MUSIC / Seeing is believing: Robert Maycock takes the measure of Lorin Maazel's mastery of Mahler at the Royal Albert Hall

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HALF the British national anthem, linked by a drum-roll to the jaunty strains of the Greek one, makes an unlikely start to any concert. Even Mahler symphonies don't run to clashes as weird as that. The combination of Greek backing (personified by the prime minister) and British royalty (Princess Michael of Kent) explained it: this was a gala concert in aid of the World Wide Fund for Nature. But the charitable act that drew musical attention was the conductor's. Lorin Maazel had given his services, and it was a rare chance to hear him working with a London orchestra.

Some reputations die hard. In Maazel's case the image of brilliant coldness lives on, at least among people whose primary source of musical experience is recordings. Yet every concert of his I have been to has stood out for its overwhelming intensity of sound. The physical experience provokes the emotion directly. There is an exceptional certainty about the orchestral balance, and the full impact of detail emerges without having to have attention drawn to it. You have to be there, though. It's a powerful reminder that, whatever the state of hi-fi technology, records still stand in the same relationship to the real thing as photographs do.

There is a visual problem with Maazel, and it's the big gestures - they look like Bernstein without the sincerity. But the visual asset outweighs it: the sight of a virtuoso conductor in command of the minutiae as much as the large scale. Mahler's Eighth, with its huge choirs and prolonged waves of aural saturation, is one of those works that have to go to the Royal Albert Hall because they barely fit anywhere else, but it is also full of quietly fantastic orchestral ingenuity. Making the parts relate to the whole found Maazel in his element on Sunday.

The key was breadth. This Eighth took its time, but stayed taut. Usually the opening movement seems to rush past a shade faster than you can grasp it; that's part of the exhilaration. Maazel sacrificed the pace for the sake of clarity, full tone, and an unerring sense of purpose - the music never went off the boil after big climaxes, but it also had reserves of power for the final pile-up. Real excitement took longer to arrive, but reached greater heights.

Mahler's hour-long second, and final, movement, which sets the ascent of Faust's soul to heaven, begins with one of his bleak orchestral landscapes. Here the tonal intensity came into its own, in a sequence of compelling visions rather than a diary of the soul. In the final stages the conception grew ever broader, offset by a telling but temporary surge of pace when the thematic threads started to come together.

Solo singers, too, came into their own: soprano Faye Robinson, tenor Peter Straka and bass Kurt Rydl had an outstanding night, Christa Ludwig put in a cameo appearance as Mary of Egypt. The Philharmonia Orchestra played with exceptional commitment and searing precision, the Tiffin School Boys' Choir etched in the children's lines with earthy tone. Above all, the passion and unflagging lucidity of the massed choruses - Philharmonia, BBC Symphony, Brighton Festival - amounted to a triumph of training and on-the- night inspiration.