Zubin Mehta returns to the Berlin Philharmonic with Bruckner’s Eighth  

GermanyGermany Bruckner: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 6.11.2019 (MB)

Zubin Mehta

Bruckner – Symphony No.8 in C minor (1890 version, ed. Leopold Nowak)

Having recently retired from a forty-two-year(!) music directorship of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta returned to another orchestra with which he has a longstanding relationship, the Berlin Philharmonic, to conduct Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. Mehta had also conducted, in 2012, the BPO’s most recent performances of this particular version (Nowak). I wonder whether his grip on those performances might have been less faltering, for while there was a good deal to admire in an approach that did not have the conductor imprint his ego on Bruckner’s score, especially earlier on, the final two movements in particular lacked direction and coherence, leaving one simply to marvel at the excellence of the BPO’s playing. It was difficult to resist the conclusion that, whilst orchestral response had been electric throughout, Mehta had tired during the symphony’s admittedly arduous course.

The first movement opened with great promise indeed, string tone – and indeed, that of other instruments, as they entered – imbued with a high degree of nervous expectancy. Mehta’s straightforward, unfussy direction, seemingly ‘just’ letting the orchestra play, had much to be said for it, even if there were times when a little more yielding would not have gone amiss. Berlin woodwind offered the potentiality of something more, even modernistic, though this playing remained thoroughly within standard, ‘Romantic’ tradition. Contours and climaxes were well prepared and shaped. There were, moreover, wonderful passages of uneasy stillness, against which Albrecht Mayer’s solo oboe in particular could truly beguile. Brass were implacable, where necessary – far from all the time – but were also far more than that; this was playing of a subtlety of which most orchestras and audiences could only dream. If the movement’s drama did not necessarily seem overt at the time, in retrospect everything had fallen into place. There is much to be said for undemonstrative, unaffected Bruckner such as this.

The scherzo proved commendably light on its feet. Motivic procedures seemed to speak for themselves, not least when it came to Bruckner’s complementary yet generative inversions. Again, the music was never over-conducted – and for the most part benefited from that. There was charm to the trio, not least from the Berlin harps, and a degree of depth too, especially in one passage from consort-like lower strings, Bruckner’s score apparently looking, listening back past Bach to ‘early music’ in quickening rather than archaeological fashion. So much for Bruckner’s Caecilian critics.

If the slow movement had continued as it began, all would have been well. Dignified and, again, commendably straightforward, the first few minutes had many of the virtues to which we had accustomed, not least superlative playing from the Berlin Philharmonic. I had certainly heard performances that had dug deeper, had posed more metaphysical questions, and so forth, but the last thing anyone wants is an unsuccessful attempt at such: better by far to treat the music on terms issuing from the conductor. However, as time went on, I felt an increasing lack of ordering coherence, only exacerbated in the finale.

Its opening had certainly benefited from renewed focus, C minor emphatically reinstated. After a couple of minutes, though, the performance began to drift again, desperately in need of someone to grab it by the scruff of the neck, to point to battles yet to win and, at least by implication, its final destination. One audible, frankly baffling gear change suggested that Mehta might have been roused from relative slumber, but that only contributed to the sense of overall drift. The final blaze of C major was strangely hectic, its problem being an obscurity of roots in what had come previously. A pity, then, although orchestral playing ultimately made this a performance worth having heard.

Mark Berry

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