Screenshot from webcast

Friday, June 16, 2023

Berliner Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße, Berlin

Zubin Mehta does longevity very well – he recently turned eighty-seven, his association with the Israel Philharmonic goes back six decades, he was music director of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino for thirty-plus years, thirteen with the New York Phil, and he first conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1961 and has been a regular guest ever since for concerts, tours and recordings, and is now an Honorary Member of the orchestra*.

His latest Berlin appearance (this was the second of three evenings presenting this programme), also relayed live in selected cinemas across Europe, opened with the Overture to Schumann’s only opera, Genoveva, a stage-work certainly worth pursuing, its Overture an enticing invitation to go further, especially when given with the romantic yearning, pulsations and expressive asides as here, woodwinds and horns entrancing, strings (Vineta Sareika-Völkner, concertmaster, I assume) displaying depth of tone and intensity, the coda being of glorious affirmation. Following the interval, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which Mehta recorded twice for Decca (1967/76) during his sixteen-year tenure in Los Angeles. In Berlin, the opening brass statement was ideally balanced to introduce a Symphony and to spell Fate. If the first movement was slow-burn, the breadth Mehta afforded it nevertheless secured structural satisfaction, symphonic coherence achieved across the whole, emotional power increasing incrementally so that climaxes released passions in an ordered but never didactic way, Fate not far way; everything belonged and was related. Albrecht Mayer’s oboe solo to open the second movement was a masterclass in natural yet meaningful phrasing, and the soft-hued, soulful strings were a wonderful response, so too, once again, Mehta’s mastery of integrating episodes, so that the music’s dark side emerged without signposting, soon riposted by witty and playful pizzicatos, volumes varied, to get the Scherzo underway. The Finale wasn’t crashed into, and when it arrived the marked fuoco was traded for articulacy and healthy tread; and, once Fate had returned and been vanquished, the closing pages had a vitality and vindication all their own – belonging absolutely to what had gone before, all part of a considered, thought-through interpretation played with devotion.

As centrepiece, Yefim Bronfman tackled the technically hugely demanding Bartók Second Piano Concerto (1931, the composer gave the premiere in Frankfurt, Rosbaud conducting, and, also 1933, the first UK outing, with Boult; meanwhile Louis Kentner had played it in Budapest, with Klemperer at the helm). Bronfman is a veteran of the solo part, rhythmically pugnacious in the outer movements yet with subtle flexibility of tempo and variations of touch and dynamics, woodwinds, brass and percussion physical in response during the first movement, Bronfman dynamic in the cadenza. Only now, the Adagio, do the strings play – otherworldly, mysterious – Mehta obtaining a from-within hush somewhere around pppp, greater drama being provided by fortissimo exchanges and mirroring between the piano and timpani, and then the central spectral Presto section, night music with fireflies, was possessed of internalised energy. The Finale, not rushed, was more of a dance than usual, with especially well-aimed and -sounded bass drum shots as well as tumultuous brass. While Mehta remained seated (having picked out instrumentalists for applause), Bronfman offered a poetic yet contrasted Schumann Arabeske as an encore.

Mehta returns to Berlin in October, the DCH webcast being on the 21st, for Blacher, Djordjević, and Mahler Five.

* (late-February 2019)…

March 2012: Mehta discusses Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony and rehearses it…