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Visiting London Symphony: a need to bolster standards?

To anyone who knows Claudio Abbado's work as one of the finest conductors of today, his tour with his London Symphony Orchestra promised much. His recordings with the Chicago Symphony and the La Scala Orchestra as well as the LSO reveal a dedicated musician of clear insight, tremendous and persuasive passion, and vivid excitement. He appeared with the Boston Symphony here two seasons back in the finest Mahler Second ("Resurrection") Symphony heard in many years, one that far surpassed his undeniably excellent DG recording of the work with the Chicago Symphony.

The program heard in Boston featured Mozart's 29th Symphony and Mahler's Fifth. the Mozart passed by with a farina-and-cream blandness that found no texture, no shaping, no articulation of statements, no real outlining of the structure of the work.

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And the horns had trouble negotiating the high-lying lines. But that trouble was compounded in the Mahler. This was not the same London Symphony Andre Previn brought to these shores (and to Symphony Hall as a fill- in for the BSO on a subscription weekend) a few seasons back. Then the orchestra had a sheen, a security, and endless reserve. This time it was a considerably more ragged, less reliable group, with cracking brass, tinny winds, and dulled strings.

The Mahler proceeded as if a veil had been cast over the group, such was the inaccuracy and rhythmical slushiness of so much of the playing. If this is evidence, the LSO is not in good shape at all these days. And coming as they do on the heels of England's Philharmonia, which is in splendid shape, the contrast is as sharp as it is disturbing.

More disturbing still was the performance by Abbado. His perusal of the Mahler Fifith was like watching some classic Hollywood epic film out of focus -- one knew something impressive was going by (a tremendous symphony) but one could not tell what or why. From the botched opening trumphet flourish to the raucous splashy close (Abbado indulged in the old turn-up-the-volume, speed-up-the- tempo trick to ensure a smashing end and a roar of approval from the audience), there were myriad lovely details put into a framework that had no shape, no intellectual conviction, no coherency. Abbado seemed determined to make slow, slow tempos be the crux of his views, but emotionally and intellectually the performance had no goal, and was at best disorganized and hectic, at worst, virtually bankrupt.

This is surely not the work of the Claudio Abbado symphony-goers and record collectors have come to expect and acclaim. One can only trust it is not representative or indicative of a shift in Abbado's musical sensibilities and approaches to performance. The loss of so dedicated and searching a musician to the allure of podium glamour, of eccentric tampering for effect, would be more than lamentable, it would be a musical catastrophe.

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