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Zubin Mehta: A 70th Birthday Tribute
CD 1 [71:52]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Candide: Overture [4:14]§1
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Guglielmo Tell: Overture [11:56]*§15
La scala di seta: Overture [6:12]*§16
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Oberon: Overture [8:26]*§16
Der Freischütz: Overture [9:15]§2
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La forza del destino: Overture [7:31]§3
La traviata: Act I - Prelude [3:22]*§16
La traviata: Act III - Prelude [3:22]*§16
Franz von SUPPÉ (1819-1895)
Dichter und Bauer: Overture [9:07]§3
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Die Fledermaus: Overture [8:11]§2
CD 2 [78:58]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Boléro [13:52]§3
La valse [11:57]§4Daphnis et Chloé: Suite No 2 [16:19]††§4
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Circus Polka [3:36]§5
Le sacre de printemps [31:56]§6
CD 3 [80:44]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Fanfare for the Common Man [2:43]7
John WILLIAMS (b 1932)
Star Wars: Suite [29:48]8
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Suite [13:36]8
William KRAFT (b 1923)
Concerto for Four Percussion Soloists and Orchestra [18:38]9
Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Decoration Day (Holidays in a Connecticut Country Town No 2) [9:37]10
Variations on America (orch. William Schuman) [6:48]10
CD 4 [80:36]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets, Op. 32 [49:53] ††11
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Enigma Variations, Op. 36 [30:45]3
CD 5 [78:52]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 8 in C minor (Nowak edition) [78:42]§12
CD 6 [79:57]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Act I - Prelude [9:11]†§17
Rienzi: Overture [12:00]§13
Lohengrin: Act I – Prelude [8:58]†§17
Gottfried von EINEM (1918-1996)
Philadelphia Symphony [16:31]†§17
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 [32:56]14
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra; *Israel Philharmonic Orchestra; †Wiener Philharmoniker/Zubin Mehta; ††additionally Los Angeles Master Chorale/Roger Wagner
rec. Royce Hall UCLA, Los Angeles, 1: April 1976; 2: March 1973; 3: May 1972; 4: March 1970; 5: April 1967; 6: August 1969; 7: August 1977; 8: December 1977; 9: April 1968; 10: May 1975; 11: April 1971; 12: April 1974; 13: April 1973; 14: May 1968; *Mann Auditorium, Tel Aviv, 15: July 1980; 16: February 1977; †Sofiensaal, Vienna, 17: May-June 1966
ADD §1st international CD release
DECCA 475 7470 [71:52 + 78:58 + 80:44 + 80:36 + 78:52 + 79:57]

