At the climax of the third movement to his Fourth Symphony, Mahler pushes wide the pearly gates before offering us a child’s vision of heaven with the song Das himmlische Leben. It’s a glorious moment, particularly when the conductor pulls back the reins a fraction before unleashing the blazing E major orchestral outburst. Add a perfectly timed soprano arrival – here Chen Reiss in a powder blue gown – that causes the timpanist to thump out his motif without once peeling his eyes from her, followed by an angelic rendition of the song and you’re already one step towards paradise.

Chen Reiss © Paul Marc Mitchell
Chen Reiss
© Paul Marc Mitchell

In truth, Reiss had already captivated much earlier in this Philharmonia programme conducted by fellow Israeli Lahav Shani. So often, the soprano soloist in Mahler 4 is given nothing to do in the first half of the concert other than twiddle her thumbs in the green room whilst a concerto is tackled. Here, Reiss sang a sextet of Lieder by Richard Strauss, a beautiful selection taking us from tender lullabies to a jilted lover to a poet binding his girl with a garland of roses. With limpid tone and effortlessly floated top notes, Reiss enchanted. Hers is not a creamy Straussian soprano, but one of crystalline purity. I’d wager she makes for a beguiling Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier.

Wiegenlied was suitably dreamy while golden phrases melted in Das Rosenband. Finest of all was the most familiar number, Morgen!, composed by Strauss for Pauline de Ahna nine days after their engagement; after Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay’s luscious violin solo, Reiss led us to a moment of quiet ecstasy. Shani shaped the orchestral accompaniments – never too heavily scored – sensitively, the rocking violin murmurations of Wiegenlied especially delectable.

The evening hadn’t started so promisingly, with shaky intonation from the flutes giving Mendelssohn’s overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage a queasy launch. Once events turned more turbulent, Shani whipped everything into shape nicely, horizontal wrist flicks adding a sense of bravado.

Chen Reiss, Lahav Shani and the Philharmonia © Mark Pullinger
Chen Reiss, Lahav Shani and the Philharmonia
© Mark Pullinger

Their Mahler 4 was very good indeed, the touch of rubato after the initial sleigh bell introduction providing a Viennese flavoured lilt as authentic as Sachertorte. Principal clarinet Mark van de Wiel was at his Puckish best, his sinewy tone sparring with the suave devilry of Visontay’s second violin, tuned upwards for its ghostly danse macabre. Woodwinds supplied raucous interjections aplenty and Nicolas Fleury added bucolic horn solos. Double basses growled and scrabbled furiously and Shani’s use of antiphonal violins paid dividends. The Philharmonia’s strings could have indulged in more generous portamenti, eventually piling on the Schlagobers towards the end of the Scherzo.

Shani’s pacing of the third movement was masterful from the spacious unfurling of the main theme to the variations that followed, leading up to heaven’s gates, although there was some sense of feeling for the note – and not always quite reaching it – among the first violins. Reiss’ wide-eyed rendition of Das himmlische Leben was occasionally breathless with excitement, but was crowned vocally in a halo of golden tone. A heavenly performance.