In 1976, I got a record I wore the grooves off. It was of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. The pianist was Artur Rubinstein, and the conductor was Zubin Mehta, leading the Israel Philharmonic. Rubinstein was nearing the end of his long, laureled career: age eighty-nine. Mehta was forty, beginning his career as a world-conqueror.
(Trivial aside: I was twelve.)
Today, Mehta is eighty-seven. He conducted the Brahms Concerto No. 1 in Carnegie Hall on Saturday night. The orchestra was the Munich Philharmonic, of which he is the conductor laureate. His soloist was Yefim Bronfman, a great pianist, now sixty-five.
I have heard Bronfman in the Brahms concertos many, many times. He has a particular way with the slow movement of the First. It comes out warm and sublime (just the way Brahms wrote it). I remember a particular performance of the Second—with the Vienna Philharmonic under Riccardo Muti. I have never heard the Second better. I have never heard any piano concerto better.
Speaking of the Vienna Philharmonic: I recently had a conversation with a veteran member of that orchestra. He was assessing the various conductors who have led the orchestra in the past three decades or so. At the end of his list, he said, “You know, the most musical of them all—the most naturally musical—may be Mehta.”
On Saturday night in Carnegie Hall, he made his way very, very slowly to the podium, using a cane. He mounted the podium with difficulty, and with an admirable determination. He then sat down to conduct.
About the orchestra in the first movement—the first movement of the Brahms Concerto No. 1—the less said, the better. There were some scary notes, some scary phrases. The orchestra was not always in coordination with the soloist. As for the soloist himself—Bronfman himself—he played with his customary intelligence.
The beginning of the second movement was a surprise—a wonderful surprise. The orchestra played with glowing Brahmsian warmth. Bronfman played the same way (of course). This whole experience—the second movement—was rewarding. Moving.
And the closing Rondo? Serviceable.
For the past several seasons, Bronfman has been playing one encore regularly—at the end of recitals and after concertos: the “Revolutionary” Étude of Chopin. He plays it one of three ways: superbly; very well; or well. On Saturday night, he played it very well.
The second half of the concert brought a Brahms symphony: the last one, No. 4, in E minor. I was a bit worried about how Maestro Mehta would fare. The opening pages were reassuring. Mehta was smooth, fluid, wise. The whole first movement had a right momentum. The music-making was reasonable.
The following three movements were reasonable, too—not having their full impact, necessarily, but reasonable.
Gamely, bravely, Mehta walked off the stage and back twice, as I recall. For some of the time, he had the aid of the orchestra’s concertmistress. I thought he was mounting the podium for a final bow. But before he even had his footing on the podium—before he had his balance, I thought—he gave a graceful flick of his left hand, launching the orchestra into a Brahms Hungarian Dance.
Traditionally, an orchestra plays a Hungarian Dance after a Brahms concert. Traditionally, it is one of the two dances in G minor—No. 1 or No. 5. On this evening, it was No. 5. Mehta has been doing this all his life—decade after decade after decade. Leading a G-minor Hungarian Dance after a Brahms concert. For him, it must be like breathing.
I have to report, my eyes were a little blurry, as this venerable musician led that dance. He has been with us all of our lives, a constant on the scene, a major musical talent.