Top Ear

Mehta’s Mahler 1st and 3rd

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Jeremy Lee writes

Zubin Mehta’s most highly acclaimed Mahler effort belongs to his stupendous Second recorded in 1975 with the Vienna Philharmonic (read my review here).  These performances, with the Israel Philharmonic in the First and Los Angeles Philharmonic in the Third doesn’t exactly rise to the extremely inspired level of his Second, but it’s a noble effort all the same.

The Third fares best.  There’s some excellent playing here, from the chirpy woodwinds to the strong brass section, though the strings are slightly dry-sounding.  And the solo work is quite impressive too:  the trombone solo in the first movement (a bit more solidity would have been better though), and of course the post-horn in the third, are all very well executed.  Maureen Forrester sings perfectly in the O Mensch movement, as well as her vocal contributions in the fifth (she does have a slight memory issue though), and the perky boys in the fifth are excellent.  Interpretation-wise, Mehta gives us a well-contrasted, robust-sounding reading with an especially heartfelt Adagio, but otherwise he doesn’t bring many new ideas to the party.

The First seems to suffer the exact opposite of problems:  an interesting, characterful interpretation coupled with some rather fallible playing.  The third movement has a pretty snazzy Klezmer section (much faster than the original tempo though) and a smartly-moving first movement and finale, with the finale being one of the best-paced, most exciting versions I have heard.  But the playing:  the Israel Philharmonic, no matter how many distinguished conductors they have had at the helm, is still not one of the better orchestras in the world, chiefly because they seem to be a contingency of very distinguished soloists rather than a very distinguished ensemble, so precision is a problem (the cymbal/bass drum player can’t keep up with Mehta’s accelerando in the Frere Jacques), as is the brass section, which sounds thin and tremendously perilous–the horns in the finale seem to hang on for dear life, as if they would crack at any moment (though not many mistakes as such were made).  They’re certainly not timid though:  the final chorale is as loud and proud as anyone may want.

But if anything, there’s a massive fly in the soup, and that concerns the recording.  It’s fine in the First (slightly ill-balanced and rather shallow, perhaps), but the real problem is in the Third, which generally sounds harsh and grainy, to a fault in the tender finale and the posthorn solo in the third movement (it’s almost insufferably airless).  It is to a natural, well-balanced sound stage what an 8-bit graphic is to a photograph from TIME.  And to think this was recorded in late analog, at the time when Decca gave us Solti’s Brahms symphonies!  It’s inexcusable, really.

All things considered, if you can tolerate the sonic limitations (and I can, just), you have here a musically sincere, somewhat exciting Mahler 1st and 3rd that may not be as inspired as, say, Haitink and Bernstein’s, but at Eloquence’s budget price, it can be recommended to newcomers and fans of these symphonies alike.


  • Album name:  Mahler:  Symphony No. 1;  Symphony No. 3
  • Performers:  Zubin Mehta (conductor);  Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (Symphony No. 1);  Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra (Symphony No. 3)
  • Label:  Eloquence 480 1133
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD
  • Total playing time:  148:49

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

One thought on “Mehta’s Mahler 1st and 3rd

  1. Pingback: Eloquence short reviews, Vol. 2 | Top Ear

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