The presence of conductor Claudio Abbado and soprano Kiri Te Kanawa on the National Symphony platform last night brought the orchestra's subscribers another evening of great music presented with unusually satisfying art.
Two large works comprised the evening's music: the Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss, and the Mahler Fourth Symphony. To each, Abbado brought the kind of penetrating understanding and interpretive power that disclosed their deepest meanings. Since both works find their composers touching rare heights, the achievement was a tribute to both conductor and orchestra.
Abbado is clearly remembered here for the superb music and drama he offered during the visit of La Scala's Opera to the Kennedy Center. He is the music director of that institution. In his National Symphony debut, he showed, as one would expect from the principal conductor of both the Vienna Philharmonic and the London Symphony, that he is an equal master in the orchestral realm. In plasticity of phrasing in Mahler, in his ear for the subtlest sonorities, and in his delicacy in handling the crucial transitions, to name only a few signal accomplishments, he is one of today's great leaders.
Te Kanawa from New Zealand is to be described in equal terms. In her, the art of singing is realized at its highest.
Vocally flawless, she is a mistress of the most refined taste. In phrase after phrase, she sang the great Strauss songs and the Mahler finale with unerring insight and radiant, unendingly nuanced tone.
Young and beautiful besides, Te Kanawa should be brought back to Washington every season so that this city can be reminded of the finest in the art of singing.
To say that National Symphony players matched the high standards set by conductor and soloist is only the compliment they deserve.