The Mumbai Concerts (Mehta)
‘Bombay was an English city during my youth’, Zubin Mehta has noted. His father founded the Bombay Symphony so it’s no surprise that he grew up assimilated in Western culture. Mehta was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1936, the same year that the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was founded (as the Palestine Orchestra, by Bronisaw Huberman), and has had a long, fruitful relationship with the orchestra, which he first conducted in 1961. Mehta was appointed its Music Director for Life in 1981 – a post he plans to relinquish next December – and in April 2016 he celebrated his 80th birthday by taking the IPO to Mumbai for this pair of homecoming concerts at the National Center for the Performing Arts.
There’s a palpable sense of occasion. Mehta is adored in Mumbai and the city turned out in its colourful finery for both concerts. Conductor, soloists and the entire orchestra are bedecked with garlands, fitting for such a celebration. Both programmes are a little odd: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto followed by a couple of Ravel warhorses; then Brahms’s Double paired with Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, which is possibly one concerto too many.
Mehta is an old-school conductor and the playing here has plenty of the grand manner about it – a plush string sound and unhurried tempos, the equivalent of snuggling down into a leather armchair. The problem is that the performances sound too comfortable, too safe. Dvořák’s Carnival overture has never sounded less festive, the overture to Strauss’s Fledermaus more stolid. In two of the concertos, Mehta is joined by longstanding friend and collaborator Pinchas Zukerman. His Beethoven is rich and muscular, technically superb, but there’s little revolutionary fire here. The Brahms Double, with the American cellist Amanda Forsyth, suits this approach a little better; the central Andante contains some lovely playing, glowing with warmth. Denis Matsuev thumps his way through Tchaikovsky – an impressive enough feat but I’ve heard him play it with much more personality.
The two Ravel items come off best: La valse has a certain fin de siècle grandeur and the Second Suite from Daphnis et Chloé features a gorgeous sunrise and a pulpy flute solo in the Pantomime.