How far are interpreters entitled to ignore the instructions of composers? Messiaen wrote in the score to Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum that it was “destined for vast spaces: churches, cathedrals, and even the open air on high mountains”. None of that applies to Berlin’s Philharmonie where Zubin Mehta conducted this performance with the Philharmoniker. Does it really matter, given that Et exspecto is, together with Turangalîla, Messiaen’s most popular work? I think not, especially since these days you are more likely to encounter the work in the concert-hall than anywhere else.

The Berlin Philharmonic plays Messiaen
© Frederike van der Straeten

Like the symphony that followed, this piece was a product of divine inspiration. Both signal death. And as so often in Messiaen’s compositions, birds were seen as messengers from God. He certainly knew his stuff: his visiting-card read “organist, composer, ornithologist”. Hence the appearance of the uirapuru in the third movement which, as the Amazonian legend has it, sings its call just before you die.

Playing to an entirely empty hall the woodwind, brass and percussion produced an impressive dynamic range, moving from ear-caressing tenderness to huge blocks of apocalyptic sound, crowned by thunderous waves from gongs and tam-tams. Mehta was ever-alert, seeking neither to sanitise nor exaggerate the elements of edgy aggressiveness. It must rank too as one of the fastest readings, coming in at just 25 minutes, yet no detail was skated over, concentration maintained throughout. What I did find myself craving, however, were even more of those all-important silences in which such a powerful aural experience is allowed to resonate in cranial spaces.

Ninth symphonies have always been problematic. Either they defy all conventions (Beethoven), end up being renumbered (Schubert), have the pall of death hanging over them (Mahler) or confound all official expectations (Shostakovich). Bruckner’s Ninth is no different. He left a torso the repair of which has been a sore temptation for some. Mehta, however, believes the three movements represent Bruckner’s leave-taking from this world and require no structural completion. The man who knew Leopold Nowak personally, studied this work with Bruno Walter and first conducted it with the Berliner Philharmoniker back in 1971 knows his way around it better than almost anybody else. His characterisation in the interval interview, “It breaks your heart, this symphony” said it all.

Zubin Mehta conducts the Berlin Philharmonic
© Frederike van der Straeten

There was much to admire in Mehta’s approach. It was eminently civilised, with phrase endings beautifully manicured, seamless transitions, a full and gloriously rich string sound, impeccably blended woodwind and refulgent brass, all without a touch of over-assertiveness. Internal balances, as ever with this orchestra, were extraordinary. Mehta thought in long paragraphs, each strand of the musical argument perfectly integrated into the overall tapestry of sound.

Yet over the span of the first two movements I began to wonder whether Mehta was already too focused on the great Adagio ahead. Dark November skies and uncertain light were becoming oppressive in the opening movement, sucking the energy out of an engine that normally runs on high-octane fuel. The Scherzo, which Mehta called Bruckner’s “impression of the devil”, might well have been a malevolent Lucifer, but one that never bared his teeth or spoke with terrifying tongues of fire.

It was in the Adagio that Mehta’s self-identification was most apparent. The cameras caught a face marked with increasing weariness and desolation. By the time the grinding dissonances were reached towards the end he looked utterly drained, the life-force ebbing away, the final sustained chord revealing a broken man.

How reassuring, therefore, to see this grand seigneur of conducting shaking hands with all the string principals at the end, a triumphant gesture of defiance against the deadly virus.

This performance was reviewed from the Digital Concert Hall live video stream