With the Mahler Fifth Symphony, which closed their Saturday night concert in the Kennedy Center, the London Symphony and Claudio Abbado matched their reputation for excellence.The horns were fully up to the taxing demands of the long score, the cellists played like gods, and there were pianissimos made of the stuff of dreams.
Abbado held the diffuse work with sensitive hands, providing ideal shaping of crucial changes in tempo, always alert to the need for the delicate nuances of rubato that give the music its essential rapture. There is not one spirit but many spirits in the symphony. Abbado admirably found the secrets to unfolding each one. The justly famous adagietto was a long moment of perfection, the final statement of its theme achieving special beauty.
It was good to bear the orchestra in top form in the Mahler, since the Symphony No. 29 by Mozart, which opened the concert, was largely disappointing. Abbado gave little energy to the first movement, playing it in an insufferably polite manner at a slow pace that created the intolerable crime in Mozart, boredom. That is not music of well-bred gentility, though few conductors have a vision of its proper pacing and zest. The violins, which carry the melodic burden most of the time, sounded thin and watery. Things did not improve in a bloodless account of the slow movement. Thank heaven for the Mahler.