Israel Philharmonic delivers powerful Bruckner
One certainly can’t accuse Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra of pandering to tour audiences with a populist program of Romantic potboilers.
Monday night’s program in Chicago consisted of a single work: Bruckner’s monumental Symphony No. 8, hardly a work to guarantee ticket sales or audience paroxysms.
The ceremonial aspect of the evening was manifest. U.S and Israel flags hung on either side of the Orchestra Hall stage, and Mehta, the Israel Philharmonic’s “music director for life,” led off with big-boned performances of each nation’s national anthem.
Then it was down to business. Bruckner’s Eighth is an epic work even by the composer’s standards, spanning 85 minutes with a slow movement that itself can run to a half-hour. Yet for many, it is Bruckner’s greatest work, his characteristic elements—the stentorian brass outbursts, spiritual searching and driving rhythmic force here expanded and apotheosized in his final completed work in the genre.
The Israel Philharmonic has grow into an undeniably impressive ensemble, if still not quite in the first rank of the world’s leading orchestras. The strings remain the Philharmonic’s glory—dark, deep-pile, gleaming and nimble. Horns are improved—with terrific playing from the first chair Monday—but betrayed persistent untidiness as a section. Trumpets are more secure and woodwinds mostly solid if not particularly distinctive in their solos. Tuttis were imposing with great sonorous weight yet sometimes raucous and not always smoothy blended or balanced.
Mehta conducted without a score, leading a powerful, often outstanding performance of Bruckner’s vast work. The opening movement had tremendous drive with climaxes pointed with implacable force, Mehta relaxing into the lyrical second subject with notably rich and expansive string playing. The pile-driving Scherzo went with strong impact, the rustic charm of the lightly scored trio neatly contrasted.
The long-breathed Adagio began in ideal fashion, with a solemn otherworldly unease that felt just right. Mehta led a concentrated reading of this extraordinary music, not quite always maintaining the thread through the long journey, but eliciting much luminous playing from the strings and darkly eloquent playing from the four Wagner tubas (clearly not banned in Israel unlike his music). The climax was massive in impact if a bit strident and fractionally over the top.
Mehta paced the episodic finale with admirable skill, maintaining momentum through the pauses and varied reprises until the heaven-storming coda.
Despite the extended cheers and ovations, Mehta offered no encore, wisely letting Bruckner’s music and the Israel Philharmonic’s powerful and eloquent performance speak for itself.
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