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Zubin Mehta Reprises His Magnificent Take on Mahler’s Second

January 6, 2020

Los Angeles Philharmonic

Los Angeles Philharmonic audiences have gotten to know Mahler’s apocalyptic Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) pretty well over the last six months. First, Gustavo Dudamel conducted it at the Hollywood Bowl on July 23, an occasion where some extroverts in the audience were actually singing along. Then Zubin Mehta weighed in with a single performance for the ages at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Oct. 25. And those who missed that one got another shot at it, for Mehta offered three more performances of Mahler’s Second in the first weekend of January.

Too much of a good thing? Maybe in other, less-skillful hands it would have been, but Mehta was able to duplicate the impact of his magnificent interpretation of Mahler’s Second in Disney Hall on Saturday night, Jan. 4. In some passages, it was even more magnificent this time around.

Mehta has long experience with this piece to draw from. He first recorded it with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1975, and there have been at least three more recordings since — two with the Israel Philharmonic and a broadcast with the New York Philharmonic. All are worth hearing and all fall within consistent parameters in timing and conception. But it is the Vienna recording that is most esteemed by collectors. Indeed, when a poll was taken in 2010 to determine which recording of Mahler’s Second from the Deutsche Grammophon/Decca archives should be included in “The People’s Edition” of Mahler symphonies, Mehta/Vienna was the winner.

If anything, Mehta’s understanding of what makes the score work has grown even deeper and more profound. Careful pacing is a big part of it. Mehta demonstrated again on Saturday how to shape the lyrical episodes eloquently without exaggerated rubatos, and how to make the mighty cataclysms roll through the hall with maximum impact yet in a natural, unforced way. 

Although Mehta’s performance clocked in two minutes slower than the one last October, it only felt slower in a handful of isolated passages, like the yearning tune for trumpets in the middle of the third movement or the hushed entrance of the chorus in the fifth movement. The LA Phil was responding more idiomatically to Mehta’s Viennese conception of phrasing Saturday than in October, and there were more pronounced slides (or portamenti) from the strings in the first two movements. Everything was supported with the firm rhythm and thrust that Mehta has always produced in this work, still in force in the conductor’s 83rd year.

The first movement was an absolute wow, above and beyond all of the performances of Mahler’s Second I’ve heard over these six months — with even more electricity in the opening thrusts for cellos and basses, more suspense in the quiet sections, and a more devastating, perfectly-paced, slow-motion explosion in the dissonant climax. It was so devastating that there was a risk of anti-climax with so many more cataclysms to come — and yes, I felt the tension sagging in the middle of the scherzo. But Mehta was able to fire up the engines soon thereafter, and there was plenty left in the tank for the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s mighty, full-bodied peroration toward the end.

Mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura returned from the October performance, sounding mournful and then emotional in the brief “Urlicht” movement. Soprano Chen Reiss — fresh off her performance at Mehta’s New Year’s Day concert here — soared gently above the Master Chorale in the fifth movement.

In all, Mehta’s three LA Phil programs in January will amount to a fascinating tutorial on what happened to Austro-German music on the bridge to the 20th century — starting with the tuneful escapism of Johann Strauss Jr., then the hyper-romantic pinnacles of Mahler and Wagner, Schoenberg’s loosening of the bonds of tonality, and finally the miniature 12-tone mosaics of Webern. It’s also heartening to report that Mehta now walks to the podium without the aid of the cane he needed in October. He still conducts while seated but stood on his feet during the last glorious measures of the symphony, as if to personify Mahler’s words, “You will rise again.”

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, Musical America.com, Classical Voice North America, and American Record Guide.  He has also contributed to Gramophone and The Strad, among many other publications. In another lifetime, he was chief music critic of the Los Angeles Daily News.