Herr Mahler is sounding pretty good.

The concert at the Philharmonie last Wednesday evening was perhaps one of the most typical yet fascinating happenings to come about on the Berlin musical scene this season – if any further testimony of the city’s unique cultural uptopia was needed – one which would no doubt be deemed improbable mostly anywhere else in the world. The Berliner Philharmoniker announced just a mere couple of weeks ago that they were going to commemorate the centenary of Gustav Mahler’s passing their own grandiose way: a special concert comprising Das Lied von der Erde and the Adagio of the Tenth Symphony (the usual Deryck Cooke version),  featuring Anne Sofie von Otter and Jonas Kaufmann as vocal soloists and with Claudio Abbado at the helm. Just how extraordinary is that? The opportunity to hear one of the handful of podium masters of our age is not one to be overlooked, and tickets sold out quickly despite a whooping top-price of 220 euros (rather insane for a town where well-informed classical hords aren’t generally very gala-friendly).

Nearing 78, Abbado cuts a diminutive and frail figure, his health still greatly compromised by an excruciating bout with cancer which prompted him to terminate his otherwise successful tenure as the Philharmoniker Chief Conductor, almost a decade ago. Even if his gestures and overall stage demeanour are kept to a minimum, his aura, his very presence, subdued and concentrated, are absolutely magnetic – to audience and, one would assume, to musicians alike. His magic, though, is hard to summarize. Suffice it to say that this devoted listener had never had such a fulfulling live experience with this orchestra: the cohesiveness, the sheer liberty, the natural balance, the complex richness of texture and tone palette, the perfect characterization of each sequence, the depth of thought and interpretive intention, all aspects of this band’s unique personality which came together brilliantly under these most exceptional of circumstances. Individual players made contributions both athletic and poetic; soloists radiated throughout.

As one can judge from the clip posted above, Jonas Kaufmann, fresh from a run of Siegmunds in New York (his role debut), sounded a tad uncomfortable with the comparatively higher tessitura of the part, his burnished and muscular tenor at times hovering  forcefully in the stratosphere. This performance, though quite remarkably precise in diction and elegant in style, made the point for a slightly leaner vocal approach and a somewhat more idiomatic command, in true Heldentenor fashion, of clarion high notes – one might think of a younger Ben Heppner, or of heir-apparent Simon O’Neill. Assessing Anne Sofie von Otter’s profoundly moving performance is another matter. The Swedish mezzo, now well into the third decade of a glorious career, retains both integrity and intelligence in extraordinary amounts, her increasingly glamourous stage persona appealing way beyond conventional lip-gloss PR wisdom. Yet she sounded tentative and eerily quiet in some of the score’s full-bown passages, even a bit underpowered in the acoustically congenial but still vast auditorium. Hers was a reading both humane and earthy, her dignity in the epigonal last movement the result of confident acceptance rather than arch-romantic effusion. I have adored von Otter for years; her unusual Brangäne in the Sellars/Viola “Tristan Project” under the baton of Esa-Pekka  Salonen, heard in New York in 2007, counts among personal highlights of recent years; a recent Berlin outing, in which she and composer-pianist Brad Meldhau served the audience with a bouquet of songs by the composer, Michel Legrand and the Beatles to name only three, further proved her versatility and artistic appetite. Still, even if I wouldn’t tag myself an advocate of a baritone in the part, I must confess a sweet spot for Christian Gerhaher’s ethereal rendering of the final movement of Das Lied, beautifully captured in concert by Sony Classical.

Paul Smaczny, in his 2002 portrait of the conductor (quite accurately titled “Die Stille nach der Musik“), comes as close as possible to objectifying the essence of the Abbado phenomenon.

Thanks to Arte, which broadcasted the May 18 event live on TV and on the Internet, large excerpts of the concert are already available online.