Orchestral concerts often build to a grand symphonic finish, with appetizers of overture, concerto or song to whet the audience appetite for the main course. It felt a bit jarring, then, to hear the opening trumpet of Mahler’s Symphony no. 5 in C sharp minor just moments after Fabio Luisi took the podium of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Rather than easing into one of the composer’s thorniest offerings, we were going to be tucking right into the red meat.

Fabio Luisi conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
© Milagro Elstak

I could question this approach in any number of circumstances, but having observed Luisi for nearly two decades, in both opera and standard orchestral repertoire, I had little doubt he knew what he was doing. He offered a richly detailed yet admirably copacetic reading of a symphony that frequently comes across as disjointed, utilizing the supremely attuned unity for which the Concertgebouw has become justly celebrated. The Trauermarsch benefited from remarkable syncopation, clean entrances and translucent textures – this was Sturm und Drang but never cacophony, as you sometimes hear in lesser hands. Similarly, the highly tuned strings underlined the mounting terror subtext of the second movement while stopping short of frenzy. They nicely complemented the gossamer strings and bright, anchoring brass.

Though he’s as Genovese as a plate of pesto, Luisi has always had a way with Austro-German music, and his reading of the Scherzo emerged with a recognizably Alpine air, along with distinct touches of Jewish folk music in the pizzicato strings and klezmer-tinged wind solos. More than ever, it emerged as a Mahlerian self-portrait, and a rich contrast to the refinement of the Adagietto (captured for the live transmission with a panoramic camera and elegant, roaming close-ups). A high-energy Rondo finale capped one of the finest interpretations of this increasingly programmed war horse I’ve heard in several seasons.

Kindertotenlieder occupied the concert’s closing slot, with Peter Mattei as soloist. The Swedish baritone possesses a meltingly lyrical voice, which he usually puts to good use in a variety of disparate operatic roles, but which is equally adept in song literature. His effortless legato phrasing matched the smooth streams of accompaniment that Luisi culled from the RCO, particularly in the tense, impassioned Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n and the tender Wenn dein Mütterlein (special mention to alto oboist Miriam Pastor Burgos for her superb anchoring of the latter). Every word rang out clearly and with deep meaning.

Perhaps inspired by Mahler’s Adagietto, the program also featured a new work for harp and strings by the living Dutch composer Rick van Veldhuizen, Mais le corps taché d’ombre, heard in its world premiere. Unlike its immortal predecessor, narrative and musical through-lines were difficult to ascertain. Instead, the composition fell into familiar contemporary traps, including wailing sustained notes and haphazard use of distortion. An all-Mahler evening would have been preferable.


This performance was reviewed from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra's live video stream