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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Leonore Overture No. 3, Op.72a
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Sinfonia concertante in E flat major, K364*
Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Capriccio espagnol, Op.34
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
Johann STRAUSS the Younger (1825-1899)
Thunder and Lightning Polka, Op.324
Johann STRAUSS the Elder (1804-1849)
Radetsky March, Op.228
Ilya Konovalov (violin), *Roman Spitzer (viola)
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta
rec. in front of the Grand Palace, Bangkok, 2012
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI 6229 [117.00]

The booklet for this DVD describes the concert performance as follows: “A landmark performance … the first international standard, outdoor, western classical music in Bangkok … framed by the beauty of the Grand Palace, especially illuminated for this performance.” Although the carefully circumscribed claim is presumably true, it seems an extraordinary one; and if this “international standard, outdoor, western classical” performance is to have any successors, there are some issues that will need to be addressed. There is no date given for the concert in any of the material supplied with the DVD apart from the copyright date.
Given these propitious circumstances, it is perhaps unfortunate that the canopy over the orchestra is so placed as largely to obscure the view of the illuminated Grand Palace - we only really see it properly in interpolated shots - although the rear transparent panel behind the orchestra was clearly constructed so as to allow the panorama to be seen clearly from at least the front rows of the audience. Also there is a busy main road running across in front of the Palace, on which traffic is seen moving in uninterrupted flow throughout the concert. In order to avoid the ambient noise, it is clear that the microphones have been placed very close to - and indeed, visibly within - the orchestra to cut down any unwanted interruptions. The result is a very focused and analytical sound which seriously lacks atmosphere, although the orchestral playing is good enough to survive such close scrutiny.
The concert is proclaimed on the front of the box as a celebration of “the Queen’s 80th birthday”. The Queen in question is the Queen of Thailand, a fact nowhere mentioned, and the concert begins with her arrival in a motorcade and her enthronement on a seat in the middle of the audience, following by a performance of the remarkably unimpressive Thai Royal Anthem. At the end of the anthem Mehta walks off to the back of the stage, only to return to begin the Beethoven Leonore Overture No. 3 in complete silence without any hint of applause. The performance is very good, with violins split left and right across the stage in the proper classical manner, and plenty of body to the string sound. During the offstage trumpet solo the camera cuts away to the view of the Palace, but the sound of the instrument itself is very present and indeed appears to come from within the orchestra itself; we don’t see the player at any time. This could just be the result of microphone placement, but it seriously damages the histrionic element which Beethoven clearly sought at this point.
The Mozart Sinfonia concertante - presumably chosen as a concerto for this performance because it required no extensive reorganisation of the stage - is given a finely poised rendering by Ilya Konovalov and Roman Spitzer. Extraordinarily Mehta marches off the platform during the first movement cadenza, leaving the soloists by themselves, only to re-emerge half a minute later to assume the baton once again. This is not only distracting for the audience, but also incredibly bad manners to the players who are obscured from view by the perambulating maestro; Konovalov is actually seen to peer nervously over his shoulder as Mehta comes back on to the stage. I have never ever seen any conductor do this sort of thing before.
Mehta’s division of the violins across the stage pays real dividends in Rimsky-Korsakov’s antiphonal writing during the Capriccio espagnol, which also serves to highlight some very characterful solos from individual members of the orchestra. It is a pity that Konovalov, now returned to his place at the leader’s desk, is so badly stinted by the microphones which place him at a decided disadvantage in the sound spectrum; and the close sound given to the percussion in the recorded balance gives an unfortunate effect, with the cymbals in particular sounding somewhat tinny.
Mehta gives a very broad and grand reading of Brahms’ First Symphony, with the main tempo of the first movement rather slower than desirable. It is nevertheless well rounded and polished, and with the percussion reduced merely to timpani the sound is less boxy than in the preceding track. However there is a rather unpleasant pulsing in the opening bars, which sounds as if the panic-stricken engineers were adjusting their microphone volumes; once this is out of the way, everybody is well in the sonic picture. Incidentally those who are allergic to applause will be delighted to learn that the audience response is not microphoned at all, which means that its sound appears to be coming from a field some miles away. The apparent lack of enthusiasm comes as rather a shock after Mehta’s positively Brucknerian peroration to the final movement.
Of the two encores, both the back of the DVD box and the booklet ascribe the Radetsky March to “Johann Strauss II” whereas it is the best-known work of his father. In fact the organisers of the concert missed a trick here; surely the Thunder and Lightning polka could only have been enhanced by the addition of the firework display that seems nowadays to be the almost inevitable conclusion to any outdoor concert. There are no fireworks here, merely a couple of well-played performances. Mehta turns around to encourage the audience to clap along to the Radetsky March, but although we see them clapping we don’t hear them except as a very distant sound.
At the end Mehta is escorted to meet the Queen, who rather charmingly seems to ask him to autograph her programme. She clearly wanted a souvenir of the performance, and this DVD is best viewed in the same light. It is a more festive, and more substantial, bill of fare than was offered in the Tanglewood Festival commemorative video that I reviewed recently; but nevertheless I cannot see that it will have much wider appeal than as a souvenir for those who were at the concert itself or wish to hear Mehta and the orchestra in the surroundings of a dimly glimpsed Grand Palace in Bangkok.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Rohan Shotton

Masterwork Index: Brahms symphony 1