Berlin Philharmonic surpasses its past

Review: Claudio Abbado has transfomed the great German orchestra with younger musicians and unmatched virtuosity.

October 18, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The complaint that nothing is as good as it used to be doesn't hold water when it comes to the Berlin Philharmonic. The German orchestra, which performed Saturday at the Kennedy Center in the Washington Performing Arts Series, is not merely as good, it's even better than it used to be.

First, let's dispense with the myth that Claudio Abbado, who conducted the program of Beethoven, Dvorak and Wolfgang Rihm and who completes his tenure as the orchestra's music director in the 2001-02 season, has had little or no effect on this great institution. When I last heard the Berliners (more than 10 years ago under Herbert von Karajan's baton in that revered maestro's last season on Earth), the orchestra was made up almost entirely of middle-aged men. In the 10 years since he became head of the orchestra, Abbado has transformed it.

That sea of gray-haired men in penguin suits has been replaced by much younger musicians -- the average age of the players appears to be younger than that of any of America's top five orchestras -- many of them wearing dresses. What was great about the orchestra in the Karajan era is still there -- an opulence of sound that never becomes overblown and a unity of ensemble nothing short of magnificent. What has been added is a level of instrumental virtuosity (in every section) unmatched by any of the world's other great orchestras and a flexibility in style that made it possible for the orchestra to play Dvorak with spontaneity and idiomatic warmth and a new work, such as Rihm's "In doppelter Tiefe" ("In Double Depths"), with an electric tension and a savagery of attack that plumbed the depths of this remarkable work.

"In doppelter Tiefe" was commissioned by the orchestra earlier this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the democratically elected Republic of Germany. It is a setting of a poem by Marinus van der Lubbe, a young anti-fascist Dutchman who was sentenced to be beheaded by a kangaroo Nazi tribunal in 1934 and whose body was consigned to be buried "In double depths" by official order.

Unlike many of his American and English contemporaries, Rihm, who was born in 1952, writes music that sounds like it was written in 1999, not a century ago. This is savage music that never permits one to forget that it is written about the terrible times in our century. But Rihm also has the craft to keep several music lines moving at once, to create textures that intrigue the ear and the ability to set a text. All that is matched by a melodic gift that can transform grim themes to a lyrical apotheosis (as Rihm does in the lines of the poem celebrating beauty) and one for structure that brought this 25-minute work to an unforgettable, quiet and poignant conclusion.

My thoughts that I never wanted to hear Dvorak's "New World Symphony" again were banished by Abbado's performance with the Berliners. This was a refined reading that never sounded over-prepared or self-conscious. It was warm and romantic, freely expressive at spacious speeds and featured instrumental playing of an extraordinary level -- not least an English horn solo in the slow movement (by Dominik Wollenweber) beautiful enough to die for.

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