Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Zubin Mehta

This now marks the fourth time I’ve seen the BRSO. They came almost two years ago and held three concerts, thankfully all with Mariss Jansons himself. They presented three excellent programs then, and there were two exceptional programs lined up for their concerts in Taiwan this year, but unfortunately Maestro Jansons had to cancel on doctor’s orders. Instead, and actually… kind of a pleasant surprise, we got Zubin Mehta in his stead.

I hadn’t planned on ever seeing Mehta here since he is indeed getting on up in years, at 82, and doesn’t belong to an ensemble like Berlin or Vienna or New York that tours regularly, so as much as I’d love to see Jansons again, with the original program (including Dvorak 7 and Mahler 7!), I was excited about the change in personnel, even if it meant some changes to the program. I refunded the second of two nights, but even if I wasn’t nearly as excited about the new program, I still couldn’t pass up the chance.

Last night, we got Schubert’s Rosamunde overture followed by his third symphony for the first half. After the interval we heard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben.

I think it goes without saying that the BRSO is one of the greatest orchestras in the world. Maybe they’re not as recognized, especially among the average person, as the orchestras named after famous cities, but for an ensemble that was founded only in 1949, they are astoundingly talented.

What struck me more about the entire first half of the program than just being pristine or well executed (both of which it was) is the perfection of balance an orchestra like this achieves. Schubert occupies a unique place in the repertoire. You can hear Mozart for sure, also Beethoven, whom he obviously adored, but then there’s Bruckner and Mahler, the most scintillating inklings of the Romantic era, which means to me that there are many ways a Schubert piece can go.

The Rosamunde overture called the late symphonies to mind in its grandness, a kind of understated opulence that in retrospect foreshadows the scope of Bruckner. With the seating arranged for the Strauss piece to come, the ensemble looked shrunken and bare, but the ensemble sound that resulted balanced on that fine pinnacle of warm and round but also transparent and limber. It’s more than playing together, or playing expressively, or clearly that makes a world-class ensemble; every professional orchestra should be able to do those things. It’s the level of clarity and agility and touch that makes a real listening experience, and after the Rosamunde overture, I wished we’d be hearing Bruckner’s 5th or 7th instead of Strauss, but more on that later.

Considering Mehta’s difficulty in going on and off stage, and getting up on the podium (he was escorted, cane in hand, to the ramp that led up to his chair on the podium, and even then was very unsteady on his feet), he did not exit the stage after the overture finished. He gave everyone a little time to shuffle, and we lost members of the orchestra, shrinking down even more for the third symphony, an earlier work.

So much of Schubert’s charm lies in that breathtaking restraint and understatement. Even in the third symphony, with playful themes and some folk-like passages that sounded last night more than ever like they prefigured Mahler, there’s a clear Classical stature and clarity to the work. It wasn’t the lean, limber agility of Marriner, but was much farther from being the overwrought dramatized Romanticism of Bernstein or Karajan. Despite being the piece on the program that I was most looking forward to, I was probably the least excited about the performance of this piece. It was fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but cannot stand up to what came after the half.

I’m not going to review the piece in any more detail than can (hopefully fit in one paragraph, the next one), but I’ll say it could be a good rule of thumb that any world-class orchestra coming to visit cannot be missed if they’re playing a Strauss piece. His orchestral writing gives ample opportunity for an orchestra to show what it’s made of, as an ensemble overall, as individual sections, soloists, everything.

And obviously, Mehta (who, mind you conducted entirely without a score, not even placed on a stand for formality’s sake) and the BRSO did not disappoint. There’s that breathtaking violin solo, the stunning brass writing, for horns specifically (the Don Juan quotation, among other things), the remarkable color and detail Strauss includes in his writing, one of the reasons excerpts from his work appear on so many auditions, give an audience so much to appreciate. I’d heard Ein Heldenleben at least two or three times prior to this, but I’ll say it was like hearing the work for the first time. Forget Bruckner; hearing an ensemble of this caliber play Strauss is an experience to remember.

I’m honestly not even that familiar with Ein Heldenleben, but with a reading like the one we got last night, you just don’t need to be. I’d have loved to hear their Mahler 7, it goes without saying, or something else that has a special place in my heart, but to be given the chance to hear Zubin Mehta lead this ensemble was truly a privilege. What more can I say?

There’s another big-ticket orchestra coming this week, so stay tuned for that. See you next time.

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