Lahav Shani won the Bamberg Mahler Competition in 2013 and has just been appointed Zubin Mehta’s successor at the Israel Philharmonic. Like Leonard Bernstein and Bruno Walter he is also an accomplished pianist.
This was a particularly attractive programme. By comparison with The Hebrides and A Midsummer Night’s Dream or even with Ruy Blas, Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage is probably the least-familiar of his Overtures but it is a magnificent piece. It opens with an evocation of total glassy calm at sea, a musical equivalent to those Dutch marine paintings by Cuyp, before the wind rises and brings the ship safely to port. With a very present double bass section at the outset Shani and the Philharmonia brought enormous dignity to the opening paragraph before Samuel Coles’s sensitive flute ushered in the ensuing exuberant Molto allegro.
The sequence of six Richard Strauss songs was drawn from right across his career. Quite frankly Chen Reiss has one of the most perfect Strauss voices one could wish for – think Lisa della Casa – conveying that radiant, soaring ecstasy so characteristic of the composer’s love-affair with the female voice. ‘Morgen!’, topped and tailed by superb violin solos, was especially memorable.
Shani’s Mahler 4 was a young man’s take on the piece, ardent, forward moving and with much to commend it. To say it avoided most of the pitfalls is not to damn with faint praise for there was much to admire. It was notably well-played and Shani has the knack of hitting the tempo giusto. The opening was breathed into life with exactly the comfortably jogging tempo called for and thereafter Shani resisted the temptation to overplay Mahler’s myriad directions (all too often this movement falls apart into a series of unrelated episodes). If one has a criticism it would be that a little understatement can pay rich dividends, leaving greater elbow room to ram home the movement’s main climaxes.
In the ‘Death’s Fiddle’ second movement Shani again found the right tempo and the leader’s re-tuned violin was a quality act. The slow movement was genuinely peaceful, Tom Blomfield especially eloquent in the oboe solos, and the progressive speed-increases to its climax adeptly handled. When we reached the concluding child’s vision of Heaven Chen Reiss – now in the simplest gown rather than the sumptuous one she had worn for the Strauss – rose from within the orchestra, a particularly elegant solution to introduce the singer without disrupting the music’s flow. Reiss’s voice may be almost too beautiful and sophisticated for this faux-naif music but far better that than some less-impressive vocalists one has heard.