Zubin Mehta
Zubin Mehta | Credit: Monika Rittershaus

When was the last time that Walt Disney Concert Hall hosted an all-Beethoven program on the composer’s birthday weekend? Certainly not in recent memory. The hall is understandably consumed around mid-December by holiday programs but also by the usual subscription concerts and special events. Maybe it’s just too obvious a programming idea to play Beethoven’s music on his birthday (Dec. 16 or 17), and given the exposure his music gets all year round, few likely notice the birthday boy’s absence.

So it was left to Zubin Mehta — by design or happenstance? — to fill the gap by leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 6 and 3 (in that order). An obvious idea thus became a novel one, and the LA Phil made an event out of it with a dedicated performance on Sunday afternoon.

Although Mehta has recorded individual Beethoven symphonies here and there during his long career, he waited until this past September — at age 87 — to release a set of all nine symphonies (with the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino on the Italian label Dynamic). That’s how things used to be done in the olden days: Wait until you’ve reached the “age of wisdom,” whatever that may be, before setting the whole cycle down for posterity. Otto Klemperer, Karl Böhm, and Bruno Walter waited until their 70s to record a cycle, Arturo Toscanini until his 80s.

CD cover
Cover of Mehta’s Beethoven cycle with the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In Mehta’s case, his Beethoven has mellowed and deepened with age — and it bloomed in the first half of Sunday’s program with a beautiful, flowing performance of the Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”), tempos comfortably set down the middle of the road. Indeed, Mehta’s relaxed sense of flow and the warm, unanimous sound that he drew from the clearly enthused players of the LA Phil were reminiscent of Walter’s own sublime recording of the “Pastoral” Symphony, made locally at the Hollywood American Legion Hall in 1958 with a pickup orchestra partially populated with members of the LA Phil. (For those who care, the timings of Walter’s movements, with few exceptions, line up almost exactly with Mehta’s.) Maybe Mehta, who assumed the post of LA Phil music director four years later, somehow absorbed some of that ambience. Granted, I’ve heard more ferocious storm movements than this one, which rolled along genially, but it fit within the overall concept.

For the mighty Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”), Mehta seemed to extend the same gemütlich feeling that he left off with in the Sixth into the Third’s first two movements. Yet he was able to draw us into this world with the help of perfectly gauged and shaped crescendos and climaxes; it takes experience to time them just right. I recall a similar approach to the “Eroica” that Mehta made with his Israel Philharmonic within the cozy confines of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills some years ago, but the LA Phil carried it off much better, with more refined, more graceful playing and less weighty textures. (It also helped to have the acoustics of Disney Hall.)

The Scherzo fizzed along at a healthy clip with no dawdling and solid playing from the three horns in the trio section. The variations in the Finale unfolded patiently, gathering strength in the transparently played fugal sections. And ultimately in the coda, Mehta rose from his seat onstage and led the final minute on his feet, the years peeling away as he closed the symphony in energetic, heroic triumph.