Vienna Philharmonic/Mehta in London – Haydn & Bruckner

Symphony No.104 in D (London)
Symphony No.9 in D minor

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 February, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Zubin Mehta. Photograph: Oded AntmanVisits by Zubin Mehta to London are few and far between and tend to be with a touring orchestra, either, as here, the Vienna Philharmonic or, as Conductor for Life, the Israel Philharmonic. Now in his early 70s, Mehta remains one of the most-complete of conductors – musically, technically, intellectually.

This programme was of ‘last symphonies’ – unfinished in Bruckner’s case, with Haydn going-on to write several inspired settings of the Mass text and the oratorio “The Seasons”. Mehta’s view of Haydn is refreshingly old-fashioned – a fairly large string section, moderate tempos and a gratifying warmth of sound. If only the timpani could have been less polite! Otherwise, following a lovingly expressed slow introduction, Mehta’s elegant approach paid many dividends of point and reflection, the music’s lyricism allowed full vent, Haydn’s consciously valedictory turns of phrase (as far as ‘the symphony’ was concerned) signalling an end of era. A real sense of fulfilment underpinned the finale, as remarkably inventive as anything Haydn wrote, the musicians gathering their resources for the trenchant final bars. The VPO has a particular way with dance rhythms, thus the second-movement Andante, kept on the move by Mehta, was already suggesting the Minuet that comes third and which here had a terpsichorean spring in its step, the nostalgically-tinged Trio taken ‘in one’ and ‘at one’ with its bolder surrounds.

Before Bruckner’s Ninth, Mehta made a heartfelt announcement to inform us that Christopher Raeburn, one of Decca’s foremost producers, had passed away the evening before. What Mehta did not share with us is that his first (of many) Decca recordings was this very symphony, with this very orchestra, and that it was produced by Raeburn. More than forty years later, here were Mehta and the VPO dedicating “this heavenly music” (Mehta) to Raeburn’s memory.

It’s music that is in the collective soul of this orchestra, and firmly in Mehta’s heart and head; together they brought off a remarkable performance that sounded glorious, the music’s flow, integrity, strangeness and fear (of the unknown) vividly presented but without overplaying extra-musical stimuli or stretching the symphonic construction. Although unfinished, the three movements do work as an entity (understandably, the finale has been reconstructed by scholarly editors); here the outer ones, at roughly 25 minutes each, were perfect foils, and unerringly judged as to shape and culmination, while the scherzo, quite deliberately paced and juggernaut-like in its crushing power, reminded of Bruckner’s progressiveness.

There was no encore – and there could not have been. If Mr Raeburn was able to hear this altogether-special performance, then he would have wanted few if any re-takes and could not have been sent on his journey more movingly.

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