Soaring Brahms, sinking `Tosca,' veering Beethoven

THIS APPEARED IN THE 4/25/88 WORLD EDITION HERBERT von Karajan opened the second cycle of the Easter Festival with this year's major choral work, a monumental performance of Johannes Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem. At his disposal was one of the world's most praised choruses: the Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien.

Although the maestro walked with evident difficulty to the podium, all sense of age and physical limitation quickly vanished as he lifted his baton for the opening measures of the piece.

As though it were music from another sphere, the ever-so-soft introduction began with the rich, resonant tones of the Philharmonic strings. Almost imperceptively the chorus entered with the message of the Beatitude: ``Blessed are they mourn ...''

Von Karajan carefully structured each section of the Requiem to bring out the profound but eloquent message of the words. This interpretation mirrored the method Brahms used in composing the work: Brahms intentionally avoided the text of the Latin rite, and instead chose a setting in the vernacular made up of passages from the Psalms and the New Testament. He wished his Requiem to ``serve as a comfort for the living rather than as a prayer for the dead.''

Von Karajan highlighted these very qualities of solace and hope in both music and text in a lushly romantic reading of the score. His attention to countless little but all-important subtleties in each line and phrase allowed this performance to rise to sublime heights, building from the tenderest of passages to the rousing, dramatic climax. ONE wished that Puccini's ``Tosca'' could have been a brilliant performance, a triumphant tribute to Maestro von Karajan, whose birthday was celebrated on stage after the final curtain. But the opera, with which the 1988 Easter Festival ended, was a great disappointment.

``Tosca,'' after all, is about Floria Tosca, a diva in the grand manner, a great lady passionately in love. Sadly, Fiamma Izzo d'Amico is neither a great diva nor an actress. She should not be tackling this role at this point in her singing career. Her voice was pushed to the limit, making it emotionless. This left the new von Karajan production with such a weak centerpiece that the opera really never came alive as either drama or music.

Luis Lima, as the handsome Mario Cavaradossi, had a bright, ringing tenor that was a delight to hear, and his acting was compelling. But Franz Grundheber, as Baron Scarpia, lacked both the vocal and dramatic qualities needed for a production of this caliber: He was neither cunning nor menacing in his big scene with Tosca, and in the second act he had some problems with pitch.

Though von Karajan's staging was quite traditional, it was sensitive to every nuance of the rich Puccini score. Unfortunately, nothing could save this production - not the handsome, realistic sets by G"unther Schneider-Siemssen, nor the superb playing by the Berlin Philharmonic, nor even von Karajan's masterful conducting. How unfortunate, since the opening scene of Act III with Luis Lima - which included a gorgeously sung `E lucevan le stelle - revealed how powerful, how dramatic, how musical this production could have been had the other soloists been of equal caliber. AS guest conductor for the first of two orchestral concerts (von Karajan conducted the other), Kurt Masur gave one of the most idiosyncratic readings of the Beethoven Symphony No. 8 and the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in recent memory. The slow movements were inordinately slow - almost funereal in character - while the phrases of the fastest movements passed by so quickly one could not distinguish the individual tones of the melodic lines. The Menuetto of Beethoven's Eighth, for example, was far more brisk than most would imagine such a stately dance should be, while the waltz of the Tchaikovsky Fifth kept accelerating until it became a fast-paced scherzo rather than a stately waltz.

Some of Masur's orchestral balances were also strange. For example, in the opening movement of the Tchaikovsky, the lush, romantic violin melody (the second theme) got lost under the overemphasized woodwind harmonies.

To his credit, Masur let the finale of the Tchaikovsky (with which the program ended) set its own majestic pace, all the glories of the Berlin Philharmonic's brass and woodwinds building climax on top of climax until reaching the final chord. The audience, which had sat patiently through the unbelievably slow and boring first two movements, applauded, stamped, and shouted ``bravo!'' But one suspected that the audience was more socially than musically oriented - more moved by bombast than by introspection.

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