Berlin Philharmonic gives Mahler a chilly reception


The Washington Performing Arts Society has scored something of a coup this year by bringing both of Europe's star orchestras to the Kennedy Center.

The Vienna Philharmonic, here last February, is never absent long, but the Berlin Philharmonic's Wednesday concert was its first in Washington in 17 years.

The Berliners are in America until the end of the month to show off their new music director Claudio Abbado. He is here to show his Mahler.

The tour-opening program, Mahler's Symphony No. 5 and "Kindertotenlieder," called for a top-to-bottom virtuosity that is seldom available and not often delivered. The results were loud, radiant, energetic, maddening, fearful and cold. Mostly cold.

This didn't seem to matter to the dressy members of the audience, who had parted with $85 for orchestra seats. They jumped to their feet at the end cheering wildly.

The symphony showcased the great Berlin engine -- impeccable horn playing, thrilling brass, fabulously blended woodwinds, a string sound of unmatched delicacy, or brilliance, or whatever Mr. Abbado wanted. There's no question the orchestra has survived the departure of the late Herbert von Karajan.

But Mr. Abbado is not the Mahlerian he was in the 1970s. Gone is the willingness to indulge the composer's every fancy. Gone is the patience to organize each expressive detail around Mahler's broad brush stroke. Spilled, in effect, is Mahler's lifeblood.

Instead, what was heard Wednesday -- executed with power and precision, to be sure -- were Mr. Abbado's own indulgences: unnatural rhythms in the scherzo, clipped phrases in the adagietto.

Mr. Abbado's is now a fussy, stilted manner that blows chills from first note to last.

For the song cycle, the orchestra was joined by Marjana Lipovsek, a polished dramatic mezzo from Slovenia. She is a singer born to tackle Mahler's brooding commentary on the death of children, despite swallowed German consonants. It was a rich, intense performance, that would have been memorable if her conductor had been more engaged.

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