New York Philharmonic/Mehta – Elgar & Bruckner

Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Symphony No.7 in E [Leopold Nowak Edition]

Alisa Weilerstein (cello)

New York Philharmonic
Zubin Mehta

Reviewed by: Victor Wheeler

Reviewed: 13 January, 2007
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

At the end of the nineteenth-century, through Enigma Variations and culminating in the oratorio “The Dream of Gerontius”, from 1900, Elgar was established as England’s leading composer. By 1919, when his Cello Concerto premiered, his star had fallen. World War I had such a damaging impact on him that the anguished Cello Concerto became his final masterpiece.

The concerto is full of despondency and disenchantment. The stirring 24-year-old American cellist, Alisa Weilerstein, played it evocatively and forcefully, but when she had to demonstrate lyricism, she brought subtlety and warmth. She handled the four movements with agility, from the opening Adagio-Moderato to the Allegro, a type of scherzo, to the crowning piece of the work, the Adagio, to the final Allegro. With her talented and emotive playing, the soloist displayed empathy with Elgar’s deep feelings.

Zubin Mehta showed himself equal to the task of eliciting from the orchestra the support necessary not to overwhelm the soloist’s music but to frame and bolster it.

The second half of the program was devoted to Bruckner’s majestic, here 70-minute-long, Seventh Symphony. It was begun in 1881 and completed in 1883. Unlike Bruckner’s earlier symphonies, this one was an immediate success. The Seventh has gone through several ‘improvements’. One addition was cymbal crash and a roll on the triangle at climax of the Adagio – probably added by the work’s first conductor, Arthur Nikisch, and accepted by Leopold Nowak in his Edition of the work. The Adagio is a threnody, a lamentation, written in Wagner’s memory: “I came home and felt sad. I did not think the Master could live much longer. Then I conceived the adagio…”, said Bruckner to the conductor Felix Mottl. The use of four Wagner tubas – created by Wagner for use in his ‘Ring’ opera cycle – shows again Wagner’s influence. The brass was wonderfully prominent in this performance, especially in the Adagio and finale.

Zubin Mehta conducted what is perhaps Bruckner’s most popular work with assurance, serenity, warmth, and exuberance and showed complete faith in what the New York Philharmonic could produce. From an intentionally almost-inaudible violin tremolo in the Allegro moderato to the mighty sounds in the Adagio to the mournful Trio section to the pizzicatos of the cellos and double basses in the finale, Mehta brought out both the nuances and the conspicuous elements of the music. Mehta seemed at home standing on the podium – he was the Philharmonic’s Music Director for 13 years – and the orchestra responded marvelously.

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