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Abbado and Berlin Philharmonic Achieve Mixed Results With Mahler

November 1, 1993

NEW YORK (AP) _ Claudio Abbado had two shadows he was conducting under when he brought the Berlin Philharmonic to Carnegie Hall for a trio of Mahler concerts that concluded a five-city North American tour.

First, there was the shadow of Herbert von Karajan, whose iron-will transformed the orchestra into the best in the world during his tenure as music director from 1955 to 1989.

And then there was Leonard Bernstein, who conducted many memorable nights of Mahler in New York with both the New York and Vienna Philharmonics.

The results were mixed. On Saturday night, the final 20 minutes of Symphony No. 9′s adagio were played to perfection, with breathtaking sounds coming from the strings, shimmering out into a hall hushed in suspense. The audience responded with a nine-minute ovation, even calling Abbado out for a bow after the orchestra had left the stage.

At other times, the Berliners sounded less than great. The solo trumpet even cracked Thursday night during the opening of Mahler’s Fifth.

But misplayed notes aside, the overwhelming feeling was a puzzling mood of emotional detachment.

Karajan was accused in his later years of squeezing feeling out of music in his quest for sonic perfection. But Berlin’s trio of concerts in New York - which included performances of ″Kindertotenlieder″ (″Songs on the Death of Children″) with mezzosoprano Marjana Lipovsek, selections from ″Das Knaben Wunderhorn″ (″The Youth’s Magic Horn″) with soprano Sylvia McNair and Symphony No. 4 - only achieved glorious sound in brief stretches.

It seemed as if Abbado was conducting in an emotional straitjacket, producing a grandiose sound more befitting Bruckner than Mahler. It may be unfair to compare, but Bernstein’s leaping, hyperemotional performances of Mahler left the audience exhausted by the time the symphonies reached their conclusions.

Karajan’s Mahler Ninth at Carnegie in October 1982 also brought that reaction. And in May 1987, Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played a Mahler Ninth that brought tears to some listeners’ eyes.

Abbado, 60, first conducted the Berlin in 1966 and was elected music director on Oct. 8, 1989, three months after Karajan’s death. The North American tour, which included stops in Washington, Chicago, Toronto and Boston, put the orchestra and conductor under great scrutiny.

In his role as music director of the Berlin and his position as general music director of Vienna, Abbado has become the most powerful conductor since Karajan, inheriting the two most renowned orchestras in the world.

His musical ability is acclaimed (he conducted all three programs without scores), but the intangibles were missing. When you expect so much, of both Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, anything less than the standard established in the Karajan years is a disappointment.

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