Berlin Philharmonic's visit -- a taste of the world's best

Herbert von Karajan was in town with his orchestra last week, and he reminded music lovers that the Berlin Philharmonic is the greatest orchestra in the world.

He also reminded us that he is the greatest conductor in the world today.

True, these are bold statements. But after hearing the four concerts - devoted to Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, Brahms, and Mahler - there is no other conclusion to be drawn. The Berlin Philharmonic is an incomparable virtuoso ensemble, fine-honed and fine-tuned constantly by its magnificent music director.

There seems to be nothing that the players cannot do. They all radiate pride, because they are all superskilled musicians who are not only complete masters (in several cases, mistresses) of their instruments, but who listen to each other and play as a whole. (The orchestra will perform at the Ambassador College Auditorium in Pasadena, Calif., tonight and tomorrow night, and Oct. 30 and 31.)

They play with conviction, dedication, and passion. They sit up erectly. They are alert to every nuance their maestro might want. They have mastered the technical demands of their instruments (and of their parts), to the point that they can actually make music rather than merely struggle to get the notes out.

Their maestro asks even more of them than might be imagined. He insists on pianissimos that are almost impossibly hushed. He demands fortissimos that thunder and roar but do not have a piercing, out-of-control quality - rather a full, massive transparency. He asks each section to play as one. Ten basses can be bowing their instruments, yet producing a sound that is barely audible. The trombones can be roaring at fullest volume and still blend into one homogenous unit. Each section is refined, meshed. Yet the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan is not - contrary to what some people will insist - inhuman, or merely an exhibition of perfection for perfection's sake. Karajan has developed this phenomenal ensemble so he can explore all the aspects of musicmaking that interest him. Happily, his musical genius is stimulating and downright compelling. His artistry stems from absorption in the music and a wholehearted desire to bring a work to life in the right spirit, with the greatest possible sound spectrum, as well as the greatest accuracy in rhythmic reproduction.

Karajan is living proof of how important it is for a conductor to remain loyal to his orchestra, to devote to it the bulk of his time. He has, since his appointment in 1955, brought the Berlin Philharmonic from prominence as one of the fine orchestras to being the world's greatest.

The string section is an astoundingly flexible ensemble, capable of giving the entire gamut of sound, from loud to soft, from richly emotional to lean (though still throbbing with urgency). The brass is as smooth as one could hope to hear, with a burnished sheen unique in today's orchestra, even at the extreme ends of the dynamic range. The winds have a melting beauty to their respective timbres, and the percussion manages to generate full surges of sound with substance and quality rather than merely raucous noise.

Even their finest recordings give little preparation for the impact of this orchestra live in a concert hall.

Naturally, in a series of seven works in four concerts, there are bound to be things that go better than others. For me, Stravinsky's ''Apollo'' is a problematic concert piece. As offered by Karajan and the Berlin strings, it was a study in sonorities with little of the dance to be heard. A majestic, expansive, expertly shaped performance of Brahms's Fourth Symphony (part of a two-evening cycle of the four symphonies), seemed, nonetheless, a bit unpliant and slightly chilled.

Otherwise, the programs offered musicmaking of a rare, exalted level. Karajan presented a Brahms Second Symphony that was now caressing, now plangent, now dazzling, now positively ebullient in its drive. His account of the Third had smoldering intensity, and in the quieter moments was positively ravishing to the ear. The First received the sort of performance one merely dreams of encountering. The drama of the score was projected with all stops pulled out. It was sonically breathtaking, particularly with Karajan's ear so meticulously attuned to balances that allowed the inner lines to sing out with utter clarity. The cumulative impact of the work has rarely been as comprehensive and coherent.

Karajan's Strauss was stunning as well. ''An Alpine Symphony'' was given the lavish attention this extended travelogue deserves. Strauss is at his most skillful here, painting - with an extralarge orchestra - a day in the life of a noble Alpian mountain, from night, through a thunderstorm, back to night.

The opening sequence - Night - set the tone for the entire performance. Karajan achieved a quietude on the threshold of silence - at once hushed and noisy, as is any night in a countryside stirred by nocturnal creatures and light breezes. In the progression to the height of the thunderstorm, the orchestra played always for meaning - and for elegant control, rather than the sort of clatter-clatter-crash-bang usually mistaken for Straussian style.

The programs went from Stravinsky-Strauss through two nights of Brahms, to Mahler's Ninth Symphony. Nothing Karajan and his astounding orchestra did in the first three concerts prepared me for the impact of this concert. I heard plenty of sniffling around me, and I doubt I will ever again hear a performance that kept me on the very edge of my seat for the duration and stayed with me through most of the following day.

Karajan and the Berliners achieved all Mahler was after - an all-encompassing experience, now uplifting, now shattering, and, finally, hopeful and transcendentally peaceful. The orchestra can execute the most fiendish part of this work with what almost seems ease.

The fragile filigree of the first movement, alternating with eruptions of terror and majesty, were effectively unfolded. The next two movements had a pliancy unheard in any other performance live or on records (including Karajan's own, recently issued on Deutsche Grammophon). The wrenching passion of the final movement, as it climbs to the mighty climax that subsides in hope and peace, proceeded with electrifying tension. One feared to miss the slightest detail.

It was the single greatest orchestral concert of my life, setting a new standard not so much in perfection of execution (it was nearly perfect), but in transcendent communication of mood and content. During this performance, maestro and orchestra were submerged in the unfolding of Mahler. It was no longer Karajan's or the orchestra's Mahler, so much as it was just Mahler.

Each concert was received with wild enthusiasm. The Mahler was received with pandemonium. Karajan took most of his bows next to his first-desk players rather than on the podium; he constantly reminds his audiences that he is nothing without his orchestra. When he finally mounted that podium, it seemed the walls of Carnegie Hall would crack from the collective roar. Karajan waved with arms outstretched, and the roar crescendoed.

Suddenly he covered his eyes in spontaneous response to an audience that wanted him to know it knew something historic had just transpired - a standard-setting event.

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