound was surely intentional. There was nothing brash about the fanfares announcing the first animate stirrings, but an alluring dignity. Primitive life did not emerge writhing from bubbling sludge, but forged itself into wondrous plasticity, blooming into an undeniable force in the throbbing trombone solo, superbly executed by Jörgen van Rijen. Marshalling entrances with a sleek semaphore, Mr Gatti created the illusion of expanding spaciousness, with phrases drifting in from, and fading into, all directions. The build-up to the summer march really did sound as if musicians from far and wide were converging to join what Mahler called the “Bacchus Parade”, with an unstoppable, precisely managed momentum. It is clear that Mr Gatti likes to be on top of every detail, sometimes wielding the baton like a samurai sword, but he shaped phrases with broad lines rather than fussy etching.

The cosmic theatre of the first movement was followed by fragile loveliness in “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me”. Occasional knotty moments in the warp and weft of this intricate movement did not detract from the overall effect of shimmering colour. The lower strings were suffused with sunlight and the violins sparkled, fronted by the slender, elegant playing of concertmaster Vesko Eschkenazy. In the swift passages the virtuosic effect was one of flying with the wind above stretches of meadow. Mr Gatti continued in his refusal to make raucous noise into the irreverent third movement. “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me,” Mahler wrote, “sounds as if all of nature were making faces and sticking out its tongue”. The animals were certainly making merry, but they were wearing top hats and lace collars while cavorting with supreme polish. Intruding upon the world of these graceful beasts, who live and die oblivious of their mortality, Omar Tomasoni’s fabulous post horn solo was a celebration of nostalgia rather than a last post.

One expected surround-sound drama similar to that of the first movement in the mysterious fourth movement, a setting of the “Midnight Song” from Friedrich Nietsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In a revelatory dream state, the alto solo receives answers from the universe about human destiny: human suffering is deep, but joy is deeper and seeks eternity. Perhaps it was her position behind the orchestra that lessened the impact of Christianne Stotijn’s enshrouded mezzo-soprano, perhaps it was the pacing of the voice-orchestra dialogue. As it was, the oboe’s sinister bird calls, for instance, sounded much louder than Ms Stotijn and the song lacked balance and texture. The lack of balance between soloist and ensemble continued into the following movement, rung in by the splendid peals of real church bells. (After the recent acquisition of seven bells, the RCO now owns a set of ten.) In the setting of the traditional poem “Es sungen drei Engel” (Three Angels Were Singing) the women of the Netherlands Radio Choir struck a note of joyful optimism about God’s mercy. The Netherlands National Boys’ and Children’s Choirs were the well-prepared cherubs. The predominance of older girls in this combination made the angels sound rather mature and well-behaved – not quite the cheeky innocence suggested by the score.

Mr Gatti’s imposing, fluid phrasing crystallised into something truly wonderful in the last movement. With effusive but bridled arm gestures he directed unhurried streams of opulent sound. Total immersion in the music sometimes impelled him to sing along quite audibly at climactic moments. The result was an Adagio of piercing beauty and profound intensity. The peaceful ecstasy was luminous, but it was the pain in the urgent climaxes that was impossibly beautiful.