Born in Bombay in 1936, Zubin Mehta turned seventy in April. The peaks of his career need little elaboration. Mid-50s: student of Hans Swarowsky’s at the Vienna Academy of Music, a stable which that decade also produced Abbado and Tjeknavorian. 1958: first prize, Liverpool International Conducting Competition. 1961: first London concert (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra). 1961-67: Music Director of the Montreal Symphony, succeeding Markevitch. Aged twenty-four. 1962-78: Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, succeeding Solti. 1964: opera débuts - Montreal (Tosca), La Scala (Salome). 1965: Metropolitan Opera début (Aida). 1969: Music Adviser to the Israel Philharmonic. 1977: Royal Opera House début (Otello). Music Director of the Israel Philharmonic, assuming life title four years later. 1978-91: Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, succeeding Boulez. 1985: appointed Chief Conductor of the Maggio Musicale, Florence. 1998: appointed General Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera and Bavarian State Orchestra, Munich. Not a bad record for a Commonwealth boy who, following a season of apprenticeship at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (1958-59) under the inspirationally flaccid, temperamentally incompatible John Pritchard, could find no further work in Britain.
Unlike the Americans, the British have long had difficulty accepting that anyone east of the former Habsburg heartlands, and especially those from the Mediterranean basin to central/sub-continental Asia – people, in other words, without Western European/Russian/Far Eastern musical patrimony - might actually have something artistically worthwhile to say. This is to generalize, of course. Yet in forty years I’ve met and worked with enough prejudiced, discriminatory, sitting-on-the-fence, silently sceptical souls in the broadcasting, festival and journalistic ‘establishment’ to understand what Mehta’s lot must have been like in those early days. Read Noël Goodwin, then critic of the Daily Express, in the 1980 New Grove, and you’ll find him waging a less than complimentary in-between-the-lines agenda:
‘His performances generally favour romantic warmth of expression and voluptuous sonority, combined with bold attack and rhythmic vigour and reinforced by boundless self-confidence. An awareness of his audience is often reflected in platform gestures indicative not so much of the musical content as of the desired response of the audience to it’ (my italics).
(Which he does not retract but adds to in the 2001 edition: ‘at times [Mehta’s] concern for theatrical effect has been at the expense of musical depth’.)
Contrast the attitude of Harold C. Schonberg in the New York Times: ‘Mr. Mehta is a conductor of temperament and of no mean technical skill. He is a man of virtuoso flair and makes the most of it’. ‘If Mr. Mehta is a virtuoso glamour-boy conductor, he is also a musician of sensibility. If he favours dynamic extremes, he also has the technique and control to use them in a tasteful manner.’ In the sorry RLPO sojourn, the orchestra, we read in Bookspan and Yockey’s 1978 biography, apparently ‘did not enjoy working under him’ – hence his dismissal. Later, better, bands disagreed. Royal Opera House: ‘Mehta has this appearance of being a whizzkid, but nothing could be further from the truth. He is a very serious musician, very well prepared and very popular’. ‘Immensely practical and very human, too, eager to ensure that everyone is comfortable and to have a good atmosphere’. New York Philharmonic: ‘Mehta […] invariably commands marvellous discipline’. Wiener Philharmoniker: a conductor ‘who has music in his blood [and] is very convincing with his gestures […] a brisk, sure musician who can electrify the players. There is never a dull moment with Zubin Mehta’. The best testimonial comes perhaps from Kiri te Kanawa: ‘he has this fantastic and immensely reassuring aura, an effortless authority […] everything [will] be all right. He always listens to what you think and want to do and then adds his own comments and little adjustments here and there. A very exciting, wonderful man to work with. A real man’ (Helen Matheopoulos, Maestro, London: 1982).
Never one to follow the book, Mehta has always gone his own way, doing what he wants in his own fashion, controversy be damned. From Messiaen, the Second Viennese School and Penderecki to John Williams cross-over. From the 1990 World Cup Three Tenors to the New Year’s Day morning-dress concert/ballet extravaganzas from Vienna (1990, 1995, 1998 - still doing the rounds on satellite/cable television). Complete Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms or Bruckner symphony cycles may be discographically necessary, essential, to other conductors (his friends Abbado and Barenboim, for instance) but not for him. Given the right conditions and chemistry – individually, corporately – he has the capacity to yield a high return. ‘The quality he likes best and looks for in human beings is warmth. “I know I should say honesty, but it has to be warmth. I just can’t deal with cold people. I have nothing to say to them […] What I absolutely detest, in either sex, is neutrality. And there seem to be an awful lot of neutral people in the world”’ (Matheopoulos).
Decca’s 70th birthday box focuses mainly on the Los Angeles period, when Mehta transformed a backwater assortment of Californian individuals into a world-class force. In an atmospheric accompanying essay, Cyrus Meher-Homji, Marketing and Repertoire Manager for Universal Music Australia’s classical division, sketches those heady times:
‘Lunchtime on the top of Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the 1960s must have been something of an event […] Zubin Mehta, with his flamboyance and his dashing good looks, created something of a midday buzz. As the young conductor doused his bland American food with Tabasco sauce, the ladies of the Philharmonic (those responsible for funding and administrative tasks) would ensure they caught their daily glimpse! So it was that he became “Zubi Baby” to some, much to his own chagrin and completely at odds with the serious, creative, driven side of his personality.’
As an ambitious eighteen-year-old Mehta had been spotted by John Culshaw in Vienna. By the time he and the LAPO joined Decca, the occasion ‘signalled the first exclusive contract ever signed between an American orchestra and a major European recording company’. The film-star glamorous Mehta made headlines, his ‘sable locks, honey-coloured aquiline features and voracious energy,’ reported Time magazine, giving ‘him the appeal of a matinee idol and [making] him a kind of culture hero’. Picturing the logistics of location analogue stereo recording in the 1960s, Meher-Homji cameos that:-

‘ the recording crew arrived from London. With them were fifty-six crates weighing more than two-and-a-half tonnes. Culshaw and his engineers Arthur Haddy and Gordon Parry announced that the recording sessions would be held in the University of California, Los Angeles’ Royce Hall. A whole new stage platform had to be built, strong enough for the musicians, their instruments and the microphones. All very well, except that the entire set-up had to be dismantled regularly between sessions because the hall had been booked for lectures and for performances by the American Ballet Theater’.

