Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra Concert – 23rd April 2001

Symphony No.8 in B minor (Unfinished)
Chamber Symphony No.1
Symphony No.4 in F minor

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 23 April, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

If you’re reading this on or after April 29, Zubin Mehta will have turned 65. No age for a conductor, a pension probably his last concern – his for-life commitment to the Israel Philharmonic, a continuing involvement with Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and his recent appointment as Music Director of Bavarian State Opera should keep him busy.

Mehta’s not an enigmatic musician – his conducting is too natural and unaffected. He’s blessed with a precise and expressive baton, gives all the cues and knows intimately the music he conducts; he rarely uses a score (not even for Schoenberg’s contrapuntal complexity) and his readings have ’structure-conscious’ indelibly stamped on them.

He cares for the music he conducts, perhaps rather too much. Schubert’s first movement was dangerously close to being bland, and whether too slow or not, it sounded too slow, the exposition repeat unwelcome. Tchaikovsky wasn’t bland, actually rather dramatic, but it lacked emotional overspill, a sense of danger. Plenty of care again, right down to a clearly audible triangle on the final chord and delightful instrumental interplay in the first movement’s balletic interludes. Sensitive playing in the slow movement and a fleet, light, very together pizzicato scherzo … but something, factor X, wasn’t always present. Maybe Mehta is simply too good a conductor, too controlling of an orchestra – he certainly values good ensemble and phrasal unanimity – for that extra but crucial degree of engagement to emerge.

Mehta, absurdly underrated in some quarters, is not one to indulge either music or, here, applause before the first of three Johann Strauss II Polka encores – “we’ll play something quiet” and duly led Annen-Polka followed by Vergnügungszug and Unter Donner und Blitz (not so quiet!).

This wasn’t leaving the best ’til last. The Schoenberg, not, as had been rumoured, in its full-orchestra guise but in the original scoring for 15 players (16 instruments, flute doubles piccolo) made a tart contrast with Schubert, Schoenberg’s pithy expression causing some audience anxiety (nervous bottom-shuffling and a hasty reading of the notes) and at least one early departure. Mehta, off podium, sees this music whole and was in his element with VPO soloists in excellent form in this energetic, rigorous and tangy rendition, which caught ideally its fin de siecle decadence, hysterical edge and oblique stasis while relishing tonal ambiguities and instrumental independence. Mehta introduced this music to me 25 years ago and remains one of its finest interpreters.

  • The VPO return to the RFH on Friday 30 November, Seiji Ozawa, and on 11 April, Lorin Maazel. Programmes to be confirmed
  • Booking for Classic International begins 30 June 2001
  • Box Office: 020 7960 4201
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