Digital technology doesn't flatter them: on a good night they are even better than their records and their reputation. This was a good night. All great orchestras are founded on their string sections. But the Berlin Philharmonic strings are something else: not as sweet nor as distinctive in style as their counterparts from Vienna, theirs is a deep and refulgent sonority. The famed sostenuto rolled out here. Mahler might have imagined such a sound as he laid down the great confessional at the start of his Ninth Symphony's final movement, but only in his mind's ear. This is a sunset of a sound, farreaching throughout the spectrum, but anchored on those amazing double- basses (10 from Berlin equal 15 from anywhere else). Under Claudio Abbado, heaven came sooner rather than later; long before the pulse of the music had finally ebbed away.
But what of the long and harrowing journey there? Are the Berlin Philharmonic really capable of making an ugly sound? Are the hellish instrumental extremes devised by Mahler really a thing of the past for an orchestra this sophisticated? It has been said that the bassoon solo at the start of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring should be raised a semitone every five years so that it still retains its difficulty, its shocking primitivism. That thought repeatedly came to mind during the earlier movements of this performance. Mahler's last movement, his 'dark night of the soul', is full of terrifying apparitions: reptilian bass woodwinds, the shrill, demented sound of panic, craggy climaxes bravely wrought only to disintegrate. But even the snarl of the Berlin stopped-horn sound is oddly reassuring. The bass clarinet is seductive more than he is sinister, the contra-bassoon tasteful and well-rounded. If all the woodwinds had characterised like the caustic high E-flat clarinet did in the Rondo-Burleske, we would have come a lot closer to the Mahler sound as it was first
conceived. It must be hard persuading the Berlin Philharmonic, collectively or sectionally, to sacrifice that well-honed, beautifully integrated sound to the unnatural rigours of this music.
Abbado plainly doesn't hear it that way. He is a time-honoured exponent of the Mahler style, but his way to it nowadays is first and foremost through refinement, order and precision. No one can delineate the mad Baroque counterpoint of the Rondo-Burleske like he does. But weight and trenchancy alone do not make for attitude. There is always a musical reason for everything Abbado does, but textural elements are now taking precedence over characterisation. He doesn't maximise the irregularity, the terrible precariousness, the neurosis of this music.
But he does search its soul, in wondrous, barely voiced pianissimi - which is why the valedictory finale was so breathtaking. He carried the music across the barlines, across time and space, until there was none. No time, no pulse, no sound. A packed Albert Hall responded in stunned silence.
Edward Seckerson's Proms review ('Smooth beauty') referred to the 'terrifying apparitions' of the last movement of Mahler's Ninth. In fact, the reference was to the first movement. Our apologiesReuse content