Carnegie Hall, New York: January 15, 2002–A concert of Schubert, Schoenberg and Mahler by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra last Tuesday began almost 20 minutes late, as audience members were forced to submit to the kind of body and baggage scanning usually reserved for airline passengers. But the wait and the extra-heavy security measures were worth it, for conductor Zubin Mehta led sure-footed and often exhilarating performances of Viennese works in which he is considered a specialist.

The highlight of the evening was the second-half reading of Mahler’s First Symphony, a piece he has recorded several times–twice with this evening’s orchestra. Given his documented experience in this music and his general facility with large-scale works, Mehta was naturally expected to turn in a fine rendition, and, with the exception of the missing exposition repeat in the first movement, he did not disappoint. Here was a performance where all the interpretive choices were judicious and well-planned. As a result, the music breathed naturally, the rubatos were fluid, and phrasing was shapely and communicative (especially noteworthy: the long violin tune following the stormy opening of the fourth movement, and the tight rhythmic jauntiness of the second movement’s main theme). Orchestral colors, critical with Mahler, were also vividly projected. For once the murmuring of the tam-tam in the third movement and the low canonical passages in the harp were clearly audible, and when the full orchestra let loose, the floor really shook (though it would have been nice if Mehta had insisted that the horns stand up at the final peroration, as Mahler instructed). Other felicities included Mehta’s intense focus on dynamics: crescendos were timed well, and pianissimos were actually soft.

The first part of the concert was devoted to Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Overture and Schoenberg’s 15-player Chamber Symphony, op. 9. The Israelis gave Schubert’s popular (and easy to play) work a straightforward, taut performance. The Schoenberg, a much tougher nut to crack, received a spirited, involving reading from the orchestra’s principal players (and a few others), showcasing their chamber music ensemble skills. Mehta, who conducted this contrapuntally challenging work as well as the Mahler and Schubert from memory, chose brisk tempos but never lost sight of the lines of development that permeate this expanded sonata-form single movement. The players truly sounded like they were enjoying themselves, as they leaned into the more treacherous passages. Of special note were the fine horn and clarinet solos, and the sultry tone of the strings in their occasional islands of lyricism. Despite its complexity, this work is quite accessible, even beautiful (its fearsome reputation notwithstanding), and it should be performed more often when the players and conductor know how to present as well as they did here.–Michael Liebowitz

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