Beethoven mehta 37950 1

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphonies 1-9
Mandy Fredrich (soprano); Marie-Claude Chappius (mezzo-soprano); AJ Glueckert (tenor); Tareq Nazmi  (bass)
Orchestra e Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Zubin Mehta
rec. live, September-October 2021 & September 2022, Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Italy
Dynamic 37950 DVD
[3 discs: 395]

One of the most fascinating encounters when compiling my survey of Mahler’s First Symphony was of an early 1963 film of Zubin Mehta conducting his first orchestra, the Montreal Symphony, in that very work. In spite of the mono sound and grainy black and white picture, it was easy to understand why members of the Montreal ensemble would say at the time that they couldn’t take their eyes off of him – slim with jet black hair and eyes that burned with an uncommon ferocity, he led his players in what were fine, if slightly cautious, accounts of the Mahler and Ravel’s La Valse. Watching this film, nobody could be surprised that this conductor would go on to have the spectacular career that Mehta undoubtedly achieved; what may have been a surprise, though, is that he did not record a complete cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies until almost sixty years later. To put that into context, amongst his contemporaries, his friend and fellow student in Vienna, Claudio Abbado, made three cycles; so did Bernard Haitink. Riccardo Muti’s cycle, disappointing admittedly, was set down as long ago as the late 1980’s and Simon Rattle, a conductor somewhat younger and not especially associated with Beethoven, has recorded the Nine Symphonies, not just once, but twice. Yet over two seasons during 2021 and 2022, with some concerts needing to be rescheduled due to the conductor’s variable health and with the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Orchestra and Chorus of which Mehta has been the honorary conductor for life since 2006, he has finally corrected that omission with this cycle that has been released with some fanfare on both compact disc and the usual downloads, DVD and Blu-ray. I am reviewing the DVD release.

Of course, the working Mehta model of 2021/22 is no longer the dazzling firebrand of his more youthful self, complete with flamboyant conducting technique, although he does make his way to the podium in a more sprightly manner than someone in their late 80’s has any right to do. Once there and seated for the entire performances, he now directs the orchestra with simple and economical gestures prompting, in the main, technically fine playing from the Maggio Musicale; if I told you he looks like a wise and benevolent professor you will get the idea. However, therein lies a big problem, as it all sounds like the Head of Music leading his students through a relaxed and leisurely run-through of Beethoven’s masterworks, rather than an ageing great Maestro inspiring his professional musicians to playing of blazing conviction based upon a lifetime of experience. In this regard, this cycle put me in mind of the one Bruno Walter taped for CBS/Sony with the Colombia Symphony Orchestra, ironically made when he was of an age similar to Mehta in these concerts. The double irony that this was Walter’s second cycle, the first being made with the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestras in the 1940s, is not lost on me, especially since the music-making in those earlier accounts is considerably fierier than it would become in the more relaxed and rather tepid stereo remakes. Whether a younger and more dynamic Zubin Mehta would also have produced results with a greater fire than here is a moot point, but what perhaps sums up Mehta’s interpretations overall is the first movement of the Fourth Symphony, a work you would think would be rather suited to such an easy-going approach. In this recording, the opening is taken at a more flowing tempo than usual, but is completely devoid of any mystery or sense of anticipation, as well as inner-tension; it then segues rather too easily (and with little differentiation) into a leisurely allegro for the main body of the movement, where sparkle and light have been replaced by a generalized air of relaxed professionalism. It is all rather vin ordinaire.

Contradicting some other reports, Mehta does seem to have taken note of at least some modern thinking regarding Beethoven interpretation, in particular with his care for transparency of sound and articulation and so, in this regard, is similar in approach to both Gunter Wand and Claudio Abbado (in his Berlin cycles), as well as those performances and recordings that use chamber-sized or original instrument orchestras. Similarly, and contrary to performing practices from even the recent past, all repeats are observed, his fiddles are divided with discreetly applied vibrato, only double-woodwind are used (even in the Ninth) and kettle drums with hard sticks are employed in the First Symphony only, thereafter with soft sticks and with modern timpani employed in the Eighth and Ninth. The First Symphony receives a performance which is chamber-like in scale, using an orchestra of double woodwind and four double-basses. As with the Fourth Symphony, the opening eschews the Adagio Molto instruction and is instead taken at a flowing tempo, which only serves to highlight how flat-footed the ensuing leisurely Allegro con brio sounds which, in turn, does little to differentiate itself from the Andante second movement that seemingly meanders along at the same tempo. The third movement is slightly more successful, responding well to a laid-back rather than sprightly approach whereas in the final movement articulation, rather than exhilaration, appears to be the overriding aim. The transparent results are commendable (a feature common to all the interpretations in this set), with particular attention being given to the woodwind solos which Mehta brings to the fore, although at times I find some of the phrasing to be somewhat mannered in its tapering, even if (mercifully) they avoid the diminuendos on the final notes of each movement that so blighted Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s, otherwise rather fine, cycle with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

