When Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic opened the last movement of Brahms' Symphony No. 2 Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center, one expected a disaster by the conclusion. The Bombay-born conductor and the orchestra of which he is music director for life seized the work by the throat. And continued to squeeze.
What, one wondered, would they do when they got to the movement's coda, which calls for an acceleration into the composer's most blazing peroration. Could orchestra and conductor play any louder and go any faster? Given the intensity of the movement's opening, would there be any life left in the piece?
The answers were yes and yes.
This was a terrific performance -- one of the best Brahms Seconds this listener has heard in years. The secret to the excitement Mehta created was control. From beginning to end, the piece had unremitting intensity and rhythmic control. The incessant rhythmic pulse made the music seem even faster than it was. And Mehta never relinquished that control.
While the exhilarating finale seemed to go over the top -- making an on-the-edge-of-its-seat audience erupt in cheers before the final chords -- conductor and orchestra never did. There was a unanimity of attack and chording, a security of intonation and an unforced fullness of tone that suggested total mastery.
The Israel is a wonderful orchestra that approaches the best in the world in its technical ability and matches the very best in its spirit. Its string section -- much enriched in recent years by emigrants from the former Soviet Union -- is its particular glory. And while it has a weakness here and there among the winds, there are also some superb solo players -- first hornist Yaacov Mishori and flutist Uri Shoham among them -- who would stand out in any ensemble.
The Brahms Third is a very different sort of symphony from the Second, and it received an appropriately different kind of performance. From the measured, weighty opening to its magical, quiet conclusion -- with chords that seemed to hang forever in the ear -- this was grand, affectionate and lyrical Brahms.
This was a performance that made one remember that Mehta, who first achieved world fame amid the glitter of Los Angeles and then a reputation for unfeeling brashness in New York, is a musician trained and educated in Vienna. In this concert, at least, he represented that city's traditions at their best.