Universal Music Australia continues its exploration of the parent company’s deep catalogue with the first compact disc release of Zubin Mehta’s 1974 Beethoven Seventh.
Considering that there is no shortage of notable recordings of the piece, I’m restricting my comparisons to other vintage late-analogue recordings of the work. To briefly nod to the other eras, my favorite mono Sevenths include the volcanic Toscanini recordings and the joyous versions by Munch and Paray. Among modern recordings I would single out Haitink’s London Symphony remake where the conductor has the impressive nerve to hold the steering wheel lightly and let the musicians actually become inspired, truly a rare event.
Mehta’s name has never been synonymous with rarified refinement, and this performance is no exception. Like his finest early recordings, its attractions are to be found in its energy and color. He starts the first movement with a flowing tempo, but the orchestral sections are not overly blended. Rather, contrasting colors are emphasized, giving the introduction more piquancy than majesty. The main vivace is boisterous and rather driven, as opposed to Carlo Maria Giulini’s elegantly cruising EMI recording from Chicago, though it is broader than Carlos Kleiber’s buoyantly tripping DG classic from Vienna.
Another towering recording of the 1970s was Herbert von Karajan’s second recording of the work in Berlin. In some ways it stands at the opposite pole from Mehta’s version, featuring Karajan’s trademark obsessive refinement and the airy acoustics of the Philharmonie to form an impressive if somewhat arm’s-length picture of the work. Mehta and the LAPO are much more straightforward, living in the moment. But either Karajan or Mehta could be regarded as quite faithful to the score when pitted against the octogenarian Leopold Stokowski’s third and final studio recording of the Seventh from the mid-1970s with the Philharmonia on Decca. Though by his final decade Stokowski had eschewed some of the more outrageous mannerisms with which he amused himself during the wayward middle years of his long career, his approach is still quite interventionist, moulding a full, plummy orchestral sound devoid of crisp attacks. Bored by the lengthy scherzo, Stokowski cut the middle written-out (and dynamically modified) repeat of the main theme as well as the second trio, leaving the movement a trifle less than five minutes. His sentimental lingering over the trick-trio ending is laughable, too. Stokowski’s 1958 recording with the Symphony of the Air (originally on United Artists, but seen on a number of labels since then) is only marginally better. To hear Stokowski’s concept at its finest, one has to burrow all the way back to his Philadelphia Orchestra version from 1927, one of the great early versions of the Seventh.
While generally steering clear of Stokowski’s dusty bag of tricks, Mehta did pick up one peculiar touch by having the violins play the main theme in the last movement with detached bow strokes instead of as a slurred, reeling sweep, as indicated in the score. Perhaps both conductors felt that this would clarify the potentially chaotic textures of this careening movement, but what it actually does is to sap the movement’s rhythmic drive. True, some who do use the written slur — such as the daredevil Maazel with the Cleveland Orchestra from the late 1970s (CBS/Sony) — almost leave coherent listening behind in the dust as they sprint for the finish line, but there are ways to reinforce the movement’s rhythmic shape without clipping its wings. Listen, for instance, to the same movement live in concert with the Marlboro Festival Orchestra conducted by Pablo Casals, also recorded in this period. Casals isn’t much slower than Mehta, but he maintains a ferocious control over the movement’s build not by chopping up the violins’ phrasing, but by emphasizing the big bass notes that so often hit on the off-beats. Casals builds the movement monolithically, leading to an almost unbearable excitement. Mehta, by comparison, just flails away, wasting energy by overemphasizing the bar lines.
At another spot in the finale, Mehta neglects to terrace dynamics to shape the melody. Just 34 seconds into the finale, and at its later recurrences, the horns begin a melodic phrase which is taken over by the woodwinds while the horns play high harmony notes. But as notated in Beethoven’s minimal fashion, all those instruments are simply marked ‘forte’. If the conductor doesn’t notice it or doesn’t believe those dynamics should be altered, the second half of the phrase gets lost under the horns’ harmony notes, especially if the conductor lets the horn players play full force. Surprisingly, some big names over the years have also let this passage go without shaping, including Karajan and Szell, though Szell’s joyless, death-grip steering makes his entire recording uncompetitive, anyway. But Giulini demonstrates how much more sense the passage makes when the horns are dovetailed so that the woodwinds can sound out over them. Thus the horn/winds are echoed a phrase later by the strings, playing the same melodic gesture. Stokowski “solves” the problem by rewriting the passage so that the melody remains entirely in the horns and the woodwinds are reduced to a mere supporting role. Eugen Jochum’s 1979 London Symphony remake for EMI shows a similar though less blatant rewrite of the passage, but his spacious performance is of an even lower voltage than Stoki’s.
I point these things out to demonstrate what this Mehta recording lacks, but I don’t mean to portray it as an also-ran not worthy of attention. There is one simple thing that Mehta provides here which has become, frankly, a rare quality in recordings: Vitality. The corners are not smoothed out, the phrases are not buffed to perfection nor thought out at philosophical length, and the performance retains the slightly rough-and-ready quality that makes it feel like a one-off. While it hardly exhausts the potential world of Beethoven’s Seventh, it does provide for some high-spirited fun. The playing is colorful, the attack is vigorous, and they simply get on with it. As a student of Hans Swarowsky in Vienna, Mehta was well-grounded in the classics, so there can be no question that he knows his way around this music. If he cuts no new interpretive ground, it doesn’t mean that Mehta deserves to be dismissed out of hand, either. Those seeking greater perfection in a late analogue Seventh might prefer the haughty Maazel/Cleveland performance or the olympian Karajan/Berlin. For greater control within the context of powerful rhythmic drive, there’s Solti/Chicago and Casals/Marlboro. And for reserved poise, there’s also Giulini/Chicago, but ultimately the finest from this period remains Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic, a reading of balletic poise and kinetic energy, though the distance between Mehta and Kleiber is not so far as one might think.
Likewise, Mehta’s Egmont Overture and Leonore Overture No. 3 are classically solid, well-prepared renditions that are not overly buffed. The latter, with the Israel Philharmonic, is even a touch on the scrappy side, particularly in the woodwinds, but still enjoyable. The recorded sound is typical Decca sound for the period, with a fair amount of spot-mic hightlighting, but a pleasing color. The Los Angeles items are in a slightly darker and warmer acoustic.
Mark Sebastian Jordan