For their autumn tour, the Berliner Philharmoniker have opted for experience over dynamism – they’ll be getting enough of that with Kirill Petrenko. They’ve gone for Zubin Mehta, now well into his 80s, as their conductor, continuing a relationship that started just shy of sixty years ago. And it has to be said that the he looked worryingly frail as he made his way to and from the podium for this, the second programme he was conducting in Berlin before jetting off with the orchestra to the Far East for a fortnight. On that programme: Bruckner’s mighty Eighth, last heard with this orchestra in the Philharmonie in 2017.

Zubin Mehta and the Berliner Philharmoniker © Stephan Rabold
Zubin Mehta and the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Stephan Rabold

That was under Simon Rattle, and Mehta’s approach, inevitably and unsurprisingly, is very different from that of the orchestra’s previous boss. I hesitate to call it laissez faire, given the negative connotations of that phrase, but this was not an interpretation – for the most part at least – that could be called interventionist. The opening Allegro moderato took a little while to find its focus, Mehta setting a basic pulse that was forward-moving and giving an extra dab on the accelerator every now and then. But apart from that the conductor was apparently happy to let the work unfurl by itself. It’s an admirable approach, in a way, but the flipside here was that I sensed little attention to detail, or even affection. Voicing within the orchestra, it seemed, had been left for the players themselves to work out, and their sound – magnificent, no doubt – occasionally felt just a tad too fierce without a moderating influence from the podium.

Slight doubts with the first movement became more troubling as we got to the Scherzo, where Mehta seemed more prone to impulsive accelerandi, through which the orchestra had to work to stay together. The glorious Trio felt matter of fact – the harp’s wonderful moment in the spotlight was almost lost in the balance, even if we were allowed to savour the violas’ big moment. The Adagio, likewise, was allowed to start without much sense of mystery. The quality of the orchestral playing was such that we were afforded long glimpses of the movement’s lofty peaks, to feel a sense of awe, but the divine underpinnings were only fleetingly sensed, and occasionally undone by further interpretative quirks – the headlong acceleration in the build up to the movement’s final grand climax a case in point.

Zubin Mehta and the Berliner Philharmoniker © Stephan Rabold
Zubin Mehta and the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Stephan Rabold

There were moments of undeniable power in the finale too, not to mention, as throughout, superb playing – Stefan Dohr’s solos gently cushioned against the mellow Wagner tubas were a highlight, and there were wonderful moments in from Albrecht Meyer’s oboe too – but here the conductor’s hold on the work’s structure felt increasingly loose, the sense of all these high-quality elements being fashioned into a grand conception missing. No doubt the performances will gain focus on the road – and this was only the first of three performances on consecutive nights at the Philharmonie – but this occasion needed a stronger hand on the tiller, a stronger sense of where it was heading and why.

***11