Israel Philharmonic Shows Astonishing Blend of Unified Sound under Mehta

GermanyGermany Schoenberg, Mahler: Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta, Berlin Musikfest 2015, Philharmonie, Berlin, 7.9.2015 (MC)

Zubin Mehta © Marco Brescia
Zubin Mehta © Marco Brescia

Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1 for 15 solo instruments

Mahler: Symphony No. 9

It is difficult not to associate the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with a number of excellent Decca recordings made with Leonard Bernstein mainly in the 1980s. Of course since 1961 the orchestra has had a long and fruitful association with Zubin Mehta, now its music director, and their fortunes have been inextricably linked.

Just prior to the concert it was announced that Mehta, who will celebrate his 80th birthday in 2016, had recently had an operation on his knee but would still take the baton. It was to some relief that the packed audience saw the Maestro walking cautiously onto the stage with the aid of a walking stick to conduct the programme.

From the pens of Austrian composers, the works by Schoenberg with his First Chamber Symphony and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, although written only three years apart, are very different in form. Schoenberg believed that with his ground-breaking First Chamber Symphony, maybe a reaction away from the late-romantic extravagance of Mahler towards purity and concision, he had found his own compositional approach. The score calls for 15 solo instruments although Mehta actually had 16 performers on the stage employing the extra player specifically for an extremely brief participation in the piccolo part. Using a chair on the podium, Mehta showed his mastery of Schoenberg’s complex harmonic language. Resolute and immediate this flowing account was outstanding music making. Particular impressive in this austere and steely cool sound world was how Mehta managed to develop a wide range of tone colour.

Maher’s Ninth Symphony is a work composed in the midst of challenging personal circumstances, namely the recent death of a daughter, difficulties in his marriage to Alma and his deteriorating heart condition.

Mehta demonstrated just how adept this orchestra is, achieving an astonishing blend of unified sound. Affecting was the harrowing, death inspired character of the opening movement. Mehta’s ease with remarkably soft playing made the thundering climaxes extremely effective. Possibly he could have made more of the rustic Ländler rhythms of the Scherzo however there was a steely resolve to the squally open air feel of the Rondo-Burleske movement. The final movementAdagio sees Mahler trying to hold fast to the beauties of life and decelerate the inevitability of death. Unquestionably assured, Mehta and his players achieved an almost unbearably aching beauty, even a spiritual feel to this reading a quality rarely achieved in the concert hall. Hats off to the telling contributions from the wind principals especially the melting tone of the horn.

I’m not sure how the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra figures in the most recent lists of the world’s greatest orchestras. On this evidence if they are not included in the top ten finest orchestras it will be a travesty.

Michael Cookson

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