Mehta and Israel Philharmonic: a marriage of passion


Brahms, Symphonies Nos. 1-4, "Haydn Variations," and "Tragic Overture." Israel Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta, conductor. SONY Classical SX4K53279.

One of the several unfortunate things about bad marriages is that both partners tend to deteriorate -- not only failing to achieve all that they could become, but also failing to maintain what they were. Relations between a music director and an orchestra are like those in a marriage, and the 13-year marriage (1979-1992) between Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic was a bad one.

The young conductor who came from the Los Angeles Philharmonic as one of the most gifted of his generation began to give performances that sounded as if he were too tired to care; the orchestra that perhaps had more sheer talent than any other American ensemble began to sound inferior to others visiting the Big Apple. I had given up on Mehta, did not want to hear his all-Brahms program with the Israel Philharmonic earlier this month at the Kennedy Center, and -- had I not been obliged to hear it -- would never have bought this set of the Brahms symphonies with the Israel. The concert -- which consisted of Brahms Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 -- was brilliant, and so is this set. There is clearly (a better) life after marriage.

While the first two symphonies receive the best performances, the other symphonies (as well as the filler pieces) receive performances fine enough to recommend this marked-down set

(four CDs priced as three) to any listener who wants his Brahms in a single collection. The Symphony No. 1 receives a heroic, turbulent performance in which Mehta and the fine orchestra of which he was long ago appointed music-director-for-life (this has always been a good marriage) keep raising the thermostat until -- in the final movement -- they all but blow the roof off.

The Symphony No. 2, which receives a similarly passionate performance, may be even better. A highlight is a final movement in which Mehta's control of rhythm and dynamics is so finely gauged that, by the jubilant coda, the work seems to zoom into warp speed, boldly taking listeners where no one -- except for the likes of Toscanini -- has gone before.

Beautiful as they are, the level drops slightly in the less visceral, more cerebral Third and Fourth Symphonies. In the lightly scored allegretto of the Third, Mehta does not quite capture the delicate Schumannesque shadows of its pathos, making it sound almost Tchaikovskyan in its sentiment. In the Fourth's concluding chaconne, Mehta does not make the variations unfold with the remorseless, tragic logic that such conductors as Klemperer, Szell and Sawallisch have brought to them.

"Der Fliegende Hollaender" ("The Flying Dutchman"), ORF Symphony Orchestra of Vienna, Pinchas Steinberg conductor. Alfred Muff (the Dutchman), Ingrid Haubold (Senta), Erich Knodt (Daland), Peter Seiffert (Erik), Joerg Hering (the Helmsman), Marga Schiml (Senta's Nurse). Budapest Radio Chorus. Naxos 8.660025-26.

This budget-priced recording of the "Dutchman" earned great reviews in England upon its release there a few months ago. But how can you explain the taste of a nation in which, during their lifetimes, the blustery versifying of a George Chapman was more honored than the heart-piercing poetry of a Shakespeare? This is a perfectly honorable performance -- if you heard it at a provincial opera house, you'd be satisfied -- but the best thing about it is the $12 price tag.

Steinberg's conducting is more than competent -- making the piece move at a brisk pace and eliciting solid playing from the orchestra (which is usually known as the Vienna Symphony). But, compared to versions by Solti, Klemperer, Dorati or Karajan, there isn't sufficient weight or intensity. The singers -- all quite competent -- suffer from the comparisons with other singers. There is no soul-roiling torment in the first aria of Alfred Muff's Dutchman, insufficient lyrical feeling in Ingrid Haubold's treatment of Senta's ballad, and so on.

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