Upon considering programmes juxtaposing contrasting works, the one that Zubin Mehta and the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala proposed for their most recent concert is certainly a good example. The two works can be viewed as approximate markers for the beginning and end of the Romantic era. Schubert composed his Symphony no. 3 in D major in 1815, shortly after his 18th birthday. It is a remarkably concise work, full of élan and youthful confidence. He shaped the work in just a few weeks, during an annus mirabilis when, acting as a full-time schoolteacher, he still succeeded in composing over 200 new works. At the other end, Bruckner was preoccupied with work on his massive Ninth Symphony for the last decade of his life, convinced it would be his final work. Despite the composer’s efforts, only the first three movements were completed by the time of Bruckner’s death in 1896, and several courageous attempts to complete the symphony from the extant sketches have not been widely embraced.

Zubin Mehta conducts the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

With their vast experience in the opera pit, the Teatro alla Scala players were perfectly suited to bringing out the Rossinian reminiscences that permeate Schubert’s music, especially in the first movement’s Allegro con brio and the tarantella-like Finale. Echoes of Rossini could be heard not only in the rhythmic and dynamic patterns, but also in several jovial exchanges between strings and winds. At the same time, Mehta underlined the Haydnesque influence in the slow first bars of the symphony, preceding the clarinet’s announcement of the first theme. Rhythmic contrasts could have been sharper, even if the 20-minute work does not include a real slow movement (the second is marked Allegretto). Nonetheless, details – such as the oboe and bassoon dialogue in the Ländler-like middle section of the Menuetto – were always carefully shaped. Classical tradition would have required the thematic material from the slow introduction to the first movement to be totally distinct from the one in the ensuing main segment. But the young Schubert flouts the rule in the second theme of his Allegro. He would do the same later, in his “Great” C major symphony.

Zubin Mehta conducting at the Teatro alla Scala
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Inspired by Schubert, a composer he greatly admired, Bruckner used the same approach in his works, to great effect. Themes, that seemed to have exhausted their potential, often reappear in new guises. A very experienced Brucknerian (his recording of the Ninth with the Wiener Philharmoniker is almost half a century old), Mehta drew attention to many of these transformations, also emphasising the stupendous dissonant tone splits of dominant notes into their surrounding half tones or the self-references to previous symphonies in the E major Adagio. With minor glitches in terms of coordination, the Scala orchestra responded well to the conductor’s demands in this difficult endeavour that Mehta conducted from a seated position, but without a score. Nevertheless, despite the careful attention given to many details and the beautifully realised crescendos, the overall performance was rather fragmented, only occasionally capable of summoning the sense of awe that one can feel listening to this musical cathedral.

This performance was reviewed from the Teatro alla Scala video stream