Prom 68 – Israel Phil

Symphony in three movements
Scheherazade, Op.35Stravinsky
Petrushka [1947 version]

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 9 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Zubin Mehta started the symphony while a discourteous name-badge outfit was still finding seats. Once positioned, there were further distractions while they settled – this lot then appeared disinterested in the concert. (No way for the rest of us to appreciate one of last century’s masterpieces. This irritating pack then delayed the start of the second half with another exhibition of bad manners.) They could have arrived earlier from the reception. They and a few more, even later stragglers should have been refused entry. Those redcoat stewards, some rather brusque, are at great pains to tell audience members to have their tickets available for regaining access after the interval – but seem indifferent to baggage left unattended while said interval is underway (if I’d left a suspect package somewhere, I wouldn’t be going back…). This was, after all, the Israel Philharmonic. What was a nerve-tinged concert anyway was edged higher.

This Prom was the most rewarding (so far) of those featuring foreign orchestras; it wasn’t over-hyped, spun, fawned over or contentiously commented on (and that’s just Radio 3!). While neither the Berlin nor Pittsburgh visits were quite the wholly memorable events they might have been, this Israeli outing proved engrossing and musically memorable.

Stravinsky’s Symphony in three movements has long been a Mehta speciality (like everything in this concert he conducted it from memory). One could, perhaps, suggest this rendition as being too self-contained, the wartime film footage and a flirtation with Hollywood, which seem to be a part of the work’s genesis, here absorbed into an interpretation of musical absoluteness – immaculately balanced, rhythmically buoyant and translucently sounded. (A shame that a ringing mobile was the unwanted third voice as harp and piano got it together in the finale.)

One of Mehta’s strengths is his ear for fine-line equality of timbre. Another is his lucid conducting technique; so good that he has been charged with being a showman, yet his method is aimed at the orchestra. His left-hand can sometimes be satisfyingly immobile, the baton does the work; and the Israel Phil is very much on the beat. (Mehta is its Music Director for life.) One or two tentative solos aside, Scheherazade (played after the symphony to make a long first half) was wonderfully done, Mehta focussing on musical description – no distortion, garishness or crudity. Avoiding Gergiev’s aberrations (and Stokowski’s emendations), Mehta’s subtle, fantasy-threaded version was a tonic; he was as alive to time-signature changes in the last movement as he was to clarity of balance and delicacy of nuance. The listener was allowed room to view.

Petrushka, in its instrumentally slimmed-down 1947 revision, enjoyed vivid characterisation and a rightful sense of burlesque; as in Scheherazade, nothing was exaggerated. Solo winds were very characterful, especially in the ’human’ inner tableaux, and Mehta didn’t pull the strings too strongly elsewhere; the differentiation of instrumental response was as painstaking as it was ear-tweaking.

A stylish Act One Waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake was played as an encore (not that Radio 3 listeners will know that!) to round-off a concert linked by the master and pupil relationship of Rimsky and young Igor – one of this Prom season’s highlights. Checking Ceefax on arriving home, there was news that two suicide bombers had hit Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; 15 dead. One wishes the Israel Phil a safe journey to Italy and Poland – and at home.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Thursday 11 September at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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