Amsterdam audiences must be spoiled by hearing the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra so often. In this second concert of two at Carnegie Hall, the Concertgebouw again used their immaculate sound and tonal palette to lyrical effect, this time not in Bartók and Mahler, but Strauss and Bruckner.

Mariss Jansons conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra © Marco Borggreve
Mariss Jansons conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
© Marco Borggreve

Under conductors from Willem Mengelberg to Bernard Haitink and beyond, this orchestra has been as central to Strauss and Bruckner performance over the past century as any outside Vienna. In this concert, it was clear that the confidence that comes from the Concertgebouw’s traditions generates a sparkling freedom that keeps works like these fresh. Familiarity, after all, need not breed contempt.

As in the first concert, it was the work played before the intermission that was most convincing by this orchestra’s lofty standards. Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung can be a tricky work to pull off. Its depictions and descriptions of breathing and pain can easily sound overwrought, while failing to find an adequate balance between an underwhelming and an exaggerated transfiguration can be fatal – excuse the pun – to a performance.

Finding balances, however, is the modus operandi of Mariss Jansons, and the result was a particularly stylish performance. The opening achieved gravitas without pomposity, with deep wind chords and a rare enunciation in the strings. Here was the tension that had been slightly lacking in the opening of the previous night’s Mahler symphony. Into the quicker sections of reminiscence, Jansons took a fleet, occasionally jagged approach that still managed to maintain the requisite Straussian weight. There was a torrential quality here, the protagonist’s life relived rather than dimly remembered – more in an action-driven, Heldenleben sense than as in the reflective balm of Metamorphosen. Jansons brought out unusual detailing, particularly in the winds, forcing clarity from Strauss’ thick textures while keeping an ebb and flow to phrasing. The real treat came with the transfiguration, though, its constant forward motion defying a saturated string sheen that most might have wanted to stay for longer. Jansons judged the climax well, mundane and yet heading upwards on the power of its ideals, delaying the crowning brass deliciously.

Tod und Verklärung pointed the way to a graceful, nimble view of Bruckner’s Seventh, given in the Nowak edition. Jansons is not a monolithic, sombre Bruckner conductor: on this evidence he is more interested in keeping the flow going. The result here – in the first two movements at least – was a ceaseless roll of double cream, delivered in phrases that found all the poetry in Bruckner’s prose. Still, this was not quite the existential Bruckner of Daniel Barenboim, nor the implacable, unflinching vision of Bernard Haitink, but a Bruckner of more earthly visions not dissimilar to Strauss’.

Still, Jansons shaped this Seventh gorgeously, whether in the build-up to the first movement’s opening eruption, or the velvety angles of its central sections. Lyricism kept blandness at bay and key relationships were sketched as much as they need be, although the timpani-dominated entry to the coda’s blazing reassertion of E major did not quite hit hard enough properly to bring out Bruckner’s magical juxtaposition of the final bars with their terrifying origins. The Adagio was more of an extended song than a mournful dirge, again with little of the ethereal about it but compensating with extreme beauty of tone. Here the winds shone, particularly the principal flute, although, as in the first movement, when playing together there were some surprisingly – perhaps intendedly – harsh moments. Otherwise there was superlative playing of the Wagner tubas as well as the normal horns: the latter pierced through brightly in the memorial to Wagner at the end of the movement, in an unusual but effective move. Smoothness guided this Adagio forward, even at a percussive climax over which Jansons refused to linger, just as the final note was cast curtly aside.

The scherzo, with its sharply characterised birdsong, was more swashbuckling the second time around, making up for a lack of swagger and a slight rhythmic reluctance on a first hearing. It surrounded a luxurious trio, which seemed to look sideways at the slow movement of Brahms’ contemporary Fourth. A positively jaunty finale rounded things off, full of gaiety and optimism in its effortless progress back towards E major – and what bright E major it was, in the end! As in the previous night’s Mahler, though, one wondered whether the things Jansons left unsaid in this reading might better have been heard.