Prom 51: Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Claudio Abbado

Mahler: Symphony No 3

Royal Albert Hall, 23 August 2007 3.5 stars

Claudio Abbado

Claudio Abbado's Prom with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra was amongst the most highly anticipated concerts of the season. Playing Mahler's Third Symphony to a packed audience, this prestigious ensemble - which consists of leading orchestral and chamber musicians from around the world performing alongside young professionals from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra - received a rapturous and appreciative reception, and clearly wowed many of those present. However, despite the performance's many strong points, I was ultimately left cold and a little disappointed by Abbado's interpretation, which both failed to illuminate various aspects of the composition and did not provide the ultimate emotional punch that makes this late Romantic score so compelling.

One of the principal problems for me was that the Lucerne Festival Orchestra consists, quite literally, of a large number of high quality soloists rather than being a tightly-knit ensemble. This was immediately apparent in the first movement, when the first violins in particular rarely played with faultless co-ordination (in part because Kolja Blacher was not a sufficiently assertive leader, despite some impressive solo moments). It remained a problem, and although Abbado's poetical conducting style certainly inspired some beautiful sounds, it was at the expense of precision. Indeed, the neoclassical elements of the symphony, which Mahler often uses as a macabre evocation of the past, suffered quite frequently throughout, not least in the references to nature in the second and third movements.

The first movement of Mahler's Third lasts well over half an hour and is a challenge to any conductor. Abbado didn't quite achieve coherence here (perhaps inevitably in this piece, some would say), and made the music sound somewhat fragmentary rather than a magnificent construction of great force. That said, the performance was full of wonderful moments. The brass and woodwind sections were superb, with horns and trumpets sounding devilish fanfares with exceptional intonation and flutes and oboes mocking with their high trills; and the basses - all ten of them - provided a luxurious, solid wall of sound whenever they played. In my opinion, the star of the entire evening was solo trombonist Jörgen van Rijn, who brought more nuance to his two prominent virtuoso sections than I would ever have thought possible from this instrument.

A lack of crispness undermined the Minuet, which had some outstanding oboe, clarinet and flute solos, but the poor co-ordination of the strings really caused problems in the dainty pizzicato sections. However, Abbado brought out the pastoral colours and had a sense for the folk melodies that provide the movement with lots of its thematic material. Inevitable brief intonation problems with the offstage posthorn solos (played from the arena above) did not undermine these two stretches of the third movement because the player's timbre was so grippingly elegiac. But I felt there was little connection between the performance of the posthorn player and the performance by the orchestra on stage; Abbado's imprecise beat did not control the high strings, who play a quiet accompaniment underneath the lengthy and sustained posthorn melody, and it all fell a bit flat.

It is probably a matter of taste, but mezzo-soprano Anna Larsson was not to my liking as the soloist in the fourth and fifth movements. The text from Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra in the fourth movement probes the very question of human existence - joy and anguish - and I felt there was no engagement with the text in this controlled but bland and unsubtle rendition. It was left to the horns and oboe soloist to provide coloration, and they partially compensated. The fifth movement was also a mixed experience: the Trinity Boys Choir and the ladies of the London Symphony Chorus were both excellent, especially the former, but a lack of clockwork precision again meant that the music did not have the impact it could have.

The lush, yearning melody for strings that dominates the final movement was the point at which the magic briefly arrived. Here, I thought Abbado's reading was well-proportioned, with a sense of growing momentum and direction, and the strings produced an exquisite timbre. His direction was much clearer, so that the disparate sections played with a chamber music-like precision and detail, and there were entrancing moments from the flute solo and brass ensemble.

But the close of the symphony totally underwhelmed. Such polite, half-hearted playing from the timpani in the last few bars, and a general lack of sound from the orchestra as a whole, meant that there was no sense of apotheosis. One should feel pierced to the soul, transported; it didn't happen in this Prom, and despite the loud applause, I think the sense of excitement at seeing a legend in the flesh was as much to do with the reaction as the performance itself (the conductor was greeted by the loudest applause I've heard all season even at the beginning of the concert). Although he remains one of my favourite interpreters of Verdi on record - his Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra are unsurpassed, in my opinion - it was difficult not to feel disappointed by Abbado's performance here.

By Dominic McHugh

Picture credit: Eddy Risch/Keystone