If there’s a more apposite way to sum up the annus horribilis of 2016 in musical terms than the hammer blow that ends Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces Op.6, it’s hard to imagine one. Thus the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s second concert in its brief Barbican residency came to its shattering conclusion, as part of a Saturday matinée whose unusual timing by British concert standards can be the only reason that this solidly Austro-German programme was not a sell-out.

Daniele Gatti © Mark Allan | Barbican
Daniele Gatti
© Mark Allan | Barbican

But the generous offering of Wagner, Mahler and Berg had begun in a more optimistic, if bittersweet vein. The RCO is visiting each of the 28 member states of the EU over the coming two years as part of a Grand Tour and working with young musicians in each country. At the heart of the tour is a project entitled ‘Side by Side’, and for the opening performance of the Act I Prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the RCO welcomed members of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain to its ranks. Young string players shared desks with their professional counterparts, and wind players, harpist and percussionist played second to the Amsterdammers’ section principals. It was an inspiring sight – until this initiative, how many other musical teenagers can say they have literally played ‘in’ the Concertgebouw Orchestra? And also a salutatory reminder of what is at stake culturally speaking over the years to come.

Daniele Gatti, who took over as the Concertgebouw’s new chief conductor at the beginning of the season and was here giving his first London concerts in his new role, is an experienced Wagnerian. His way with the Meistersinger Prelude was supple and fluid, making it less a bombastic showpiece than a carefully paced and shaped exposition of the opera’s main themes. Such was its beguiling sense of anticipation in this heart-warming combination of youth and experience that it was one of those overture experiences that made me wish that I was settling in for the full five hours of the rest of the opera.

Instead, after the youngsters had left the stage to well-deserved applause and been replaced by the rest of their professional counterparts, we moved on to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and two sizeable bleeding orchestral chunks from the composer’s most formidable stage work: “Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” and “Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March”. Again, Gatti’s flexible way with tempo and flow was much in evidence. He also scaled the ‘vertical’ dimensions of Wagner’s score with complete mastery, recognising how the composer plays less with contrast than with subtle and continuous changes of orchestral sonority. And the RCO players rose to the challenge magnificently, with sumptuous, steely strings and full-bodied but well-blended brass, more mellow than ear-piercing.

The Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony and Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces made a pertinent coupling for the concert’s second half. Written only four years apart, both seem to sit on the cusp of a new era with Mahler exploring new harmonic vistas and Berg taking Mahlerian symphonicism into unexplored territory. The exposed string unisons of the Mahler gave us the only slightly under-par playing of the afternoon, with some players seemingly unsure of Gatti’s beat. But overall, the great arc of the Adagio was spanned with powerful emotional effect and there were some especially well-turned solos from the woodwinds.

Berg’s triptych – with its suggestion of a disintegrating Vienna in the twisted waltzes of its Round Dance movement and a concluding, nightmarish March (dating from August 1914) that seems like a premonition of the world catastrophe about to come – was given an equally detailed and commanding performance. Here, every section of the orchestra excelled, and Gatti painted the canvas in all its detail, from the tender to the gory, no more so than in the lead up to that final hammer blow of fate.