The Israel Philharmonic's concert at the Kennedy Center Saturday night was an impressive one, with those hair-trigger nerves of conductor Zubin Mehta very much in command of things.
No one's beat is clearer or more decisive. No one radiates more intensity on a podium than he. No one has more energy, more motor impulse. No one appears to sweat more.
The grandest moments were grand indeed. In Tchaikovsky's "Pathe'tique" Symphony, near the end of the opening movement, there was the force with which Mehta bore into the stormy return of the main theme. And there was Mehta's beautifully controlled pacing, very slow, of the last movement's desolate final bars -- with sensitive playing by the cellos, music that clearly was deeply felt by the conductor.
Mehta certainly knows how to shape a piece -- how to hold it together, where to turn on the juice, where not to. He also has a remarkable sense of rhythm, dramatically illustrated in the rapidly shifting meters of the terse, driving Symphony No. 2 by the Israeli composer Joseph Tal, which opened the program. For all of Tal's reputation as a composer on the electronic fringe, this is an essentially conservative work -- reminiscent of something like Roy Harris' Third Symphony. It has an intriguingly unexpected end.
So what was wrong? Nothing major. But some things could have been better. One kept hearing moments where Mehta's interpretations seemed overly generalized -- in passages where one was listening for more subtlety, more sensitivity, more concern with felicities of detail. It was almost as if he were managing more than interpreting.
For instance, that normally tantalizing little trio in the second movement of the "Pathe'tique," with its giddy accents, seemed weakly inflected and a little dull. Ensemble was not always what it might have been, especially in the martial third movement, at least until the final section, where things truly bristled (and which the audience applauded at its end, thus destroying the startling juxtaposition of mood that Tchaikovsky created here with the entrance of the doom-ridden final movement). Also, there were repeated places where softer playing, especially in the solos, would have intensified the effect.
The program's most successful part was pianist Yefim Bronfman's playing of Beethoven's Third Concerto. Here there was painstaking attention to detail (those trills of his, in which this work abounds, positively glistened), unfailing dramatic intensity and considerable imagination. Mehta's conducting was good, but not on a par with the solo performance.
These remarks are not intended to put down Mehta, which has become almost a musical parlor game in some circles in New York, where he is the music director of the Philharmonic. It is simply to say that he is a major musical talent, and sometimes he might be doing more with it.