Pigeon-holing is so tempting. We think we have established a pattern which then guides our coming expectations, and when that apparent certainty is confounded it is tantamount to receiving a seismic shock. After his first three symphonies Mahler was in danger of being typecast as a purveyor of gargantuan works, both in scale and duration, redolent with grand dramatic statements. No wonder those first audiences in late 1901 found it hard to come to terms with his G major symphony. Two years later the composer complained that this work was “a persecuted stepchild which has as yet experienced little joy in the world”.

Chen Reiss, Daniele Gatti and the RCO Amsterdam © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Chen Reiss, Daniele Gatti and the RCO Amsterdam
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

When the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, giving the second of its two Proms under Daniele Gatti, began the once-upon-a-time introduction to the work, it was easy to feel transported back into the nostalgic world of the children’s nursery with its bells, bright shiny baubles and interior world where everything seems to be at peace with itself. In Mahler there is no other European orchestra that has the kind of musical pedigree the visitors from Amsterdam can look back on, dating right back to the Dutch première of his Fourth Symphony in 1904 conducted by the composer himself. The engine purred like a sleek Maserati from the very start and there was a corporate sheen to the string sound from the softest of pianissimos to the controlled weight at the opposite end of the dynamic spectrum. It is an orchestra in which internal balances never seem to go awry and the sound is never forced or wanton, even when woodwind soloists are anything but reticent. Mahler frequently peppered his scores with the instruction “viel Ton” (= big sound), and whether it was the oboe providing glimpses of the heartache that begins to send ripples across the surface as the movement progresses, or the pungency of the clarinets in the scherzo as the underlying menace is revealed, the Concertgebouw’s wind players delivered in spades.

Gatti highlighted the chamber-like delicacy of much of the scoring, having left off the back desks in the string sections, and achieved a remarkable transparency in the orchestral textures which glistened like fresh dew in the morning sun. He is already a highly accomplished interpreter of Berg and brings to this Mahler score an astonishing blend of Expressionism and Romanticism. These qualities were particularly apparent in the scherzo where the scordatura notation for solo violin had a spine-chilling and spectral quality and where Gatti found many instances of the mordant wit that takes this work away from the sunny uphills and places it in the shadowy vales below.

Chen Reiss © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Chen Reiss
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

In the slow movement, which the composer called “a transfigured cradle song”, it was the seamlessness of the string textures that commanded attention, glowing like the flame in a large storm-lantern, strong and secure against the vicissitudes of an unpredictable world, here represented by the acerbic sonorities from wind and brass. I happen to believe that the soprano soloist should be there from the word go, but there is no gainsaying the kind of coup de théâtre that Gatti and his soloist, Chen Reiss, came up with. She entered from stage right and walked slowly along the uppermost riser towards the centre of the platform. Suitably attired in gold lamé, she might not actually have been at the celestial gates where she stood but, high above the orchestra, she was as close as it gets to an angelic representation. Reiss was fresh-toned and vocally secure, even if the articulation of the text sometimes lacked variation in colour and emphasis. The final stanza was, however, magically realised.

Daniele Gatti and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Daniele Gatti and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Critics too can easily be confounded. Gatti conducted the Haydn symphony from memory (as he did the Mahler) and must therefore have internalised the jewels that lie within the first of this set of sparkling pieces written for an eminent concert-giving society in Paris. But what was this? In the opening movement Gatti dispensed with the trumpets altogether and the energy-laden flourishes of fanfares, with more than a pre-echo of the later Military symphony, fell completely flat. This high-spirited, proto-revolutionary first movement should teem with energy and resonate with grands effets d’harmonie, the striking harmonic effects that the Parisian audiences warmed to. Instead, even with considerably reduced string forces, there was an enervating plushness to the sound, with the timpani just about in the picture (and the fortissimo roll at the end of the finale also hung fire). Serene winds and a singing cantabile line, as one would expect from an Italian conductor steeped in the operatic tradition, offered the ear insufficient contrast, like endless baci one after the other. Above all, where was the dancing bear? Here the courtly stuffiness prevailed, with bewigged flunkeys exercising prim formality. No wonder that, three years after this symphony was written, the Ancien Régime was blown away.