December 12, 2013
Mehta, Israel Phil wow Argentina
For the Herald
Amazingly talented and hard-working, they played four concerts in as many days
Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic have long been a fixture of our seasons. In fact, both conductor and orchestra hold the record of visits to our city. They genuinely enjoy being here , where they are always received with enthusiasm.
They are also the fourth highly ranked combination of the year, after Dudamel/ Simón Bolívar, Nagano/ Montreal and Jansons/ Concertgebouw. Critics will be hard put to elect one of them as conductor and orchestra of 2013.
The Israelis are hard workers: four concerts in as many days. And Mehta, at 77, is an amazing case of vitality; he looks splendidly fit, in full mental and physical control. I heard two of the four sessions: the ones at the Colón as non-subscription nights, Saturday 24 and Tuesday 27.
The others were a closed night for the Jewish community on Monday 26 at the Colón (two symphonies that have a lot in common, Dvorák’s Seventh and Brahms’ First) and an open air midday concert at the Puente Alsina. I dislike open air symphonic music, especially in winter.
The event was billed as part of the International Tango Festival, but it was hardly that, for they played just one tango; the rest was habitual symphonic repertoire: Verdi’s Overture to La Forza del Destino, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, three pieces by Johann Strauss II plus some Ravel.
The August 24 and 27 concerts had one trait in common: they were made up of just two masterpieces. On the 24th: Richard Strauss’ imposing 35-minute tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. On the 27th: Mozart’s Fortieth and Mahler’s mighty Fifth. Mehta conducted everything from memory!
...Zarathustra is a tough nut to crack and it is a marvellous score, but due to its enormous complexity it doesn’t get many playings. It attempts one of the most difficult things: to find a musical language convincing enough to transmute Nietzsche’s philosophy into music.
Although Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001 engraved the Introduction indelibly in those who saw it. 2001 engendered a spate of recordings, but after a decade or so the score again began to be neglected.
It certainly shouldn’t have: it is one of Strauss’ loftiest inspirations, as well as being enormously modern for a work writen in 1895/6.
One fascinating fact: it was Strauss himself who premièred the score at the Colón back in 1920, and he did it again when he conducted no less than the Vienna Philharmonic at the Colón in 1923. Give me a time machine...
Mehta’s choice was audacious though understandable: he is Indian but of Parsee family, and that community has an affinity with Zoroastrism (Zarathustra is Zoroaster).
Of course, Nietzsche innovates in his aphorisms, and there’s the touchy matter for Israelis of his exaltation of the Superman in the sense of a spiritually evolved man that goes beyond our current Homo sapiens. The Nazis distorted this as they distorted Wagner’s Siegfried. But the Straussian music goes beyond such ideological matters and you can enjoy it deeply, as is the case with Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), even if it is an exalted ego-trip.
I have to report, however, that I wasn’t completely satisfied by the performance. Mehta is a master conductor with great technical capacity and the Israelis form a major outfit, so a lot of what they did was admirable.
Mehta has always had a sanguine temperament and although in his mature years he is much less prone to effects than before, his phrasing of the most German and intimate passages don’t get the affinity of, say, Karajan. And the fantastic contrapunctal complexity gave trouble to some players, especially the horns.
After the interval all was well. Mehta has given here memorable readings of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth and he obviously understands perfectly the exalted and ultrabrilliant Fourth, giving it a solid, completely orthodox reading, wonderfully well played.
The encores were, as he said, more Tchaikovsky (a charming, relaxed traversal of the great Waltz from Swan Lake) and the tango they learnt for these BA presentations: Por una cabeza by Gardel and Le Pera, in a good symphonic arrangement.
The Fortieth is Mozart’s most famous symphony due to that extremely catchy first subject in the opening movement. Mehta’s views are entirely traditional and musicianly, with no obtrusive eccentricities or any historicist bias. The orchestra played very well.
Mahler’s 70-minute Fifth was the main attraction. In an astonishing coincidence, this great score was programmed three times in 15 days; the others, Diemecke/BA Phil, and Calderón/National Symphony. Yesterday I was to hear Calderón’s interpretation, hoping that he would again prove himself Argentina’s foremost Mahlerian.
However, it was unlikely that conductor and orchestra would quite match the superb results of what probably was the highest point of this visit by the Israelis.
As I recently wrote on Diemecke’s reading, I won’t elaborate on this work’s wonders. I will just say that Mehta’s comprehension and knowledge of this music are the result of total immersion.
I particularly admired his continuity — the brusque joins between startlingly diverse sections flowed with total naturalness, and his tempi were quite impeccable.
As to the orchestra, although everyone played with surprising accuracy, there were two particular heroes: the trumpet playing the opening of the symphony and the obligato horn in the Scherzo, plus the glorious sound of the strings in the Adagietto, expressive but never mawky.