Prom 51: Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall

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The Independent Culture

It's amazing how much the opening of Mahler's 3rd Symphony can tell you about the performance in prospect. With Claudio Abbado's Lucerne Festival Orchestra, the summons to nature in eight unison horns was not so much a wake-up call, as a somnolent arousal from the dead of winter. Abbado was slow to excite; experience brings patience. The wonder was in the detail: the subtle fortepiano of the trombones' entry, their yawning glissandi with string basses carrying the sound even deeper into the substratum of the texture.

This opening movement was not, then, overwhelming in terms of sonic thrills and spills. But it was full of quiet insight, full of those tiny internal rubatos that can make the music sound so free. The solo trombone orations, despatched with fabulously ripe tone, sounded almost improvisatory. And Abbado's ear-stretching pianissimos made the arrival of summer's marching band a wondrous thing, so tentative and yet so utterly welcoming that the temperature seemed noticeably to rise in the hall.

That warmth was an endearing quality of the soft-grained woodwinds, who could rabble-rouse when called upon to do so, but were happier spinning bucolic tunes among the flora and fauna of Mahler's inner movements. But then, from a quiet so intense as to be unfathomable, the distinctive mezzo of Anna Larsson contemplated our eternity according to Nietzsche.

And it was from here on that Abbado's life experience brought true revelations. The inner peace of Mahler's greatest adagio became almost tangible as the Lucerne strings tenderly breathed life into the hymn. The mechanics of performance now were furthest from our minds. The moments of stasis were breathtaking. There was never any doubt that the orchestra's wonderful first trumpet would lead his colleagues through an unblemished final chorale. The apotheosis, when it arrived, positively glowed because Abbado, unlike some of his colleagues, respected Mahler's modest dynamics – a sustained forte, no more, no less. This music, this conductor, gloriously at one with each other.

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