Looking back to the 1960s and 1970s life for many of us was as much about Mehta’s latest American, Richard Strauss or Tchaikovsky LP as the Beatles and Stones, Dylan and Baez, flower children and glam rock, the Profumo Affair, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the Kennedys, Luther King, Cuba, Vietnam, Prague, the US/USSR space race, Solti’s Ring … To us then Mehta was an iconic figure, along with Ozawa one of a new breed of fresh, brilliant Asiatics. His presence brought sheer electricity into the concert room.
This vibe comes across in the present collection. One can only smile at the audacious triumph of so much of it. Not only can you hear, you can almost see, touch, an astonishing baton technique and body-language at work – eyes, facial muscles and shoulders as important as hands, economy as much in evidence as energy. He gets his orchestra to enjoy themselves and take pride in their personality and virtuosity. Nothing is stretched or strained. Every department is fabulous, rehearsed to an extreme point, then given its head. Solos are the stuff of fantasy, tuttis are tight and stunning, climaxes pole-axe the acoustic. The closer you get to know these performances, the more remarkable becomes Mehta’s feat. He has an unerring sense of line and architectural span. His attention to balance, detail, timbre, contrasts and dynamics is phenomenal. He somehow combines firmness of framework and pulse with flights of delirious fantasy and freedom. Tempo and tempo relationships, even when unexpected, are hard to fault. He’s an artist who knows only too well that in an allegro or presto a rhythmically clean passage at a comfortable ‘speaking’ speed will sound ‘faster’ than one gabbled more briskly. Put the spotlight on any strand of any score and you won’t be disappointed. Each is a chrome-plated tour-de-force, the finest injected with a vibrant supply of emotion, sensuality, imagination, and theatrical intensity.
The man, the conception, the means - all in agreement. The engineering – supportive to the end. That the multi-tracked, spot-miked performances before us are so vivid, so physically enormous, attacking and involving, so quintessentially synonymous with sonic splendour, must go down to Decca technology. To the gifted British balance engineers in charge – Simon Eadon, James Lock (Daphnis et Chloé, Le sacre de printemps, The Planets, Also sprach Zarathustra), Michael Mailes, Gordon Parry, Colin Moorfoot. And to the over-seeing control of four undisputed master producers of the old school – John Culshaw, Ray Minshull, John Mordler, Christopher Raeburn. With such a team behind him, and enough charisma and adrenalin to fuel Superman, what else could Mehta do but rock the galaxy?
My favourites among these performances, in no particular order, would have to be the clutch of overtures and preludes; a great Candide; a Suppé lollipop marginally quicker and more on the wing than the 1989 Vienna remake; luscious Verdi. Ravel’s La valse and Daphnis. The Stravinsky and Ives: is there a better controlled/differentiated multi-contour Decoration Day in the catalogue? The Planets, reaffirming just how much Hollywood’s music ‘space’-men owe Holst. Von Einem’s Philadelphia Symphony. Strauss’s Zarathustra, gramophone and audiophile landmark of the Apollo 8 year. Just occasionally the re-mastering is not ideal – the odd tape drop-out (von Einem), the occasional editing blip (Le sacre), artless ambience cut-offs (John Williams). But it would be churlish to go into detail. The cumulative effect of nearly eight hours of music-making is jaw-dropping.
According to the American site (1 June 2006), Mehta ranks joint sixth among the world’s current ten ‘most popular’ conductors (based on individual albums/sets, compilations, sundry packagings):

C. Davis

In recent years I confess to having drawn back from his work - maybe because auto-piloting things like the New Year’s Day concerts or the Wiener Philharmoniker Drumroll at the 2005 Proms does neither him nor the music any favours. Not, mind you, that ‘auto-piloting’ is how he’d describe it. No. ‘Standing back’ he’d probably prefer. Touring Europe with the Israel Phil in 1979, he led Mahler Five ‘at least fifteen times’: ‘to play it night after night with this orchestra who know it so well and whom I know so well, made it possible for me to just stand back and let it unfold – one of the deepest, greatest pleasures I have experienced’ (my italics). Well, the Mahler Fifth I witnessed I remember more for its professionalism and technical fireworks than any special emotional depth, communication, or colour. ‘Standing back’ on that occasion generated simply a voltage decrease, a tangible softening of impact, polite applause. Interesting to ponder the then principal viola of the Royal Opera House Orchestra voicing the thought that ‘sometimes [Mehta] seems to go down slightly after the first night, as though he were not quite as interested or tense as before’ (Matheopoulos).
If there’s any reservation about this anthology, it’s the glints of ‘go down’ amber-lighting the Achilles heel waiting a few years down the road. The once best-selling Boléro (1972), for instance, seems less seductively compelling than slickly creamed-off, a routine job. And in Bruckner Eight (1974) the tingle factor doesn’t come into play until 120 seconds from the end, 76 minutes too late. Superbness of execution notwithstanding, casualties both, I suggest, of the risk run, dramatically and rhetorically, when ‘things are going at a steady pace’ and the reins are eased to let a ‘whole orchestra take over’? ‘It’s like driving a six-horse carriage: if all the horses are perfectly coordinated, what are you going to whip them for? […] getting to this stage is a great comfort for a conductor, and that’s why I feel that, with my own orchestras, I’m sitting in an easy chair’.
Mehta of the ‘easy chair’? Not my heaven. The man firing on all cylinders, ‘standing on air’, the LA sessions at their best? That’s another matter.
Ateş Orga


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