Richard Strauss was 34 when his tonepoem Ein Heldenleben - A Hero's Life - was premiered in 1899, and must have seemed a bit young for a full-scale musical autobiography. In fact, Strauss was well aware that he was anything but heroic by nature, and though its lavish use of self-quotation clearly identifies the composer as the central character of his extravagant showpiece, its dominant mode is ironic. Rather than an overblown exercise in Teutonic selfaggrandisement, Heldenleben is a brilliant mock-epic that undermines the very notion of the artist-as-hero.
Conductor Mariss Jansons caught this spirit of self-satire in his performance of a piece that suits the Concertgebouw Orchestra down to the ground. The open-hearted warmth of the strings and the generous yet fine-grained horns provided an opulent red-velvet foundation for the remainder of the ensemble, and the woodwinds - particularly in the malicious portrayal of a gaggle of bitchy critics carping at Strauss's efforts - were precise and pointed.
But there was room in this interpretation for heart, too, notably in Strauss's portrayal of his notoriously difficult wife, Pauline, in the lengthy violin solo performed as a sequence of character studies by leader Vesko Eschkenazy, and in the sunset glow of the final section depicting the Hero's withdrawal from the world. Jansons and the Concertgebouw conjured a wide range of subtle colours, marking one of Strauss's inimitable orchestral farewells in a gorgeous blend of reds and golds.
The first half was Haydn's Surprise Symphony, in some ways a tougher proposition because it is all the more exposed. There were moments when the ensemble was uncertain - even the famous loud chord that gives the symphony its name was not quite sounded cleanly. But neither minor blemishes nor an abundance of tone that would make period specialists blanch could disguise Jansons' astute realisation of Haydn's inventive wit - and not only in the obvious places.