The roster of conductors for the 2016-17 season of the Wiener Musikverein reads like a Who’s who of the greatest baton-wielding stars in the firmament. Muti, Jansens, Dudamel, Nelsons, Chailly, Pretre, Petrenko, Pappano, Barenboim, Marriner, Gergiev and Thielemann will all in the course of the coming year appear in Europe’s most prestigious concert venue.

Zubin Mehta © Wilfried Hosl
Zubin Mehta
© Wilfried Hosl
Leading the maestro meteor shower was the octogenarian Zubin Mehta directing the Vienna Philharmonic in a programme of Mozart and Bruckner that could not fail to excite. The common thread was the city of Linz where Mozart composed his 36th Symphony in 1783 in just four days and was also the birthplace of Anton Bruckner, whom Mahler once memorably described as “half simpleton, half God”.

There was definitely something of the divinity in the way Mehta shaped the Mozart symphony. Having become used to superior musicianship in Vienna, Mozart was writing for really expert players and there are certainly more demands in the “Linzer” in terms of technical agility and dynamic variability than some of his earlier works. Conducting without a score, Mehta’s unflamboyant baton technique elicited remarkably energetic playing from this superb orchestra. The first movement is marked “allegro spirituoso” and the vibrancy was infectious. Dynamic graduations were splendidly articulated, orchestral clarity abounded and there was a Mackerras-ish intensity to the overall reading. Minimal use of vibrato was commendable. The gracious Andante con moto was a model of elegant restraint and the unusual inclusion of trumpets and timpani in a slow movement more a subtle embellishment than an incongruous intrusion into the seductive strings’ domain. Solo oboe and bassoon playing in the cheeky Trio was delightfully jocular and the final Presto movement galloped along with impeccable precision.

The Vienna Philharmonic were never great admirers of the awkward, socially inept lad from Linz and positively loathed Bruckner’s Second Symphony which they premièred. By the time the Seventh came around they were more enthusiastic, possibly because of its obvious deference to Wagner. Apart from discernable references to Götterdämmrung in the sublime Adagio, the most obvious connection to the boyar of Bayreuth was Bruckner’s scoring for four Wagner tubas – the first time such instruments had been used since the Ring. In fact Bruckner’s idol Wagner was dying during the composition of the symphony and the deeply affecting slow movement is one of the finest musical elegies ever written.  It is also significant that the symphony premièred in 1884 in Wagner’s birthplace of Leipzig.

Again conducting without a score, Mehta’s interpretation was less Celibidache ponderous mystic and more Abbado triumphal with a touch of Furtwängler fireworks in the scherzo and final movement.

The shimmering tremolo string opening was so correctly pianissimo as to be barely discernable, underpinning the rhapsodic E major arpeggio theme on luminous cellos and mellifluous horns. Throughout the lengthy symphony, cellos and double basses were peerless and the legendry Wiener string sound very much in evidence.

The epic Adagio was played in Nazi Germany on the announcement of Hitler’s death, but it has long since transcended the ignominy of that lamentable association and remains one of the greatest slow movements in the late-Romantic repertoire. Mehta followed the 1954 Novak/Gutmann edition with the inclusion of the controversial cymbal crash with accompanying triangle at the movement’s stupendous climax. Whether Bruckner actually wrote it in the original 1885 percussion-less (except for timpani) score is still the subject of musicologist speculation, as is the suggestion that it was added when Bruckner learnt of Wagner’s death. Whatever the truth, it certainly makes a superb climactic effect.

Mehta drew the utmost from the luxuriant Vienna strings which were achingly beautiful whilst commendably unsentimental. Delicate flute playing gave an ethereal element to the melodic counterpoint and the immensely powerful tuttis never compromised the continuity of the “feierlich und langsam” markings. Typical of Bruckner at his best, soaring multiple climaxes subsided time and time again into quiet passages of reflection and profound melancholy.

Johannes Brahms may have referred to Bruckner’s symphonies as ‘boa constrictors’ but there was much more of the feisty rattlesnake in Mehta’s reading of the rambunctious Scherzo. Although still bearing traces of Bruckner’s beloved stompy “Ländler” rhythms, this section transforms the jolly peasant into the demi-diabolical. Trumpets were especially strong in the triple time rhythmic theme.

The symphony’s titanic conclusion showed the rest of the Vienna brass at their best, equaling their string colleagues with flawless tempi and dynamic coordination. The raspy trilling was wonderfully exciting, trombones were especially impressive and the four Wagner tubas made a welcome return.

This was in all respects a triumph for maestro Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic and augurs well for the forthcoming season.