BERKELEY -- Maybe Lorin Maazel woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Or perhaps he is privy to new research showing that Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4 in G major -- the composer's most accessible, sunlit and purely charming symphony -- was actually intended as an excruciating death march.

Whatever was going on Friday at Zellerbach Hall, conductor Maazel's performance with the Vienna Philharmonic was one of the most off-the-mark Mahler events this listener has ever attended. Maazel set such stubbornly slow tempi that the storied orchestra -- opening a three-day run, presented by Cal Performances -- was destabilized. At times, it mimicked a machine whose gears are grinding to a halt. The glacial performance clocked in at 70 minutes, 10 or 15 minutes longer than is typical for No. 4.

This is the moment to say that it's always a privilege to hear this 172-year-old orchestra. And, yes, there were moments when the fabled sound of its strings -- so airy, then so plush and layered -- came through as the performance's saving grace. But to say that is to dole out charity. The horns often sounded flabby and off-pitch. There were passages in the opening movement where the wind section seemed unable to find a center of gravity; the performance courted breakdown.

One could argue that it's refreshing to hear the Vienna Philharmonic -- exemplar of a grand tradition -- engaging in a radical take on traditional repertory. But this wasn't refreshing; it felt pinched. The brisk wintry quality of that opening movement was negated; there was little spring in the orchestra's step. Its sections kept falling just out of sync. The famous pregnant pause toward the end of the movement -- the setup for another sunny go-round of one of the glorious themes -- wasn't pregnant at all.

It isn't easy to rob Mahler of personality, but Maazel managed it. One wonders what Mahler, who once served as this orchestra's conductor, would have made of this de-charming of his sonorous symphony, his heavenly landscape.

The second movement is to be rendered with "easy motion," the score instructs, "without haste." Friday's treatment was so plodding that by the time Maazel got to the slow third movement -- an oh-so-quiet quiet set of variations, Mahler's favorite among his Adagios -- there was hardly any contrast with what had come earlier; the entire performance had been an Adagio. The movement's magic serenity, its sense of time suspended, had been undermined.

The finale is a child's song about paradise -- "Das himmlische Leben" ("Life in Heaven") -- and it brought some redemption in the person of soprano Juliane Banse. It took her a moment or two to get her bearings, but with her amber voice and purity of line, she finally drew the orchestra to her, phrasing with it, bringing shape and long-lost wondrousness to what had been a disappointing (and strange) performance.

Schubert's Symphony No. 8 in B minor, the famously "Unfinished" one, opened the program and fared better. In particular, Maazel brought forth a great weight of sound in the Andante, generating a grand, if measured, sense of propulsion. There were pungent cameos by oboe and clarinet. But there also were a surprising number of bloopers, by trombone, flute and again the horns.

A self-governing orchestra -- without a music director -- the Vienna Philharmonic enlists the services of many conductors. The weekend's two remaining programs were to be led by Andris Nelsons. (Franz Welser-Möst, who was to have led Sunday's concert, canceled Saturday, due to ill health.) Perhaps Nelsons will manage to re-inject the bounce into the great orchestra's step.

In conjunction with the orchestra's visit, Cal Performances and UC Berkeley are presenting a weekend symposium ("The Vienna Philharmonic 100 Years After the Outbreak of the First World War") about the intermingling of arts and politics. In recent years, the Vienna Phil has grappled with its own problematic history, and especially its close relations with the Third Reich, which will be among the subjects discussed. Details are at www.calperformances.org.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin.

Vienna Philharmonic
When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Andris Nelsons conducts Mozart and Bruckner
Where: Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley campus
Remaining tickets: $35-$200 (subject to change); 510-642-9988, www.calperformances.org