Monday, August 01, 2005


When I visited my friend, Jeff on Sunday afternoon the topic came around to Zubin Mehta's Brahms. Jeff, being the diplomatic individual that he is, tried to skirt the issue by saying how much he enjoyed the Vienna Philharmonic performance that Mehta turned out in the late 1970s. My date for the afternoon, however insisted that Mehta's 1970's recordings with the New York Philharmonic of the Brahms Symphonies (the 2nd in particular) were some of the best recordings out there. Luckily--or maybe not so--I had the opportunity to listen to some of these God-awful recordings the next day. And I have to give my friend credit where credit is due. These were truly horrible recordings.

At the risk of sounding picky, I really have to take issue with Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. Zubin Mehta did a fine job when it came to building the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but his Brahms ( or for that matter, ANY composer) with the New York Philharmonic left a lot to be desired. The string sections have always sounded a little too thin for my tastes, and in Mehta's hands they took on an undisciplined characteristic which annoyed me to no end. Indeed, I always had the feeling that the string section itself was out of balance: as if the violins were too loud and too shrill; the violas all but not existent, leaving a huge gap between the celli and the double basses, which themselves were lacking in strength and discipline. As for the timpani....I could have done better with a tin can and a pencil.

The end result was an entire orchestra which was out of kilter, with anemic violas, celli, and double bases, while a shrill, over-emphasized violin section competed with ear-piercing flutes and trumpets. Moreover, the playing/conducting left a lot to be desired. I expect Brahms to sound rich, luxurious, gentle, conlficted, and impassioned-- as a romanitc composer should sound--and the lack of precision playing from Mehta and the orchestra offered little to nothing in those characteristics. I had trouble with the tempi as well which seemed just a little on the rushed side, but that might have been because the orchestra truly revealed its weaknesses in slow, sustained passages. Overall, I had the distinct impression that I was listening to a rehearsal, not the actual recording. Indeed, there were moments when I thought I was listening to either a very good high school orchestra or a very bad chamber orchestra.

For those who are interested in the Brahms Symphonies,there are plenty of fine recordings out there--some more available than others. For those of you who are keen on historical performances, I would suggest Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. If you're more into modern performances I would recommend either the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert Von Karajan; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Sir Georg Solti; the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorf and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Otto Klemperer. Any of these sets, if you are lucky enough to encounter them, should present Brahms in the hands of capable musicians.

And yet, I have to admit, that the Vienna Philharmonic performance is to die for. Regrettably I heard it for the first time on a scratchy LP, but beneath the many technical problems which were so common to vinyl recordings, there was a wonderful rendition here. Rich, sensuous strings, golden horns; mellow woodwinds under virtuosic conducting. And to be fair to the New York Philharmonic, I rather enjoyed watching it come back to life once Mehta did the crew a favor ad stepped down from the podium.

As for the New York Philharmonic performances...If you should ever encounter them in CD or LP? Do yourself a favor and leave them where they are. Failing that you might consider ignoring all those warnings against leaving them in the sun on the back seat of your car on a 90 degree day.


Blogger Advocate1 said...

Easily some of the worst performances I have ever heard. You might be interested to know that the few Zubin Mehta recordings in my collection were birthday or Christmas gifts. Since the person who have them to me has passed away I can say that they set a new standard for the horrible.

8/04/2005 10:13 AM  

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