Richard Strauss’ librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal's grand plan was to incorporate a new opera into Molière's 1670 comédie-ballet Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. Strauss composed both the opera, about the Minoan princess Ariadne left stranded on an island by her lover Theseus, and incidental music for the play. This costly combination resulted in a lengthy, one-off flop in 1912, but engendered both Ariadne auf Naxos and the orchestral suite Der Bürger als Edelmann. Illustrating the nouveau-riche Mr Jourdain’s lavish but ludicrous attempts at acceptance into aristocratic circles, the work combines neo-Baroque charm with a heavy peppering of satire.

Dorothea Röschmann © Wilfried Hösl
Dorothea Röschmann
© Wilfried Hösl

It was the first item on Wednesday’s programme, performed by a subset of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Regrettably, things got off to a shaky start in the “Overture to Act I”, with faulty coordination between ensemble and soloists, especially the piano. When the timing worked, the interaction was abrupt and lacked dynamic subtlety. Chief conductor Mariss Jansons' pace was often plodding, but not in an ironic way. “The Fencing Master” was too loud and did not capitalise on the thrust-and-parry rhythm that pokes fun at poor, middle-aged Mr Jourdain. On the other hand, the solo parts, notably Liviu Prunaru’s violin in “Entry and Dance of the Tailors”, had a tongue-in-cheek bounce mostly absent in the ensembles. Mr Jansons fared better in the lyrical movements, such as “Lully’s Minuet”, but only gained full control in the last movement, when brass and percussion injected some much-needed derision into the proceedings. A fantastically phrased cello solo by Tatjana Vassiljeva was another enhancement. The piece finally fell into place in the spotty-faced exuberance of the kitchen boy’s waltz. The RCO is taking this programme to several European cities, where one expects that, with its excellent ingredients, Der Bürger als Edelmann will soon gel into a delectable starter.

There were no such reservations regarding the main course, when the rest of the orchestra joined in for an assured and luminous performance of Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 in G major. By 1902, when this, his shortest, symphony was published, Mahler had foresworn programmatic descriptions. However, he gave his Fourth a programme in its last movement, a setting of a folk song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The poem presents a child’s idea of heaven, a fertile place filled with merry, angelic music, where the saints turn the plentiful produce and livestock into bounteous meals. The first three movements can be construed as striving towards this state of childlike bliss in the afterlife, or possibly an exalted spiritual state in this life.

Mr Jansons gave a wonderfully cohesive reading of the work, underlining its instrumental lightness throughout. Mahler described the basic mood of the symphony as “the uniform blue of the sky”, and the concert programme alluded to this clue with a picture of Caspar David Friedrich’s oil painting Scudding Clouds. Mr Jansons, however, achieved the translucence of impressionistic watercolours, vivid in their dampish texture and fading softly into each other. The delicate but decided sleigh bells at the start of the first movement set the tone, which remained airborne to the end without ever losing impetus. The supple flutes, clarinets and oboes rippled and gurgled around the pastoral panorama. At the collapse of each emotional climax, sounds dissolved smoothly, like foam, into the next phrase. The frightening wraiths and hobgoblins in the lower strings and brass had an eerie, middle-distance presence.

In the Scherzo, the macabre comes to the fore in the shape of Death, chilling but tantalising, in the discordant violin of a street fiddler. The violin solo danced in and out of the ensemble like a figure weaving through the shadows, compelled by the unflagging country dance rhythms. In the Adagio the colours deepened but remained fluid, with the full complement violins and cellos shimmering like trembling water. Mr Jansons succeeded in distilling emotion without a shred of sentimentality. Again, the handling of the climaxes disintegrating was most impressive – sorrow as intimate grieving rather than demonstrative lamentation. The whole orchestra was on board with this concept, from the lyrically mournful horn solo to the sprightly dance leading to the gates of heaven opening, a summit all the more glorious for the restrained peaks preceding it. The percussionists’ supreme dynamic control was crucial in this masterly sequencing of the crescendos. Replacing Genia Kühmeier, who was indisposed, soprano Dorothea Röschmann sang an animated “Wir geniessen die himmlischen Freuden”. A couple of scooped high notes notwithstanding, she conveyed the words with a round, confident tone. In the last two stanzas her voice settled plushly around its middle range, describing the heavenly music with a touching, focused simplicity. Mr Jansons accompanied her with deft wisps of sound, which evaporated softly into silence. Awash with ever-shifting colours and wending forward with unaffected optimism, his vision of the afterlife was as elusive as it was convincing. And are not elusiveness and conviction at the very heart of faith?