In less than an hour, tickets to Claudio Abbado’s three concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic, Maurizio Pollini and Anna Prohaska had been sold out. Me and many other concert-goers would have been deeply frustrated, if the maestro and the Philharmonic had not offered more than a consolation prize: an extra concert as a tribute to Gustav Mahler, who died exactly 100 years ago in Vienna. Famous soloists were invited and the hall was almost completely packed.
The program’s first item was the adagio to the 10th Symphony (in Deryck Cooke’s edition), which is rightly regarded as Mahler’s visionary swansong. I cannot think of a more ideal interpreter of this music than Claudio Abbado – not only has he a vast experience with XXth century music and offered an impressively clear and consequent view of the score, but he did not fail to bring his heart to it. The various moods of this expressively wide-ranging piece were intensely shown to an audience mesmerized by the otherworldly sounds of a transfigured Berliner Philharmoniker. What glorious sounds! Being there is something one could tell his grandchildren about.
After a superlative experience such as this, the stakes were very high, even for Abbado himself. I am not saying that he would not be able to outdo himself in the Lied von der Erde, but the fact is that I am not sure if his choice of soloists, distinguished as they are, was right for this music in that venue. Well, this is not exactly right: Jonas Kaufmann is, of course, a very good choice for the tenor part. Although he was not in his absolutely best day (the lachrymose attacks inexistent before the Met’s Siegmunds persist and his attempts of mezza voce were more into the falsetto field), the liquid quality of his high register is praiseworthy. The excruciatingly demand of heroic acuti was supplied roundly, richly and forcefully. I have very good and fond memories of Johan Botha in Munich back in 2007 (with James Levine and the Munich Philharmonic) and I still think that this music ideally requires a more dramatic and brighter voice in order to allow the conductor to really unleash his orchestra. But Kaufmann’s sense of line and cleanliness of phrasing are worth the trade-off.
Back in 2007 in Munich, I also had the opportunity to see Anne Sofie von Otter in that piece. Back then I had already found her unsuited to this piece. Four years haven’t made the situation better – hers is a helplessly light voice for it. Of course, her good taste, clear diction, exquisite pianissimi are welcome, but she was often overshadowed by the orchestra, sounded uncomfortable in her low register and caused the conductor to reign in his orchestra. This fact alone made the performance sound restrained and a bit cold as a whole. A conductor as Abbado knows how to play things to his advantage – with very clear but restricted sound from the strings, pride of place was given to exquisite solos from his woodwind section (Emmanuel Pahud deserves particular mention) and French Horn players, a sense of chamber music was achieved. However, Abschied requires far more emotional generosity, more contrast, more sense of an all-embracing orchestral picture in the “tutti”. Beautiful as it all was, this should not be Abbado’s and maybe also Jonas Kaufmann’s last “word” about it.