Cast a cold eye

MUSIC : Berlin Philharmonic RFH, London
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The Independent Culture
When the Berlin Philharmonic is on top form, the moment it starts to play you could believe that sheer sound is enough. It's an illusion, of course: the elegant, masterful phrasing and articulation are part of the effect too. One of the most remarkable aspects of its performances of Mahler's Fifth and Ninth Symphonies this week was the sense that the players had heard, understood and inwardly digested the details and dramatic shape of Claudio Abbado's interpretation and made them entirely their own. You only had to look at the oboes and clarinets whirling out their parody flourishes in the finale of the Fifth to realise how thoroughly they had taken it all in.

Abbado's handling of the Fifth made excellent sense on almost every level. The symphony has been criticised for being split down the middle and praised for its vivid representation of "schizophrenia" - which just shows how almost any fault can be made into a virtue, especially with the ironical Mahler. But what Abbado showed is that there is a continuous argument if you choose to bring it out. The move from pained striving in the second movement to intoxicated waltzing in the third made perfect sense - despite the momentarily shaky horn-playing in the opening fanfare.

The harmonising of the famous Adagietto with the rest of the symphony was just as effective. Recorded timings show that performances of this movement have been getting slower over the years: that a short but telling instrumental song has been turned into something more like a New Age wash of floating, shapeless sound. (How much do we have to thank Death in Venice for this?) Abbado's Adagietto was over in about eight and a half minutes - almost half what some conductors take over it, though not as concise as Mahler's own timings suggest. Not surprisingly, Abbado's quicker reading was more shapely, more song-like, and more inclined to echo events from elsewhere in the symphony.

This Fifth was an enormously impressive achievement, but was it also moving, stirring, thrilling? For me, not. The sense of an idea made musical flesh was remarkable, but there's more to Mahler than ideas. Some basic element of human contact wasn't quite there.

The same was true of the Ninth on Monday. I don't think I've ever heard that long, eventful first movement more persuasively shaped, or more beautifully played - at least, not in the concert hall. And yet it was only in the Adagio-finale that I at last felt drawn in. The end - that fabulously prolonged dying away - was remarkably beautiful and compelling. Even there, though, I would have sacrificed a fair bit of technical perfection for some of the inspired inaccuracy of Klemperer's 1967 recording. Abbado invites you to meditate on the music; Klemperer makes you feel Mahler's struggles as your own.

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