Mehta, Israel Philharmonic stay largely on the surface in Mahler’s epic Third

Thu Nov 09, 2017 at 1:58 pm
Zubin Mehta conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Mahler's Symphony No. 3 Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall.

Zubin Mehta conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall.

In its last few trips to Carnegie Hall, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra has come as a “visiting presenter,” in a fundraiser for the American Friends of the IPO. This year, they’ve been promoted to subscription status, coming for a three-concert stand that began on Tuesday.

Zubin Mehta, the orchestra’s music director since 1977 (with “for life” appended to the title in 1981), has long been regarded as a particularly adept interpreter of Mahler, so it would seem only natural for the orchestra to include a Mahler symphony on its New York trip–in this case, the mammoth Third. To say that Mahler 3 is a difficult symphony to pull off is hardly a novel observation: the work comprises more than an hour and a half of some of Mahler’s most complex music.

The IPO rose to the challenge only intermittently in Wednesday’s performance, the middle program of their three-night stand. There were stretches of excellent playing, and they largely captured the frame of the piece in the overall composition of their sound.

But the details that make up so much of the character of this symphony—and so much of the character of Mahler’s writing in general—were mostly lost in the IPO’s wall of sound. Mehta navigated well through the symphony’s Part One, a forty-minute first movement. The drama of the opening sequence was promising, as the barely audible rolls of percussion created an ominous atmosphere, rather like the soft creaking of floorboards. There was unity and variety of sound in the playing, and skillful characterizations came through, as in the stately elegance of the strings’ promenade—yet without any real specificity of articulation, many crucial moments flew by without comment.

The second movement was overly deliberate, and hard to make much sense of, as Mehta’s balancing was indistinct, often failing to bring out the important lines. Paying close attention to the charming dance figure of the violins, he allowed the melody in the winds, which should have been the focus, to be swamped.

The orchestra struck the perfect note at the start of the Scherzo, with a wheezing but toe-tapping folk charm in the clarinet, evolving into a general, unhurried merriment. But again, definition was lacking; there was no intensity to the violent intrusions of  strings and percussion, which in turn dulled the sky-clearing effect of the sublime posthorn solo. The tuning in this movement, too, was the weakest of the entire symphony, a glaring lapse in an otherwise technically proficient performance.

The soft pulses of strings that open the fourth movement could have used more warmth, though it was hard not to be won over by the reverent solemnity of Mihoko Fujimura’s singing in the lament, “O Mensch!” Her mezzo-soprano is just the right sort of instrument for this music, mellow and warm, neither scorching in her chest nor piercing at her top.

MasterVoices (as the former Collegiate Chorale now call themselves) remains one of the premiere freelance choruses in New York, and their women sang beautifully in Wednesday’s performance, their festive brightness accompanied by energetic peals “Bimm! Bamm!” from the Manhattan Girls Chorus. The IPO gave their best playing of the night here, hewing close to the spirit of the mezzo part as Fujimura sang with keen sorrow.

The closing movement of the Third is a classic Mahler adagio, and the IPO found a tender, hushed glow in its opening bars before wandering into a listless reading. Nuance is essential here: overlapping voices weave in and out of each other throughout this movement, and under Mehta’s direction the dynamics were flat, offering either a general hush or a glorious mass of sound. That approach works well enough to drive home the grand, cascading finish, but it fails to bring into focus the fine grains that make this music so rich. Mahler’s Third is made up of layers upon layers, and Mehta’s reading barely scratched the surface.

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra will perform a final concert 8 p.m. Thursday at Carnegie Hall  with Weber’s Overture to Oberon, Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major, and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major with Gil Shaham.

3 Responses to “Mehta, Israel Philharmonic stay largely on the surface in Mahler’s epic Third”

  1. Posted Nov 10, 2017 at 10:01 am by Lenny

    Was at this disappointing concert and agree generally with the review. Since Mehta has been conducting this symphony regularly at least since his days in Los Angeles, I expected a lot better. Most disappointing to me, though not mentioned in the review, was the extremely dull playing by the trumpet soloist in the third movement. He played as though restricted to a metronome. Not a hint or the rubato required for this entrance of the human element into the symphony. Rubato, too, was required and missing from the supremely romantic last movement. It was particularly missed at the several triplets in the movement which “needed” some space.

    I can’t figure out what the audience was cheering about at the end, except perhaps for Mihoko Fujimura whose singing was the highlight of the performance.

  2. Posted Nov 15, 2017 at 7:21 am by Kenneth Berv

    Complete disagreement about the posthorn solo. Although it sounded as though it was played on a modern trumpet, it was played beautifully, with a slight bit of expressive vibrato on the held notes. And I wish the door to the offstage area were more fully opened, so as to have heard it better. Luca Beno sounded like the angel Gabriel when he played it at the Royal Albert Hall with the Gewandhaus Orchestra several years ago.

  3. Posted Nov 15, 2017 at 8:44 pm by C R

    I’m not sure who the critic is here but knowing the conductor and this orchestra for decades I know that they understand Mahler’s music far better than he does and whatever the choices made for their interpretation I would always put my money on them.

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