Schubert: Symphony No.9; Mozart: Symphony No 38 in D major, K504 'Prague'
Originally released on the Decca label, this disc features Maestro Zubin Mehta leading the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in recordings made in the seventies. They stand out for their brightness and orchestral brilliance, with performances reminiscent of Sir Georg Solti s approach to the music of these immortal Austrian composers.
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Zubin Mehta is one of the world's great thinkers - the Martin Heidegger of his profession. True, he glitters as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame but such trinkets mean nothing to our chubby friend. His tenure in New York was a watershed in the history of that proud orchestra - it was surely a good thing Columbia dumped the NY Phil so they could concentrate on their craft. Mehta's Bruckner is a polestar; a comparison of his Eighth & Zero with his Ninth from the mid-sixties is a firm indication of his maturation over the years (Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 8 & 0 &Bruckner: Symphony No.9). One of his most colourful recordings is his survey of Liszt: Symphonic Poemswith the Berlin Philharmonic. Be it from design or accident, he strips away the natural sheen of the Berliners to the point where they bear resemblance to the Israel Philharmonic on a bad day. If that was the intention, success was his; on my part, I read it as a gesture of reconciliation between these two nations. In some circles, Zubin is a controversial figure. If every so often he has to preside over one of those tawdry "Zubin Mehta and the Fifteen Tenors" jobs, the loot keeps Taras, the famous Borzoi, in prime-cut steaks for the foreseeable future. As a pooch-lover, who am I to naysay that?
Come this concert, one senses that Zubin has prepared himself for years in study and meditation - much like a latter-day Simeon Stylites. Sure, any number of great conductors have tried their hands at both works over the years: Furtwangler, Karajan, Szell, Solti and Lenny but Zubin is to them what Attila the Hun was to the Romans: the Scourge of God. And here, he appears with one of the world's premier orchestras - the Israel Philharmonic - an ensemble known for its luxuriant tone and clockwork ensemble. Maestro Mehta has schooled this orchestra in excellence for the past forty years; boy, does it show.
There are any number of interpretative challenges in the Schubert Ninth. Zubin breezily makes light of them as only a master can do. He highlights its links with Haydn.
It is a light bucolic account that is clearly in accord with Schubert's own intentions. Zubin's grip on the long lines is as sturdy as ever. OK, every so often we stop along the way and stretch our legs (particularly in the slow movement) and perhaps have a ciggy or two but Zubin is mindful of the "heavenly length" and does not want to tire the listener. Such as they are, the Israel Philharmonic tear into the finale with great gusto as they gnash away on the triplets.
Mozart's Prague Symphony is one of his grandest creations from the slow introduction to the contrapuntal development of the first movement which even Mozart had to sweat out via sketches. Zubin knows his stuff. He does not seek to impose any sort of personality between audience and composer. The Maestro is a pro at beating time - there's none better. Sotto voce, he consummately urges the orchestra to "play soft" or "play loud" in a way that galvanises a magisterial response. There seems to be the occasional nod at HIP in the slow movement but it does not seem to be integrated consistently. Not that it matters. Genius is a law unto itself.
All in all, this disc commands interest. You'll walk away with new insights "de profundis". In years to come after Zubin (and Taras) have gone the way of all flesh, one might have to evoke Shelley to encompass the breadth of his achievement. Sure, it might be a shattered figurine on the ground rather than a colossus but who can doubt the veracity of the words: "Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!"