The ‘Rhenish’ subtitle of Schumann’s Third Symphony didn’t come from the composer himself (and it was in fact the final orchestral piece he composed, the official Fourth originally dating from a decade earlier). There’s undoubtedly still a special frisson, though, to hearing it performed a stone’s throw from the Rhine itself, in the shadow of the mighty Cathedral that might or might not also have inspired its striking fourth movement.

Gürzenich-Orchester Köln © Holger Talinski
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln
© Holger Talinski

The main hall of Cologne’s remarkable Philharmonie, part of an arts complex that also contains the fabulous Museum Ludwig, reaches out under the Heinrich-Böll-Platz even further towards the river’s murky waters. In the form of a wood-clad amphitheatre, however, the hall boasts an acoustic that’s fast moving and crystal clear. It’s an ideal match for the sort of sound world favoured by the Gürzenich Orchestra Köln's current Kapellmeister, François-Xavier Roth, whose interpretations with the venerable band are clearly influenced by his work elsewhere: with his period-instrument Les Siècles, and in his fearless exploration of new music.

It was in 2012 with Les Siècles, which makes a speciality of dusting off fin de siècle French repertoire, that Roth first performed the beguiling orchestration of the final movement, ‘Rêve’, of Debussy’s Première suite d’orchestre (1883-4) by Philippe Manoury, the Gürzenich-Orchester’s ‘Komponist für Köln’ from the beginning of this season. Based on the two-piano score rediscovered in a New York library in 2006 (orchestral scores have been found only for the Suite’s first two movements), it made for a seductive opener here.

The young Debussy, in thrall to Wagner at the time, provides richly melodic material, which Manoury’s orchestration presents in hazy, coolly seductive and idiomatic guise. It's a vision in shimmering violins, gently fluttering winds, swoony harp and dew-drop glockenspiel that brings to mind the opening of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder as much as anything the Debussy himself went on to write.

Roth conducted it with affection and a cool eye for detail before launching us, before the applause had even had a chance to die down, into his bracing vision of the ‘Rhenish’. It was a spritely, bright-eyed reading full of swagger and – not always a characteristic associated with Schumann – optimism. Tempos were on the swift side, and I missed some warmth in the violins, whose occasionally undernourished vibrato-light lines seemed to fit uneasily with slightly boomy timpani and an assertive, five-strong double bass complement.

But there was no doubting the clarity of Roth’s vision, and the lightness he brought to so many of the textures, especially in the second and third movements. The tension was wound up in wiry contrapuntal coils around the assertive brass core of that remarkable Feierlich, chorale-infused fourth movement to compelling effect. The finale, despatched swiftly, found the orchestra, with focused and forthright brass, on exultant form.

There was a similar clarity to Strauss’ Don Quixote after the interval, with Roth proving adept at making sense of the composer’s knottiest writing, presenting the score vividly and with plenty of verve and Straussian Schwung. French cellist Edgar Moreau, on hand to give voice to Strauss’ Knight Errant, took a little while to get into character, a little po-faced and uncommunicative early on, with his tone perhaps too mellow and undercharacterised at first. But he soon warmed up and played exquisitely in the score’s lyrical moments, especially in a meltingly wonderful Fifth Variation and a moving death scene.

The Gürzenich-Orchester’s principal viola, Nathan Braude, offered an irresistible Sancho Panza full of wit and wonderful mellow tone. But the piece also offered a fine showcase for the orchestra as a whole. Individually there were many more outstanding contributions, but it’s perhaps the players’ urbane corporate virtuosity that I'll remember most from a performance of refreshing sparkle and clarity.