Zubin Mehta and the Berlin Philharmonic have an extraordinary relationship that has lasted over 50 years. The conductor first led the Berliners at the age of 25, and no other conductor has a longer history with the orchestra – let alone one who has never been elected its chief. Mehta was this week named Honorary Member of the Philharmonic, in town to lead the orchestra in three concerts at the Philharmonie.

Zubin Mehta conducts the Berlin Philharmonic © Monika Rittershaus
Zubin Mehta conducts the Berlin Philharmonic
© Monika Rittershaus

Whilst Mehta is no longer spritely and full of fiery energy, he is still an authoritative presence on the podium. He also does not shy away from leading challenging repertoire away from his comfort zone. For his performances in Berlin, he accompanied a piece from the core of his romantic repertoire, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, with two other works that push the envelope of orchestral tone colour.

In the first half, the elder statesman was joined by young upstart Martin Grubinger for Peter Eötvös’ percussion concerto Speaking Drums. Written for Grubinger, the work was a showcase for his virtuosic and high-energy style, and takes the message of its title rather literally. Inspired by Indian tabla players who accompany their rhythms with their voices, Eötvös uses nonsense Hungarian text, which the soloist both speaks and rhythmically imitates on percussion.

The work is a real showman’s concerto, right from the theatrical opening, where text fragments are barked with awesome intensity, echoed by sparse hits on snare drum. The piece is dramatically conceived, a series of arresting solos on a variety of percussion instruments presented in succession – from snare drum through tubular bells, gong and timpani – and strung together with nonsense text, cried out in exclamation.

Speaking Drums plays up to Grubinger’s mischievous and charismatic personality. Halfway through the second movement, two members of the orchestra brought over makeshift instruments made out of tin cans, crockery and road signs for him to play on, before joining him in a carnivalesque groove. The harmonically rich orchestral score was spritely and agile under Mehta’s baton, and provided a lush background for a real tour de force performance from Grubinger.

Martin Grubinger performs <i>Speaking Drums</i> © Monika Rittershaus
Martin Grubinger performs Speaking Drums
© Monika Rittershaus

Preceding the concerto was Edgard Varèse’s Intégrales, itself a foundational work for orchestral percussion, in which an arsenal of percussion instruments are placed front and centre. Varèse called percussionists “sound creators,” and saw the possibilities of new percussion instruments to unlock new worlds of sound that he would later create with electronic means. Four percussionists and a small group of wind players from the orchestra gave a controlled and measured performance of the work under Mehta, despite a brief lapse in communication – unsurprising in a tricky work that, nearly a decade later, remains a short, sharp shock of intense sonic colour.

The orientalism of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is mostly indebted to its colourful, flamboyant orchestration, indebted to Berlioz (Rimsky-Korsakov digested the French composer’s Treatise on Instrumentation whilst at sea, as an officer in the Russian navy). Mehta is well acquainted with the work, and has made two recordings of it with the orchestras he headed in Los Angeles and Israel. His intimate knowledge of the piece was evident; conducting without a score, he was masterful at creating subtle graduations of orchestral colour, bringing out the fine shades in the ensemble like a master painter.

It is a hallmark of the Berlin Philharmonic that each member is highly engaged, actively participating in the business of interpretation. Scheherezade is fodder for this approach, with melodies threaded across the whole orchestra, where every member clamours to add their distinctive voice, creating an intense, shimmering heterophony. It is hard to imagine a more intuitive, subtle and intensely realised performance of this work, the end product of a lifetime’s collaboration.