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Beethoven, Webern, and Mahler : Zubin Mehta (conductor), Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 26.2.2011 (BJ)

Given the present state of the world, listening in succession to the US and Israeli national anthems at the start of this Israel Philharmonic concert felt like a political act. And the work that began the program proper was one with aptly political overtones-Beethoven's Leonora No. 3, an overture to an opera about a wife's heroism in rescuing her political-prisoner husband from his dungeon.

Zubin Mehta, celebrating the 50th anniversary of his association with the 75-year-old orchestra, led a performance of high drama, propelled by lithe rhythms, wide dynamic extremes, lustrously sumptuous tone (especially from the strings), and some fine flute solos. The bass section is clearly a major element in the orchestra's expressive personality. The heavy brass, too, played superbly, the horns by contrast seeming slightly underpowered.

I find it hard to be enthusiastic about the rest of the first half, purely on account of the choice of music I find temperamentally alien. In Webern's Passacaglia, the composer's Opus 1, the persistent use of muted trumpets gives the orchestral texture an almost rancid cast. The ultra-brief Six Orchestral Pieces are better music, full of mystery and quietly lurid imaginings. It was played with utter conviction, sonic refinement, and whispering intensity, and those in the audience, not including me, with a taste for Germanic Expressionism presumably loved it.

Leading off Mahler's Fifth Symphony after intermission, principal trumpet Yigal Meltzer, relieved of his mute, was able to display some positively sensual tone, and dominated the ensemble sound with apparent ease, though his intonation was rather hit-and-miss. James Madison Cox played the third movement's taxing horn obbligato with much poetry, though not with notable power. And in the finale the cello section's rapid articulation was curiously characterless in tone.

Mehta's reading of the symphony was sensitive and at the same time idiosyncratic. Rather than stressing the heaviness of the opening funeral-march movement, he asked his strings for relatively detached bowing, and his interpretation throughout placed more emphasis than usual on lightness of texture. If the choice of details to be brought out seemed sometimes a tad arbitrary, there was a freshness about the result that often threw new light on familiar passages. And the famous Adagietto for strings and harp-the latter beautifully played by Julia Rovinsky-was a delight, kept ideally flowing, as a perfect lead-in to the exchanges in the finale that convert the work's atmosphere from graveyard to barnyard.

Bernard Jacobson

This review appeared also in the Seattle Times

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