Zubin Mehta was appointed Music Adviser to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 1969, becoming Music Director in 1981. He steps down this coming October. There's little that he hasn't done in his life. From his early days in Los Angeles he's always been the glamour boy on the block, with a cut-glass technique and unshakeable ideas. He's one of those conductors whose body language and trademark baton control, even when idling, never let you forget who's on the rostrum or where you are on the page. He likes his orchestras to purr, preferring to coast where others go into overdrive. The higher the octane of his soloists, the more he stands back, reluctant to engage in or counter viewpoints he might not share. Dieter David Scholz puts its well in his booklet note to this double-DVD set: a “politically correct” cosmopolitan. Not all he does sets the world alight. I've watched him take the Vienna Philharmonic nowhere in some remarkably flaccid New Year outings. But I've heard him rise to grounded grandeur in Bruckner. And I wouldn't want to be without his early Decca recordings – virile, handsome days to look back on.
April 2016, marking his eightieth birthday, was a busy time with the Israel Philharmonic, Khatia Buniatishvili pleasing his eye in Tel Aviv (taking him to the Georgian Tsinandali Festival the following year), and his old friend Pinchas Zukerman joining the party in Mumbai, along with Denis Matsuev from Russia. For well-heeled Mumbai audiences, out in their finery, his flower-showered concerts were a demonstrably classy, aurally extravagant occasion. Travelling around India subsequently, however, I found his apparent neglect of the rest of the sub-continent, and his perceived disregard for the lot of Indian musicians generally, going back many years, a cause for regret and hard words among locals.
The three Concertos, conducted from memory, are a bag of mixed chemistries. Zuckerman's autumnal Beethoven does everything right, yet in its meditation and carefulness loses energy, sounding more held back than others sharing its (relatively quick) forty-five-minute span. The fire burns low. In the Brahms Double (playing from music) he's joined by his South African-born Canadian wife Amanda Forsyth, a latter-day protégé of William Pleeth. Musically (and visually) it's an oddly old-fashioned encounter, neither protagonist entirely comfortable with each other or the nature of Brahms's duo writing, Mehta driving a forceful, even belligerent, account in between.
Bounding onto the platform, clapping audience and orchestra, Matsuev, in muscle and sweat mode, wrestles Tchaikovsky with devastating ferocity, sending the Steinway out of tune early into the introduction. In a largely fortissimo run-through less to do with art than an hour in the gym, he gets most of the notes but leaves the music bruised and the keyboard drenched. His raw bluster won't be to everyone's taste. Nor, ultimately, his own knuckle-fighter-in-tails Improvisation, where an attempt at honky-tonk rumination – New York comes to Irkutsk – gives way to a maimed, loosely tooled racket that would have Jelly Roll Morton or Jerry 'the Killer' Lee Lewis turning in their graves, never mind the Art Tatums and Petruccianis of this world. It's really about time he learns, like Yuja and Khatia, that belting, tripping the black-and-whites, and slamming down the pedal merely perpetuates the travesty of a legacy, vast and variegated, only superficially absorbed. It's an unfunny joke.
With the orchestral numbers (a Mahler One is excluded) – antiphonal violins, cellos in front, double basses to the left – Mehta swings gear. Here is the expressive stance of younger days, the beat clear and precision-honed, points speared home with that distinctive wrist action of his, the rubato carried off with the experience of a life-time immersed in this repertory, the tuttis physically dramatised – head back, furrowed brow, eyes blazing, chest out. Both Overtures opt for a mixture of narrative and tone-painting more than virtuoso excess. The deliberation of Carnival, culled of brashness, works effectively.
La valse, long a Mehta showpiece, is compelling, the dynamic ceiling stretched without compromising beauty of tone, the structure controlled and sophisticated, the onward motion spiralling headily. The suaveness of the strings makes for some suggestively silky dresses. Daphnis et Chloé glows and glides – Mehta has surely conducted this numerous times, yet it comes across freshly minted, the glints and glosses water-coloured, oil-brushed, with care. If Guy Eshed's flute solo falls short of high poetry, maybe it's because the sensual evocation and curling, the Gallic perfume and sighing delicacy, of someone like Magali Mosnier in Paris (the Radio Philharmonic) is an especially challenging modern-day act to follow.
Come the end, Mehta permits himself a smile or two; eighty maybe, yet with all the spring and strategy of a general in his prime. “The guru”, Matsuev calls him.