For one last time, Mariss Jansons descended down the red carpetted stairs of the Great Hall as Principal Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. After his resignation last year, the scheduled concert tonight turned out to be his last in this capacity. The final performance was programmed before his announcement as part of an adventurous series exploring composers inspired by folk music. Thomas Hampson performed folksongs by Mahler, Berio, and Copland. Afterwards, Jansons conducted Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which allowed sectional leaders to have a last moment with their departing Maestro.

For 2007’s Christmas Matinee and the RCO’s 125th anniversary, Hampson sang Mahler with Jansons, so his presence tonight turned out to be a welcome coincidence. Mahler incorporated many passages from the songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn into his symphonies, so it almost felt like Jansons was serving Mahler samples with tonight’s selection of songs, evoking memories of his legendary symphonic performances. Opening with “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” one was nostalgically reminded of the scherzo in the Resurrection Symphony. It was followed by the humorous “Trost im Unglück”, where the snare drums and trumpets pulsated optimistically. In “Das irdische Leben” Jansons marked the contrasting shrilling high notes. The solemn march in  “Der Tamboursg’sell” echoed Mahler’s Symphony no. 5. As he performed the songs with rigid posture, Hampson came across detached, his performance perfunctory, a far cry from his jolly and authentic Copland later.

Commissioned by the RCO for this farewell concert, Ick seg adieu (“I say goodbye”) by Martijn Padding (of last year’s opera Laika) is based on a 16th century Dutch folksong. In comparison to the other works, Jansons kept strict tempi throughout this piece. Percussive rhythms opened the mysterious work, followed by exotic colours from Petra van der Heide on the harp. The eastern sounding melody then evolved through each section. Eventually, the piece functioned as refreshing intermezzo between the German and English songs.

When Hampson returned for the American folksongs, he appeared more authentic in his native tongue. He began with Berio’s orchestration of Black is the Colour… by Kentucky singer-composer J.J. Niles. With his viola, Michael Gieler offered the catchy voice of the ‘country dance fiddler’. Hampson seemed even more genuine in Copland’s Old American Songs. As a result of his relaxed playfulness, the songs turned into the highlights of the evening. He opened with “The Dodger”, a humorous, late 19th century election campaign song. The sentimental Americana created quite some teary eyed moments for this American listener. Jansons’ continuous smiling at his musicians, even some mischievous grinning, added to the joy of the experience.

Hampson charmed together with Emily Beynon in her flute solo in the lullaby “The Little Horses”. The 1843 minstrel song “The Boatman’s Dance” finally revealed the breadth and depth of Mr Hampson voice. Even though he sounded more robust in previous performances, his voice is still powerfully engaging. His theatrical encore, including farm animal sounds, “I Bought Me a Cat” brought down the house. He danced around on stage as he interacted playfully with the orchestra. With all Hampson’s contagious momentum, his Copland interpretation was a performance you did not want to end.

Besides Mahler, Bela Bartók is another favourite composer of Jansons. After years of studying different folk music, those catchy melodies became integral to Bartók’s compositions, as is the case for his Concerto for Orchestra. The piece has five movements. Structured like a palindrome, the middle movement is slow, the second and fourth scherzos, while the piece is bookended by two sonata-allegro movements. Jansons layered the Hungarian tunes, rhythmic complexities, and shrilling extremes with wonderful transparency. He spotlit the soloists during their virtuoso passages. In the “Introduzione”, he brought out the fabulous timbres in the subtle interplay between flute and oboe.

Jansons continued the extremes with bursting fortissimos from the strings, brooding, but lacking in brilliance. After Bence Major opened the light-hearted, second movement on his snare drum, the orchestra’s camaraderie emerged as the different pairs played off each other with visible joy in the "Giuoco delle coppie" (Game of Pairs). With his trademark precision, the Maestro emphasized Mr Navarro’s shrilling high notes on his oboe in the nocturnal “Elegia”. In the penultimate “Intermezzo interrota” the notes in the woodwind section fluttered around each affectionately. Jansons’ rhythmic perfection followed with a thunderous, but playful, perpetuum mobile in the Finale, where each section propelled the music forward. A thunderous ovation followed from the audience. After several goodbye speeches in the glamorous presence of Queen Maxima, patron of the RCO, Jansons’ Concertgebouw portrait was unveiled, now hanging for all to see next to Kes, Mengelberg, van Beinum, Haitink and Chailly.