Vienna PO/Mehta in New York – 4 [Ein Heldenleben]

Le nozze di Figaro – Overture
Symphony No.104 in D (London)
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 1 March, 2009
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Zubin Mehta. Photograph: Oded AntmanNew York concert-goers look forward to the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual visits to Carnegie Hall, not only because of the orchestra’s inimitable sound, but also because it brings a different guest conductor. This year’s invitee, Zubin Mehta, has a long relationship with New York, having had the longest tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic in that orchestra’s long history.

This Sunday-afternoon concert, the last of four in this current visit, began with the Overture to Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro”. For this – and the Haydn symphony – the string sections were a bit larger than ideal, making a somewhat dense, albeit lush, sound perhaps better suited to the nineteenth- than the eighteenth-century. Mehta successfully kept the strings and winds in good balance, however, and gave the overture a spirited performance. It remains remarkable how in as little as four minutes this musical gem can create such a keen sense of anticipation for the music that is to follow – originally for the opera, of course, but on this occasion a Haydn symphony.

Haydn remained active as a composer for some seven years after composing his final symphony. This may have been because of his comfortable economic circumstances, the absence of commissions, or his absorption in such projects as “Die Schöpfung” (The Creation) and “Die Jahreszeiten” (The Seasons). Perhaps Haydn felt that he had already achieved perfection, making further efforts in the symphonic genre superfluous.

In the Adagio introduction, Mehta brought out the differences among the recurrences of the opening motif and captured its sense of foreboding. He then plunged into the first movement’s charming principal theme, his unhurried tempo here (and generally) allowed for well-rounded phrasing without allowing the music to drag. Both lyricism and tension were felt in ample measure as the movement took shape. The Andante’s melody is among the composer’s loveliest, and although the orchestra played it with considerable delicacy, a smaller string ensemble might have made it even more so. One also might have wished for more of a sighing quality in the second part of the opening motif. The woodwind section was outstanding and, at several points, Mehta held notes as if reluctant to let the music slip away from his grasp. The rollicking character of the Minuet was delightful, but it suffered somewhat from an overly-restrained timpani, and the transition to the contrasting Trio felt a bit jarring – more so than the corresponding return to the Minuet. The delightful theme that ran through the finale seized the listener’s interest right from the start and never let go. It was shaped and reshaped with vigour and excitement, Mehta’s sure hand guiding the way to its stirring conclusion.

Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) is an autobiographical work, the titular ‘Hero’ is Strauss himself, as quotations from his earlier compositions confirm. His grand theme is heard at the outset in the burnished sound of horns soaring above the surging lower strings. The E flat tonality and prominence of the horns was a conscious allusion by Strauss to Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony, although Strauss’s hero is far from being the cynosure of a funeral procession. Mehta (typically conducting from memory) and the orchestra gave a pungent edge to this music, the low brass helping to create a gloriously resonant sound, and Mehta’s timing in holding each of four sudden pauses near the end of the opening section seemed perfectly synchronous with the Hall’s reverberation time.

In the ensuing section, the brilliantly-played chattering woodwinds represent Strauss’s critics, most notably Eduard Hanslick – so it is not surprising that the hero’s theme triumphs over them. Then, concertmaster Rainer Küchl’s extended violin solos, alternately glowingly lyrical and pyrotechnically dazzling, represented the hero’s companion (Strauss’s wife Pauline). The juxtaposition of the soaring solo violin and the low brass was quite marvellous. Küchl’s playing was the most prominent, but far from the only outstanding solo turn here, with noteworthy solos also on cor anglais, clarinet, oboe and horn. As the section drew near its conclusion, moments of peaceful harmony between horn and violin were thematically appropriate.

The next section represents the hero’s deeds of war, the hostilities being initiated by fanfares from a trio of off-stage trumpets. Here the brass and percussion were at the forefront, doing battle against the strings’ and horns’ playing of the hero’s theme, which ultimately wins over the brass and culminates in a triumphant recapitulation of the hero’s theme. Mehta and the orchestra brought out this conflict and its resolution with lucid clarity. The hero’s deeds of peace followed – a succession of quotations from Strauss’s own compositions, including Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Also sprach Zarathustra’ and Don Quixote. The final section, which portrays the hero’s retirement from the world and consummation, serves as a recapitulation of all that had come before, Extended solos for horn and violin (Küchl again radiant) appropriately) reflect the happiness of the hero and his companion.

Mehta’s reading of Ein Heldenleben communicated his deep affinity with this music, evoking from the Vienna Philharmonic’s musicians a performance that was engaging from beginning to end. Before bidding “auf Wiedersehen” to New York, two Viennese bonbons were offered as encores: Josef Hellmesberger’s Leichtflüssig and Eduard Strauss’s Bahn frei Polka.

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