Proms Berlin Philharmonic RAH, London / Radio 3

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A volley of timpani, a gaunt and forbidding proclamation, violent tremors proliferating theme and texture. The opening page of the Brahms D minor Piano Concerto. A musical precipice, apocalypse here and now. Was this the moment that Brahms reached into the future and grasped Mahler by the hand? Not according to Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, or pianist Radu Lupu, on Wednesday night.

It's been a while since I encountered so bizarre and inexplicable a misreading of so classic a score. To all but eliminate the tragic gravity of the piece, to render passive and ineffectual its powerful impulses, to bypass the confrontational - whatever this was (and some of it was undeniably beautiful), it was most certainly not the Brahms D minor Concerto.

Lupu - a great pianist who has, on countless occasions, taken this very piece to the edge and beyond - seemed at one remove from it. He and Abbado were plainly mind-set on containing its emotion, softening its contours, transporting it - all of it - to the edge of dreams. And if that meant fatally undermining tactical shocks like the fusillades of double-octaves that so wilfully disrupt tranquillity in the first movement development (for a moment or two it was as if Lupu himself had been caught unawares), then so be it. Who was it who said: "Without Contraries is no progression"?

The "Contraries" of the First Symphony were again no more than distant thunder in the context of so much radiance. With the Berlin Philharmonic swelling now to a full complement of strings and double woodwind, Abbado was headed for the mountain top and nothing was going to stop him.

The surge-factor so implicit in this performance (thrilling in the strenuous development of the finale) served only to highlight what the D minor Concerto so conspicuously lacked. Un poco sostenuto, Brahms marks his exalted introduction. But the Berlin strings don't do poco. Not here, not now. It's molto all the way. You feel as well as hear the throb, the heavy down-bows of their string basses; the first oboe is absolutely the centre of the sound, a touch of ecstasy whenever he utters. And the final parting of those clouds in burnished horns: the promise of resurrection had arrived a day early.

Presumably the off-stage band in the finale of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony (No 2) arrived a day late. To say that this catastrophic "no show" took the edge off Mahler's hair-raising evocation of "Judgement Day" could go down as the critical understatement of the season. What happened? A faulty video link-up? Over-zealous hall security? An act of God? Abbado hid his alarm like a seasoned professional.

It had been a curiously uneasy evening, starting a full quarter of an hour late and proceeding on its somewhat circumspect course (peppered with an uncharacteristically high incidence of edgy, poorly tuned, playing) to a peroration underpinned by the horribly synthetic strains of an impostor organ (in this of all halls), necessitated by Berlin's higher pitch standard. With excellent work from the BBC Symphony and London Symphony choruses (that hushed first entry at once imperceptible and momentous), the shining brass and bell-festooned coda still carried one into another realm. But it wasn't the culmination of a make-or-break, life-or-death-defying Mahler 2.

Abbado is ultimately too civilised, too orderly a Mahlerian. He seeks and finds method in the madness. He papers over the cracks, makes good the joinery, eschews indulgence and exaggeration - Mahler's trump cards. True, he is master of the Viennese style, eliciting much enchantment in airy rubato and sweet portamento. True, he has a nose for points of stasis. He isn't afraid of silence. But he does pull his punches. Irony of ironies, the only really shocking thing about this performance was the non-arrival of that off-stage band.

EDWARD SECKERSON

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