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Notes from the 2013 Salzburg Festival ( 9 )
Vienna Philharmonic • Zubin Mehta

Vienna Philharmonic • Zubin Mehta

Mahler in the Morning

Mahler in the morning is a tough proposition, even for avowed Mahlerficionados. Which is perhaps why the concert of the Mahler Fifth Symphony in this year’s Salzburg Mahler cycle was buffered with Mozart before intermission—Mozart being decidedly more morning-suited music to the extent that any orchestra performance can be truly suited to 11am. Zubin Mehta, Pinchas Zukerman—both part of the still extant 70s music mafia and now embalmed embodiments of the establishment (thus very suited to the corresponding element of the Salzburg Festival, which is just about the only place you’ll find Zukerman appear in Europe these days)—and the much reduced Vienna Philharmonic (8+6+4+4+2+winds) came out on stage of the Grosses Festspielhaus and delivered the Third Violin Concerto, K.216.

The last time I heard a Mozart concerto precede Mahler’s Fifth with Zubin Mehta, the Mozart was a train wreck. But then the soloists then were not Pinky, who—feel about him what you will—is a consummate professional with standards he won’t undercut (when it comes to his own playing), even when he hops from concert to concert and continent to continent with scarcely enough time to pack a suitcase in between. And so it turned out much better than frankly feared: thick and beautiful, self-satisfied and old fashioned, with a dark timbre and quick paws fiddling his way through the work in a very entertaining manner. Early stumbles notwithstanding, the orchestra responded nimbly and perky to the suave and routine elegance with which Mehta led them.

Detail. Click for whole picture. Pictures above and below courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony opened with as an ideal a trumpet fanfare as I’ve heard: just the right, subtle but notable increases in tension within each phrase and from phrase to phrase, followed by a promising vigorous opening courtesy of a decidedly awake string section. There was less tooth and more sweet in the second movement, and a little less cohesion. The many solos were well taken, the sections—except for hissy, ungainly flutes—played well but by the time the Adagietto came around, much of the initial drive was lost. The ten-minute Adagietto felt so slooooow that the cliché alarm-bells began ringing. The movement is a victim of its own reputation and while certainly beautiful in isolation, this sounded wrongheaded taken as part of the whole symphony. Even an uncommonly sensitive harp cannot rescue an Adagietto that’s milked to evoke eternity. Here’s an idea. Play the Adagietto as part of the symphony at a good clip. Bruno Walter (NYP) for example took just seven and a half minutes, Vaclav Neumann’s and Markus Stenz’—two of the most successful on record—last 9:40 and 8:40 respectively. That puts Neumann close to Mehta’s timing here, but with its different pulse it sounds breezy. Then play the Adagietto again as an encore and see if you can beat Bernard Haitink’s 14 minutes which he achieved with the Berlin Philharmonic, obviously in Guinness-Book-of-World-Records-mood at the time.

In a strange reversal of dearly held Salzburg traditions, the German program notes were readable, jargon-free, and entertaining, while the English text that came across as pretentious and arcane. There are only so many Adorno quotes one can shove into a text (one; preferably fewer) before it gets tedious.