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S & H Prom Review

PROM 68 Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta (CC)


Perhaps the names Igor Stravinsky and Zubin Mehta do not immediately resonate as a match made in Heaven. It was up to this Prom, with the marvellously virtuosic Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, then, to belie expectations.

As it happened, the reasons for any perceived mismatch were all on display in the first piece on the long programme, the Symphony in Three Movements (1942-5). The problem was most manifest in the first movement. It felt slow, mainly because accents consistently had the edge taken off them. Stravinsky is justly famous for his foregrounding of the rhythmic parameter, and if this is underplayed the quirky, jerky nature of the surface is undermined. All was disjunct, but in the wrong, aimless way. True, the later pages of this movement had significantly more bite than the earlier ones, but the indistinct lower string quavers at the close said that all was still not well.

Many of the same failings blighted the finale. Again, it was just on the slow side and the accents failed to ignite. Perhaps Mehta was trying to emphasise the balletic elements, an idea that at least showed the middle movement in a better light. The Andante was flowing, characterful and relaxed, the strings tender.

Mehta’s conducting technique is justly famous, and not a single beat or cue was out of place. He even conducted from memory (as he did the entire programme), no mean feat. But surely this is just not his music.

But Rimsky-Korsakov most definitely is. The vividly coloured orchestral brush-strokes are just what appeal to Mehta the showman, and right from the grand, stately opening and the lovely, sweet-toned violin, it was clear this was going to be a reading of stature. And so it was. Rimsky provides many opportunities for soloists apart from the solo violin (who represents the heroine) to shine, and each and every one of them grabbed the opportunities (perhaps in the final analysis it was the clarinet who was the King of the Cadenzas). I wonder if Mehta is a man of charm: his ‘Young Prince and Princess’ certainly was, while his tarantella festival was jubilant, dancing along infectiously. Ensemble was jaw-droppingly together at speed, gestures broad and effective. A triumph after the damp squib of the Symphony.

Of course, anyone with Mehta’s ear for colour should have a ball with Petrushka (1946 version), and so it transpired. The virtuosity of the orchestra was again never in doubt: the high cellos at the opening, for once, failed to show strain. All of a sudden, the rhythmic drive so lacking in the first half’s Stravinsky surfaced with a vengeance. Everything was beautifully tight (the ‘Russian Dance’ was a triumph), and orchestrationally it was easy to hear the link with Rimsky’s world (a link one usually makes when referring to Firebird). In particular, the dark sonorities of the third tableau (‘In the Moor’s Quarters’) were perfectly caught; the dances of ‘The Shrovetide Fair’ were marvels of characterisation (including the loudest tuba playing I have every heard). The imagined on-stage movements of the closing scene were graphically invoked (almost cartoon-like in effect!), the ending positively dripping in concentration (although not from the rather restless audience, alas).

It would be impossible not to mention the trumpet section, who were almost note-perfect throughout (the trumpet/side drum duet was astonishing in that every single note sounded clearly, with no slurring of fudging). A welcome visit from a virtuoso orchestra that, in the end, provided far more than just the notes themselves.

Colin Clarke



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