Berliner Philharmoniker / Claudio Abbado / Anna Prohaska / Maurizio Pollini - Philharmonie Berlin, 13 May 2011
Friday night at the Philharmonie marked the start of Berlin's Mahler Week, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer's death on 18 May 1911. But the generous two hour programme wasn't Mahler all the way - just the Adagio from the unfinished 10th Symphony. As two years of Mahler saturation drip to a close, that was plenty enough for my well-sated palate.
The appetiser was a couple of Mozart arias from Claudio Abbado's latest protegee, Anna Prohaska, a crystal-voiced soprano with the Snow White looks and Ann Summers wardrobe of Dita von Teese. She soared exquisitely through the highest reaches of Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio, ornamenting gracefully and appropriately, before coming to grief on the Ah conte, partite section, which needed a degree more passion and greater firmness in the lower register. Abbado steered the trimmed-down orchestra with a serene fluidity that didn't overstate its case, just made you realise how nearly everyone else wallows and flounders with the music's deceptive simplicity.
She added black lace opera gloves and a serpent bracelet to her scarlet satin gown for a seductive an defiant take on Berg's Lulu Suite. This is an Abbado speciality, and bewitchingly beautiful in his hands, poised between comfort and experiment as he teases out the beguiling melodies.
New friends and old. After Prohaska Abbado was joined by his frequent collaborator Maurizio Pollini for Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major. Pollini is Abbado's junior by some years, but oddly it was the cancer survivor Abbado who radiated energy and purpose, while Pollini shuffled on stiff and stooped, perhaps still suffering from the illness that forced him to cancel his recent Royal Festival Hall recital. His playing was admirably lucid and precisely articulated, yet very inward, as if he was performing for himself alone. Abbado shaped the music in unfashionably long yet unerringly right-sounding phrases, supporting Pollini gently yet firmly.
And somehow, magically, the Mahler 10th provided the perfect ending. Claudio Abbado's fluid yet dynamic conducting demonstrated why he's considered Mahler's greatest modern interpreter. With an orchestra of the talent of the Berlin Philharmonic, Abbado's conducting really boils down to a balancing act, making sure no individual element in the equation is overly prominent. Poised between the raptures of the next world and the embrace of the here and now, Abbado's valediction was a farewell without regrets.
Standing ovations are very far from automatic in Berlin, and Abbado seemed genuinely touched by his.
His final Mahler Week concert - Das Lied von der Erde, with Jonas Kaufmann - will be broadcast by ARTE TV on 18 May and available in most of continental Europe (though not, I understand, in the UK).