The poem that forms the basis of Wolfgang Rihm's "In Doppelte Tiefe," given its American premiere on Saturday evening by the Berlin Philharmonic, was written not by a poet, but rather by a young Dutch bricklayer who found himself in a situation that only poetry could articulate. Marinus van der Lubbe was supposedly caught inside the German Reichstag the night it burned in 1933. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to the archaic German punishment of beheading. Awaiting the sentence, he wrote a short poem about beauty as the elusive unity of life.

Rihm, a German composer of remarkable gifts, has set the poem for two vocal soloists and large orchestra. The piece was commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic to honor the 50th anniversary of the German Republic; it will be performed in the capitals of the four Allied nations that brought the Third Reich to its end--Britain, France, Russia and the United States.

Given the political occasion that prompted its composition, it could have been a ghastly affair, cluttered with political references and historical allusions. Instead, Rihm turned to Lubbe's simple poem, and wrote a piece that reflects the composer's abiding interest in Nietschze--a sense that even human catastrophe is still a part of the proceedings of nature and that the ugliest things we can produce are no more hideous than the colliding of planets, or the overturning of mountains.

These are cosmically consoling thoughts that a young man of 25 years might well think a few days before his death. Rihm has honored the poem as a sincere inner monologue of someone who is surrounded by pure bloody-mindedness. The two soloists sing surprisingly lyrical but adventurous lines, often in close proximity, while the orchestra produces rhythmically controlled cacophony all around them. The effect highlights the desperately self-defensive nature of the poem, the poet's effort to cling to some core of eternal meaning as a bulwark against the fury of the world. It is extraordinarily powerful, and ends with a single note that hangs in the air unfulfilled.

The two soloists, Stella Doufexis and Anna Larsson, sang the work within the tradition of orchestral song singing, emphasizing with beautiful tone color their role as instruments within the larger fabric of the ensemble.

The Berlin musicians have included the Rihm as just one contemporary work among many on their adventurous U.S. tour. The Rihm, a difficult and taxing work in its own right, was programmed along with Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 and Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 ("From the New World").

This tour will be one of the last chances for Americans to hear the orchestra under its outgoing music director, Claudio Abbado, who will step down in 2002. Saturday's concert offered the chance to assess how the orchestra has fared under Abbado's tenure, and the opportunity to recalibrate one's standards of orchestral excellence.

Except for the Vienna Philharmonic, no orchestra in the world plays with the same mix of technical perfection, individual responsibility and group engagement. The Berlin Philharmonic plays as if it is always rediscovering some original, ideal performance of the work. Years of familiarity with Beethoven or Dvorak were wiped away, and the score itself emerged, heightened in impact and crystal-clear.

In the Beethoven, the second violins were perfectly balanced against the first, the violas played as equal partners, the woodwind players were all soloists in their own right, coloring string lines gently, or bouncing contrasting material off the rest of the orchestra. Passage work was flawless, whether rendered by individual players or the full upper-string complement. Throughout all three works, the orchestra created a stunning range of dynamic contrasts, with the very softest tones still full and rich despite the whisper.

The Dvorak brought the house down. It's a symphony easy to resent for being overplayed, yet the problem is not too many performances, but too many mediocre ones. Saturday's was anything but. The woodwinds and horns underscored the piece's mix of muscular grandeur and nostalgic tenderness. Dominik Wollenweber's English horn solo was played amid gloaming sounds from the strings; it was one of the most beautiful and time-suspending moments I have ever heard in a symphony hall.

Wollenweber was not exceptional among the winds. Flutist Emmanuel Pahud, now a solo recording artist in his own right, used his instrument like a paintbrush to add perfectly refined touches of color. Stefan Schweigert's bassoon lines were elastic but precise, the instrument's tonal color a rich, well-rubbed wooden hue. Albrecht Mayer's oboe, its bell directed out at the audience, was all warmth and mellowness.

Abbado has clearly been a responsible and exacting steward of the orchestra's famous sound. He is an elegant presence on the platform, asking for, and receiving, a kind of Gallic restraint. One wanted more at times, but more what? Perhaps a touch of truly unbridled playing is in order, but that is dangerous and the pleasure of Saturday evening's performance was its metrical control, against which the music itself seemed to strive for release. Abbado produces music dressed in beautiful clothes that look right only if worn a bit tightly.