Two programmes, four works, and nothing written before 1880: the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and their chief conductor Mariss Jansons certainly know how to play to their strengths on tour. What strengths they are, too. This orchestra generates a uniquely warm sound, maintains scrupulously clean textures, and possesses technical skills that surpass even the finest of other orchestras. Its principals demonstrate how to be musical individuals within a collective, and the wells of colour available on this orchestra’s palette are so kaleidoscopic, delivered in phrases full of light and shade, that one begins to wonder if there is anything the Concertgebouw cannot do.

Leonidas Kavakos
Leonidas Kavakos

On the evidence of these performances, the answer is probably not. This first concert of two paired Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony with Béla Bartók's Violin Concerto no. 2.

The Bartók received the more special reading. Leonidas Kavakos, although keenly adept in earlier music, brings a fine sense of integrity to 20th-century music, as he recently proved – again at Carnegie – in Szymanowksi’s Second Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Here he struck a perfect balance in a work that the Concertgebouw premièred in March 1939. On the one hand, listening to this performance with the ears one would bring to Berg amply showed the Second Viennese School’s undeniable influence on this composer, especially in Bartók’s constant variations and transformations in themes and colours. (The second theme of the first movement is in fact a twelve-tone row, but is more of a gentle rejoinder than a dodecaphonic statement of intent.)

On the other, Kavakos was equally keen to root this music in folk and song, especially through the rough-edges he found in the timbre of his Stradivarius. Yet Kavakos seemed to keep that folkish undercurrent alienated, at arm’s length, despite the intensity he brought to those sections in which it comes to the fore. A slight ambivalence characterised the final movement in particular, which was all the more remarkable for the gusto with which it was attacked by soloist and orchestra alike. Similarly, a sense of violinist and conductor deliberately occupying separate spheres permeated the slow movement, the Concertgebouw providing an eerie underpinning to Kavakos’ bewitching, Heimweh-laden lyricism. For his part, Jansons illuminatingly navigated the concerto’s passage between outright modernism and the schmaltz that seems often to want to break through this music, particularly in the first movement. An exceptional performance warranted no fewer than seven bows, and an encore (the Allemanda from Ysaÿe’s Fourth Sonata) arguably even more probing than the Bartók itself.

The Mahler was technically one of the best-played orchestral performances one could hope to hear, and in far from the narrow sense in which that kind of statement usually heralds a big “but”. One would expect such glorious playing from an orchestra so steeped in Mahlerian history. The present Concertgebouw players are the keepers of a flame that has blazed since the composer’s own close relationship with the orchestra, and that has been tended and brightened by conductors from Willem Mengelberg and Eduard van Beinum to modern greats like Bernard Haitink.

Even if one didn’t quite know why, it was immediately clear in the opening of this First that this was a true Mahler orchestra, a unified whole individualised in counterpoint and character. Confidence breeds success in Mahler, and throughout the orchestra this music was lived without hyperbole. Tension and sweet naïveté were kept in proper dialectic throughout the first movement, its signs of nature peeping through charmingly. Changes of colour and mood were delivered with a sparkle of virtuosity, always with balances tamed. The Schwung of the second movement was firmly attacked but far from overdone, and the woodwinds somehow managed to keep their blend despite constant variations of soundworld. The “Bruder Martin”/“Frère Jacques” theme, smoothly done by the Concertgebouw’s principal double bass, heralded a third movement at once possessed of an inexorable tread and maintaining an immaculate lightness of touch. The finale built superbly, the strings singing with a smoothness that belied the struggles of Mahler’s music, the Concertgebouw’s general sound expanding all the while.

Everything was so right about this performance that something had to be the exception to the rule. For me – and the quick standing ovation in the hall suggests I was in the minority – the pictorial swathes of colour masked a reading that ultimately failed to take a stand. This was not Mahler with analytical zeal, nor snappy, ironic, muddy Mahler, nor anything in between, above, or below. Letting the music speak for itself – whatever that might mean – is all well and good, but here everything just seemed that bit too easy.

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