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An Eloquent Interpretation

Music Review

Berlin Philharmonic brings phenomenal ensemble playing to its programs of Wagner and Beethoven.

October 18, 2001|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Before flying to New York to open the Carnegie Hall season on Oct. 3, the Berlin Philharmonic took a vote to see how the members of this famed orchestra felt about travel to the United States. They chose to continue as planned with their American tour, which concluded at the Orange County Performing Arts Center with two concerts Monday and Tuesday nights.

In an official proclamation on Tuesday, the city of Costa Mesa thanked the orchestra and its music director, Claudio Abbado, for "inspiring our citizens with the universal language of music." They, in fact, brought something, I think, even more valuable at a time like this. They dispensed joy, pure and simple.

Clearly, Abbado and his musicians know something about rising above hardship and carrying on. The conductor, who has been artistic director of the orchestra for the last 11 seasons, was recently treated for stomach cancer. He has lost a significant amount of weight and looks gaunt, but otherwise he appeared undiminished, vigorous and fully in control. The orchestra had barely weathered recent financial crises, when Simon Rattle, who becomes artistic director next season, demanded a new level of support for the musicians from the bankrupt city.

Nor has the reputation of the Berlin Philharmonic remained quite so stellar under Abbado as it was when Herbert von Karajan led it with a dictatorial demand for perfection in the postwar years. Abbado brought the orchestra into the modern world, greatly expanded its repertory and humanized its sound--it was beginning to play like an otherworldly machine under the suffocating Karajan. But Abbado could sometimes seem to lack an urgent musical personality, relying instead on clarity of thought and attention to detail. He is a Modernist who has always been most impressive working with 20th century material.

The repertory in Costa Mesa, however, was mostly Beethoven symphonies--the Fifth and Sixth ("Pastorale") on Monday and the Third ("Eroica") on Tuesday. The second concert finished with Wagner's Prelude and "Love-Death" from "Tristan and Isolde" and the "Tannhuser" Overture. This is the absolute heart of the traditional Berlin repertory, of Karajan and, before him, Wilhelm Furtwngler.

It might have seemed a pity that the orchestra found it necessary to forgo the expense of bringing over extra players for Mahler's Seventh Symphony, which was originally scheduled for the second program. But, however well Mahler shows off Abbado and his orchestra, the Beethoven offered something special. The "Pastorale" conveyed the sheer sense of pleasure in playing this music. Abbado has given the players a sense of freedom and individuality, without lessening the phenomenal ensemble playing that is Berlin's hallmark.

A man of the theater, Abbado treated the winds in the second movement (which Beethoven subtitled "By the Brook") as operatic voices. The lyricism was Italianate, with exquisitely singing lines, full of color, personality and immaculate intonation. It is beyond this writer's imagination to conceive of the movement more beautifully played, more sensuous, more lyrically engaging, more alive.

Abbado's Beethoven does not lack sinew or heroism. The storm was thrilling--the brass in this band are celestially bright, and the lower strings are gripping, focused.

But what impressed the most was the direct sense of happiness at the end. Beethoven, here, thanks nature for existing, and the jubilation that was expressed on Abbado's face and in the orchestra's playing was enough to make a skeptic start believing all that business about music's magical healing powers.

The "Eroica" and the Fifth symphonies were also marvels of expressive detail, and they moved forward without false steps. The playing was glorious. But the performances did not quite capture the magic of the "Pastorale."

The Wagner numbers on the program were predictably spectacular. It was Wagner's most warmly human music in which Abbado seemed genuinely inspired. For an encore Tuesday, he added the overture to "The Mastersinger." Again the woodwinds especially came alive as human characters, mischievous and lovable. But the whole was even greater than the parts as the overture mustered an enormous life-affirming culmination.

"We are all New Yorkers," the orchestra's intendant, Franz Xaver Ohnesorg, had told his audience at Carnegie Hall and repeated Tuesday night in Costa Mesa. In fact, through their glorious Beethoven and Wagner, the orchestra had made an ecstatic, entranced audience grateful Berliners.

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