Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92
Nikolaj Znaider (violin)
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 16 June, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Zubin Mehta has been associated with the Israel Philharmonic since 1969 and is Music Director for life. Quite soon this relationship will be reaching a duration similar to that of Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic, Ansermet and the Suisse Romande, and Ormandy in Philadelphia.
However much one might have wished for a more imaginative, less mainstream programme than this for the start of the IPO’s European tour, the actual quality of the playing was an eloquent testimony to the enduring marriage between orchestra and conductor. After nearly 40 years together there was nothing remotely routine about the IPO’s response to its chief.
This was unashamedly big-orchestra Beethoven – both in Egmont and the symphony the rich Israeli string-sound was underpinned by nine double basses (Mehta is himself a bassist) and the descending bass line at the outset of Egmont had a presence in the texture reminiscent of Koussevitzky’s recording, although Mehta’s tempo for the opening of Egmont ran the risk of being a parody of a Furtwängler performance – in aping certain of Furtwängler’s more-eccentric features without generating his extraordinary tension. However, there was a fine blaze to the culminating coda.
More satisfactory, interpretatively, were the two main works. Mehta is a formidable accompanist, constantly second-guessing where his soloist is likely to go. In fact Nikolaj Znaider played quite beautifully, especially in the first movement cadenza and the last two movements, both of which were conspicuously well-paced. If not perhaps the most probing of performances, Znaider’s playing was quite superbly voiced with some remarkably assured intonation in the more stratospheric reaches and he found a breathtakingly withdrawn change of tone for the Larghetto’s central passage; sitting two seats away from me, an appreciative Maxim Vengerov was checking out the opposition.
The most satisfying, and distinctive, aspect of this performance was the rare sense of give-and-take between orchestra and soloist: the sensitivity with which the orchestra picked up from the first movement cadenza or the interplay with the bassoons in the finale indicated a deep rapport between orchestra and soloist.
The symphony came shorn of repeats but none the worse for that. There was something reassuringly old-world about this large-scale, string-dominated performance, the orchestra’s full-strength again displayed after a reduced-force concerto. Those nine double basses once more made their mark, especially in the slow introduction and when underpinning the Allegretto’s dactylic rhythm; also notable was the way in which brass and woodwinds were integrated into the texture.
At every turn this was a canny interpretation on Mehta’s part. The first movement’s 6/8 was just slow enough to allow a real lift, and the tempo for the Allegretto – this movement very effectively joined to the first one thanks to a perfectly-timed attacca – was precisely judged to allow these large forces to negotiate it naturally. The scherzo had time to smile. Overall, there was a level of finesse here only possible when an orchestra and conductor have lived and worked together for a long time.
Some not-needed-for-Beethoven percussion had been in place all evening to anticipate an encore. Enter three trombones, too, for the overture to Johann Strauss II’s “Die Fledermaus”, a sparkling bonus to remind of India-born Mehta’s Viennese training. Maybe he’s after conducting another New Year’s Day concert!