Well before the Los Angeles Philharmonic began its concert Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, conductor Carlo Maria Giulini signaled his intentions by choosing a program of uncompromising power. He could scarcely have picked a more intense combination than Brahms' first symphony, Mahler's 10th and Webern's Five Pieces for Orchestra. Brahms poured two decades of struggle with Beethoven's shadow into his initial symphony. Mahler's last symphony, sketched in his final summer when death awaited him, holds a lifetime, and more. Webern's pieces, less than four minutes long, represent the ultimate in musical density.
Giulini matched the expressive force of these words with a concentration that was formidable. A slender, elegant figure, he moved quickly to the podium as if impelled by the sounds waiting to be released. From the poignant viola theme of the opening Mahler symphonic movement to the last triumphant C major chord of the closing Brahms symphony, his direction was marked by unfaltering purpose and strength.
In addition to this compelling intensity, which pulls in players and audience alike, Giulini has a masterfulgrasp of structure. Orchestral forces are carefully balanced, so that one hears virtually everything that is going on. The clarity of the inner voices was a particular joy in both the Brahms and the Mahler. His beat is granite firm, yet never rigid. His pacing of the final Brahms movement was a model of flexibility, achieving the highest dramatic effect, without any sacrifice of fidelity to the score.
Giulini demanded and received a sharp, precise response from the orchestra, whose sound is notably clear and clean. The string section has particular body due to the richness of the lower voices. The brass and woodwinds sections balanced, though some individual players seem to need further seasoning. Those orchestra members who played in the Webern pieces, which were, wisely, immediately repeated, displayed virtuosic sensitivity to their special expressive demands. Concertmaster Sidney Weiss produced a lovely tone and line for his solo passages in the Brahms symphony.