Just over a year ago, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra gave their first concert with Klaus Mäkelä as their new Artistic Partner performing Mahler's Sixth Symphony, an electrifying performance. One year on, that relationship is visibly evolving. Tonight saw him return to Mahler, this time the longest and most challenging symphony, the Third. 

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Klaus Mäkelä conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
© Marco Borggreve (2022)

Expectation was still there, but tonight was different: a number of key players were absent, and twelve young musicians from the Academy of the Concertgebouw joined the orchestra for the first time. How would this performance compare to Mäkelä's last year's Sixth, with arguably one of the finest Mahler orchestras in the world?

The opening was most promising. The wonderful sight of nine French horn bells held high, only to be interrupted by dark and ominous trombones. The exquisite use of silence before the bass drum's figure entranced, as did the spine-chilling tuba swells; and the endless variety of textures depicting nature (especially in the strings and wind) were all astonishing. 

However, this was to be the trombone's night. Jörgen van Rijen's solo was fabulous, and he very much deserved the loudest cheer of the evening. From stunning top notes to sophisticated phrasing, all was a dream. The whole brass section reigned supreme. 

It was unfortunate then that ensemble, tuning and articulation in the second and third movement were not always as clean as expected. At times, it just felt a little nervous before the entrance of mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston calmed the troubled waters. Seated beside the immaculately behaved Netherlands National Children's Choir, her diction was so awesome, the “sssh” of “O Mensch” resonated at the back of the auditorium. I felt the pain as she leaned into the falling figure – we had wronged God, and only the beautiful responses from the violin, principal horn and the oboe’s amazing glissandi could bring us salvation.

Primed, ready and sitting at the front of their seats, the children swept us into the fifth movement as their “Bimm Bamm” echoed round the hall, with the ladies of the Laurens Symfonisch delivering a more cheerful, cheeky tone.

In the finale, originally subtitled What Love Tells Me, one of the finest symphonic movements ever written, tears welled in my eyes after just the first few notes. The subdued restraint and beauty in the strings was quite overwhelming. Mahler asks the question: What is love? Words truly are not enough when we have music such as this.

The intense horn and string climax, the rising double bass figures, the warmth of the oboe entry – almost vocal in quality – displayed playing of the highest calibre. Gone was the nervousness of the earlier movements. This was Mäkelä and the RCO at their best, finding long lines, the phrasing, the nuance and that special something in a score laden with Mahler's detailed instructions while the music became ever more urgent. Horn bells aloft again, the final climax was perfectly timed before shimmering violas and a flute, wafting like a butterfly, led us to Mahler's definition of love. This was not the usual triumphant ending, but something much more subtle. Tonight’s concert will stay long in the memory.