A forgettable Berlin concert from Zubin Mehta

GermanyGermany Ravel, Stravinsky: Martha Argerich (piano), Staatskapelle Berlin / Zubin Mehta (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 23.2.2020. (MB)

Martha Argerich (c) Robbie-Jack-Corbis

Ravel – La Valse; Piano Concerto in G major

Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

Martha Argerich notwithstanding, this was, I am afraid, a disappointing concert: in the vein of Zubin Mehta’s Berlin Philharmonic Bruckner Eighth in the autumn, only more so. Perhaps that was because what can to a certain extent pass muster in Bruckner, at best letting the music flow without interference, leads to scrappiness and other lack of necessary control in Ravel.

At any rate, near collapse at two moments in the first movement of the G major Piano Concerto can hardly be accounted a positive; likewise bizarre orchestral balances, seemingly resulting less from an eccentric hearing of Ravel than from an inability to hear him at all. It was difficult to escape the view that the concerto and especially this movement would have been better off without a conductor. Once the fabled tigress of the keyboard took the lead, there was much to enjoy in terms of pellucidity, drive, and clarity, not least of the rhythmic variety. Her opening solo in the slow movement was everything one could wish for: line, voicing, nobility, a refusal to mistake sentiment for sentimentality. Beating time, Mehta did a reasonable job for the most part, despite a couple of audibly difficult corners to turn. The Staatskapelle Berlin’s woodwind nevertheless sounded gorgeous. Argerich’s pianism proved in equal measure muscular and variegated, spot on throughout the finale. When she was not playing and occasionally even when she was, Mehta’s tendency was to let the orchestra fall behind.

La Valse, preceding the concerto, had perhaps fared better, so long as one were not looking for revelation. Growling double basses – eight of them – at the opening augured well, but soon the performance had fallen strangely rigid. When Mehta intervened a little more, it helped; that is, until he drove the score too hard. Again there were wonderful woodwind solos, often allied to string playing of sheen and depth: recognisably this great orchestra. Overall form, however, remained elusive in a performance that seemed simply to move from phrase to phrase, sometimes even bar to bar. The sign-off was, by any accounts, bizarrely plodding.

To my surprise, The Rite of Spring probably came off best, albeit in strictly relative terms. So long as one were not expecting Pierre Boulez or Esa-Pekka Salonen, there would have been enough to make sense of the piece. Its opening in particular verily teemed with signs of rebirth, capturing fascinating instrumental combinations and balances and relationships between freedom and metrical precision prophetic for later-twentieth-century modernism. For most of the first part, there was nothing eccentric about Mehta’s tempi, nor did he lose momentum. Indeed, tension increased, notwithstanding a few strange decisions concerning balance. Stravinsky’s rite became more involving, seemingly of its own ‘volition’ or at least material: that is surely the trick here, at least to mainstream Rite interpretation. There was something properly horrifying to the apparent automation of the Procession of the Sage, although its immediate aftermath fell oddly flat. The final dance of the first part, however, perked up. Alas, the second part was somehow rather on the dull side. There was nothing really to complain about, save for an overtly sectional approach. It was neither involving nor intriguingly ‘objective’, just ultimately rather nondescript and lacking in cumulative power. I have never felt less thrilled at the close.

Mark Berry

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