Israel Philharmonic/Mehta in New York

Der Freischütz – Overture
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Thomas Hampson (baritone)

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 1 February, 2007
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

This was the second of two New York concerts by the Israel Philharmonic, part of its continuing commemoration of the 70th anniversary of its founding (as the Palestine Orchestra). Zubin Mehta, who has served as the orchestra’s Music Director since 1969 – an appointment that was extended for life in 1981 – began the evening by leading stirring renditions of the U.S. and Israeli national anthems, and then launched into the overture to Weber’s “Die Freischütz“. This chestnut was given a capable performance, with some outstanding contributions by the lower strings, horns and solo clarinet, but some of Mehta’s tempos seemed a bit slower than optimal.

The Symphonie fantastique, originally scheduled to follow the interval, was performed next. This was necessary, Mehta informed the audience, because Thomas Hampson had not been alerted to the concert’s unusually early starting time. “It wasn’t his fault, but heads will roll!”, Mehta said – only in jest, one would hope.

Mehta led the orchestra in a highly engaging and well-played performance, portraying the opium-induced imaginings of the musician-protagonist of Berlioz’s brilliant, programmatic score. In the opening movement, ‘Rêveries, Passions’, Mehta established his control over the often-varied dynamics and rhythms even before the introduction of the melody of the ‘idée fixe’ – the embodiment of the musician’s beloved that recurs throughout the work in varied guises. He did not, however, deploy the violins antiphonally, which might have further enhanced the score’s incredible array of orchestral colours. The second movement, set at ‘A Ball’, nicely introduced and then punctuated by two harps, featured an increasingly dizzying waltz, played mainly by the strings, with the ‘idée fixe’ in the winds joining the dance.

The pastoral ‘Scène aux champs’ was beautifully played, from the opening ranz des vaches duet in which the cor anglais is answered by a distant oboe to the concluding passage in which the only response to the cor anglais is the sound of distant thunder, produced by four timpani players – truly a Berlioz tour de force. In this movement, the ‘idée fixe’ triggers intense anxiety that temporarily interrupts the tranquillity of the rural scene.

In the ‘March to the Scaffold’, the orchestra’s brass was resplendent, as were the chattering bassoons. (Berlioz’s score specifically calls for four bassoons, a bass trombone and two tubas, but also suggests that in this movement all of the wind instruments may be doubled.) Here the ‘idée fixe’ made its appearance as a wailing clarinet solo that was abbreviated by the sound of the falling guillotine, represented by a sharp tutti chord and a series of two-note figures in the winds over drum-rolls played by three timpani players. Mehta employed rather brisk tempos and did not observe the marked repeat of the opening section.

The concluding ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ was exciting and colourful from beginning to end, highlighted by the brass section’s rhythmic interjections and playing of the ‘Dies Irae’ theme to a chiming accompaniment. The clarinet picked up where it had left off in the preceding movement, with an even wilder solo that twisted the ‘idée fixe’ theme into a witches’ dance, and the strings added a macabre touch with their col legno playing. The spectacular finale left the audience buzzing, all but assuring that the Mahler lieder to follow would feel anticlimactic.

Following the interval, Hampson made his belated entrance, before a much-reduced orchestral complement, to perform Mahler’s “Rückert-Lieder”. As ever, Hampson’s voice was well able to hold its own although it seemed somewhat restrained and thin in ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder’ before blossoming out in his affecting rendition of ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’. The combination of singer and orchestra was marvellous in ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’, with the flute, harp and horn standing out as Hampson’s voice soared above the lyrical strings.

The dramatic highlight of the set was ‘Um Mitternacht’, which is scored without strings. At the outset, the winds set a dark mood with the tolling motif that recurs throughout the song. Hampson delivered the first stanza with a voice that had a near-spoken quality, yet penetrated like a knife. In the chromatic second stanza and the introspective third Hampson’s voice, to the accompaniment of horn and oboe d’amore, expressed the poet’s troubled and pained emotions in his struggles with life’s difficulties. The mood of the fourth stanza reflected his recognition of the inefficacy of human power, and in the final stanza his reliance on God’s omnipotence, with the brass coming to the forefront to provide a majestic accompaniment to Hampson’s powerful, climactic invocation of the deity.

The mood of the final song, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’, contrasted sharply with that of its predecessor. Here the scoring emphasized the serene quality of muted strings and single winds as the introspective lyric spoke of withdrawal from life’s stresses and tribulations. Hampson’s voice remained appropriately restrained and lyrical as he built to an emotional climax with the song’s final lines: “I live alone in my own heaven, in my love, in my song”. This gentle ending brought the concert to a quite lovely conclusion.

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