It would appear as if the Second Symphony is taken from the same concert as the First, judging from the attire of the orchestra and audience members (no details of the exact dates of each performance are included in the notes), although Mehta has ‘souped-up’ his orchestra slightly, this time fielding six double-basses. Once again, the opening is more andante than following Beethoven’s instruction of adagio, with no gain other than making it sound dull and whilst a certain Mozartian elegance is achieved for the allegro main body of the movement, the music-making contains little other Mozartian magic and lacks any Beethovenian dynamism. In the second movement Larghetto, it seem that once again clarity is the principle and sole aim, and if no-one today would dare invest the music with as much Romantic warmth as Beecham does in his recording with the Royal PO (a guilty pleasure of mine), that does not excuse others, such as Mehta here, from making it sound insipid. As with the First Symphony, the scherzo is not bad, but would have greater sparkle with a touch more pressure on the accelerator pedal, likewise the last movement.

I am guessing the Eroica is also from the same concert and the orchestra has once again been boosted, this time featuring seven double basses and four horns. However, that does not mean the music-making is an improvement on what has gone before – rarely have I heard more relaxed accounts of the first and second movements in this symphony, even with the Funeral March being taken at a “traditional” and reverential slow tempo. Once again, the final two movements suit Mehta’s approach best, but the final variation of all in the last movement is woefully cautious and heavy going. There’s very little that is ‘heroic’ here.

Unfortunately, there is little I can add to my comments of the Fourth Symphony above to improve another lacklustre performance, so moving onto the Fifth, we are now at a different concert since the audience are seated differently from before and the camera angles have changed slightly too. Alas, there appears to be no improvement on the disappointing standards set in the accounts of the first four symphonies, with this rather sluggish and heavy-going account of the C Minor. On film we can see that Mehta is using a now unfashionably large body of strings which kick-starts the work promisingly with a weighty account of the famous opening motto statement – except any tension it has generated is then allowed to dissipate when the final note is a rather limp diminuendo. Thereafter it appears as if the conductor does not especially make much use of having such a large string section, perhaps because he is still keen to ensure his woodwinds are properly heard (as opposed to doubling the latter, as was the wont of maestros of old who used similarly sized string choirs, such as Carlos Kleiber and Otto Klemperer). The second movement is not especially slow, but still manages to come across as rather effortful, as does the finale which too often sounds like the conductor is dissecting the score as if undertaking an autopsy, unfortunately with the same amount of edge-of-the-seat excitement I imagine you would find in a hospital mortuary. 

I had high hopes for the Pastoral Symphony, not least after reading a hugely enthusiastic report by David Mellor many years ago after seeing Mehta conduct the work with the Israel Philharmonic, as well as logically assuming that his easy-going approach to these scores may have yielded the greatest dividends with this, Beethoven’s most genial symphony. To an extent, The Pastoral probably does respond best to Mehta’s relaxed approach, especially in the first two movements, although in saying that, it needs to be pointed out that he has not set the benchmark for himself very high. For example, the Scene by the Brook is perhaps typical of the performance, containing all the notes but none of the water as the stream happily gurgles away; it is pleasant, if bordering on bland. Mehta’ peasants are almost as geriatric in their dancing routines as were Klemperer’s, who infamously told the producer Walter Legge that he would “get used to it”, after he queried the tempo – except the genius of Klemperer is that he then able to shift-up a gear at the start of The Storm, producing a genuine sense of shock and awe in that movement; with Mehta, it is just more of the same. In the Song of Thanksgiving, the music making is pleasant enough, but it is the greatness of the music that is carrying Mehta and his players on its shoulders here, rather than the performers doing anything of any particular note. 

The Seventh starts unpromisingly with a soft-centred opening chord which is not played together and it really does not improve much from then on. As is his wont, Mehta conducts the opening flowingly, but with a critical lack of either drama or grandeur, but the main body of the movement is rather limp and heavy-going. When you start wondering why the first oboist is the only member of the orchestra who has a black face-mask tucked under his chin during a performance, you know the music-making cannot be up to much. It appears as if the second movement allegretto continues with barely a pause, which is something Karajan often used to do in concert, too; either way, Mehta is then able to carry over what little intensity he has generated from the opening movement and, somewhat to my surprise, this movement is quite successful. Sadly, there is a pause between this and the third movement during which all that tension dies away and, like a slow puncture on a car tyre, all purpose and momentum is thereafter increasingly lost until the performance drags itself across the finishing line.

The Eighth comes from the same concert as the Ninth – it was clearly a special occasion as the men in the orchestra are dressed in bow-ties (as opposed to standard neckties from all the other concerts) and Mehta cleverly kick starts the proceedings as soon as he sits down, giving the opening pages a surprising amount of tension. Unfortunately and now somewhat predictably, all said tension is allowed to sag as the movement slowly progresses until when we get to the second, Beethoven’s witty homage to the metronome, where the music-making becomes almost as exciting as watching the machine on its own. If there was any sense of occasion in the hall in Florence that night, it has not been captured here.

