A Heroic Evening in Prague

Czech RepublicCzech Republic Beethoven, Mozart, and R. Strauss: Israel Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta (conductor), Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, 22.9.2014 (BJ)

Beethoven: Overture to Egmont
Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G minor
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben

It was just by luck that we happened to be on hand for this concert. (More of that in a moment.) Ever since I first heard him conduct, in a performance of La traviata at the Maggio Musicale in Florence almost exactly fifty years ago, Zubin Mehta has exuded a kind of laid-back charisma unusual in these days of hectically globetrotting maestros. This performance with the Israel Philharmonic—of which orchestra his courageous devotion to musical life in Israel has earned him the title of “artistic director for life”—showed that these days the charisma has been joined by a notable degree of gravitas.

To watch Mehta at work on this occasion, with his left hand mostly motionless by his side, to be brought into play only for specific expressive purposes, was a pleasure purely in terms of technique, and the result was some richly rewarding music-making. In the Egmont overture, the throat-catching intensity of the slow introduction was followed by an irresistible forward motion in the quicker music. Ein Heldenleben received a similarly masterful interpretation, a slightly smudged rapid descending phrase just after the start proving to be the only departure from superbly polished execution from the whole orchestra. Concertmaster Ilya Konovalov fashioned a suitably virtuoso portrayal of the hero’s helpmeet, and James Madison Cox offered some wonderfully poetic and assured horn solos in the concluding section.

The orchestra, which it was an emotional experience to encounter at this point in the politics of the Middle East, seemed to be in fine fettle. I was sorry that the evening did not begin with the Israeli national anthem—for the Hatikvah is based on the same theme as Smetana’s celebration of the river that runs just by the concert hall, the Vltava. My only other disappointment was Mehta’s cavalier way with repeats in an otherwise fine account of Mozart’s 40th Symphony (which was performed in the original version, without the clarinets that Mozart later added to the score). Of the twelve repeats in the work, only six were observed, the worst consequence being that we were deprived of the thrilling dramatic effect when the second half of the finale switches peremptorily back to the beginning—second time around—of the development section. And Mehta’s choice of a Brahms Hungarian Dance, rather than one of Smetana’s Czech counterparts, for his encore seemed odd. (Coincidentally, when Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt conducted Heldenleben in the then-new Royal Festival Hall more than half a century ago, he made the same choice of encore—but that was in London, not in the capital of the Czech Republic.)

Why, then, do I say we were at the concert just by luck? Well, my wife and I were actually in Prague for a quite other purpose: to visit our dear friends Ivan and Zuzana Moravec. Now in his eighties, Moravec, in my opinion rivaled for many years at the top of the pianistic pantheon only by Sviatoslav Richter, is no longer playing in public. But he is still as generous as ever in his relations with colleagues. During our visit he arranged for us to meet and hear a gifted pupil of his, Jan Bartoš, who played for us an impressive set of preludes by the unjustly neglected Czech composer Miloslav Kabeláč, following it with a compelling reading of Brahms’s F-minor Sonata. This, clearly, is a young pianist to look out for.

Bernard Jacobson