Whether the decision to programme the Eighth as the first half to a concert concluding with a performance of the Choral, was to allow full-sized modern timpani in both works, or that they were used in both works for practical purposes, I couldn’t say. What I can say is that this is the worst Ninth I have heard for a very long time and, curiously for a concert that is being filmed, the decision to allow (and show) chorus and soloists to enter the concert platform between the second and third movements is actually detrimental to the viewing experience and adds nothing to the musical side of things. At least the chorus were spared having to endure a slow and lethargic opening movement with none of the inner-rage and darkness so many other conductors bring to this music, nor to experience the less-than-together opening whiplash chords of the scherzo. They do have to listen to a rather ordinary account of the great Adagio, that flows along aimlessly and thoughtlessly, neither hushed and reverential, nor especially songful. The opening of the final movement has none of the sound and fury the music deserves and really does signify not very much at all. The bass solo, Tariq Nazni, starts his solo promisingly but quickly runs out of steam and the opening choral exchanges with him are insipid. The tenor, AJ Glueckert, is declamatory and weak in the Turkish Music episode, but the ladies are slightly better. The chorus make a fine noise when in full voice, but ensemble is a little stretched at too many moments in a performance that looks as if it were presented as festival standard, but seems to struggle to raise itself even to a level of routine.

The accompanying notes in Italian and English contain a rather basic essay on Beethoven and his symphonies, but nothing about Mehta and the performances, where clearly Covid restrictions both influence social distancing among the players, as well as face masks in the audience in some, but not all, of the symphonies. Similarly, there are many empty chairs behind the orchestra in the performance of The Pastoral leading you to wonder if maybe it was twinned in concert with The Choral – except the Ninth was performed on the same programme as the Eighth; the level of the music-making is such that such things become distracting. The set contains three discs, each with three symphonies in numerical order, with applause retained. The sound is decent, if not state of the art, but the picture quality very good, as is the direction of Tiziano Mancini, which is sensible without being revelatory, with the exception of the Ninth that seemed to present certain challenges that could not be overcome with a platform crowded with performers.

Overall then, as an audio-only set, these late accounts from Zubin Mehta are not distinguished enough to trouble anyone’s favourites, neither collectively or individually. Of recently recorded Beethoven, if I am grateful that Mehta avoids the eccentricities of Manfred Honeck in his accounts of the Pastoral and Choral, it is at the same time acknowledging that Mehta at no point comes close to matching the splendour and excitement of his younger colleague in his accounts of Symphonies 3, 5 and 7 (all available on Reference Recordings). Nor is he as interesting or involving as the even younger Robert Treviño (b.1984) in his cycle from 2019 with the Malmo Symphony Orchestra on Ondine (see review). Delving deeper into the past, even when measured against those conductors whose recordings sound very obviously as if from the ends of their careers, I feel Mehta falls short. An example of this is Eugen Jochum’s third cycle made with the London Symphony Orchestra in the late 1970s for EMI (now Warner), where I always get the impression of music making distinguished by a sense of sitting amongst old friends in front of embers still glowing hot from a once mighty fire; Jochum may not be shaking the Gates of Heaven with his interpretations here, but there is compensating wealth of warmth and wisdom in his direction instead. The aforementioned Bruno Walter-Colombia Symphony set is disappointing for similar reasons to this Mehta-Florence cycle, but still contains a Pastoral Symphony that is by any measure a great one. 

Of course, on DVD there is less competition. From my own collection, Christian Thielemann’s 2010 cycle with the Vienna PO is available on both audio and DVD formats (Sony Classics), can be quickly dismissed as being too eccentric and self-indulgent by far, often making even Furtwängler sound as historically-informed as Roger Norrington.  Karajan and the Berlin PO are from another era, where the conductor is not just on his knees in front of scores placed upon the High Altar, but the dramas are played out within huge cathedrals of sound too with a large orchestra to match. Yet even in his much-maligned and underrated last cycle (issued on DVD by Sony Classics and compact disc by Deutsche Grammophon) where the conductor is almost crippled due to chronic back problems, Karajan is still able to galvanize the Berlin players to playing of a grandeur, intensity and drama, the likes of which is seemingly beyond the powers of Mehta, or at least the similarly elderly, if less infirm version of these filmed recordings. Perhaps then, with his seemingly overriding concern for transparency of sound in these performances, Mehta’s Beethoven symphonies are most similar to Claudio Abbado’s last cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic (not to be confused with the vastly inferior studio cycle made with the same orchestra a couple of years prior to the films) now available on Arthaus Musik, with the compact discs also available on Deutsche Grammophon. However, where Abbado sparkles and then ignites the music into performances that become something akin to giant Catherine Wheels, in comparison Mehta meanders along drearily in his slipstream.

So if transparent Beethoven is what you seek, then Claudio is your man both on compact disc and DVD; however ultimately, I would conclude that Mehta’s Beethoven Symphony Cycle is but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is [hopefully] heard no more.

Lee Denham

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Previous reviews: Gregor Tassie (Blu-ray – November 2023) ~ Stephen Barber (CD – December 2023)