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Friday, October 09, 2020

Masur’s Farewell

From the Vault Dept.: The late conductor Kurt Masur was an unashamed champion of the music of his native Germany, and chose to finish his career as the NY Philharmonic’s music director with a heartfelt celebration in 2002 of three of the biggies: Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler. Here’s my review of the events.


KURT MASUR BID THE NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC FAREWELL with a pair of concerts at Tanglewood (summer home of the Boston Symphony) in Massachusetts. Weather couldn’t have been nicer, the large auditorium was nearly full, and the manicured lawn had a capacity crowd.

Kurt Masur
AP Photo/Charles Krupa

The programming couldn’t have been more basic: Beethoven. Mahler. Brahms. Unlike the televised pops concert with which Masur wrapped it up in Manhattan, these were programs of length and breadth. And the music obviously was close to the Maestro’s heart: he danced his way through the works with ease and panache, crafting each with a finely-honed sense of dramatic and emotional structure.

Brahms intended his Concerto for Violin and Cello as a rift-healing gesture for his old friend Joseph Joachim, a violinist into whose failing marriage Brahms had tactlessly intruded. Joachim gave the premiere along with the cellist from Joachim’s quartet.

It’s not hard to hear the dialogue between the solo instruments as conversations between two old friends. To put a more fanciful face on it, it’s a passionate exchange in a tavern, a fiery reunion that softens into wistful melancholy before finishing in a burst of exhilaration.

As performed by first-chair members of the orchestra, the solo voices glowed with an extra sense of affinity. Cellist Carter Brey launched into his opening solo with warm, rich-toned assurance and a brazen, effective use of rubato, setting up another distinguishing aspect of this performance: he was Don Quixote, by way of Brahms instead of Strauss, on a mission of reconciliation.

Violinist Glenn Dicterow had a more steely edge to his playing, adding contrast to the solo voices in their passagework together. His rhythm was more propulsive, but he brought out the Gypsy nature of the whole piece with a deft understanding of the looseness such a nature invites. This was the pairing of Heifetz and Feuermann; Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; Brahms and Joachim.

Masur, too, sculpting his part with easy dexterity. Again, it’s not just the finale that brims with a merry Gypsy dance – it’s the work as a whole, never quite succumbing to the melancholy of its predominant minor key.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 is an embrace of Nature in all of Nature’s perversity: gorgeous, treacherous, and ultimately thrilling. The first movement is an awakening, then a rustic stroll with many stops to enjoy the birdsong.

As performed by Masur and the orchestra, it swooped from pianissimo to triple-forte with the throb of a fever-induced dream. Each of the many waltz-like figures had an appropriate shape, an orchestra-wide sense of rubato that brings Mahler’s music shimmering into life.

That bizarre third-movement funeral procession, the Frère Jacques-in-minor nightmare, revealed its buried wit under Masur’s hand. Of course it’s funny – it has to be, with that old chestnut of a round keening from the lower strings.

And, of course, the finale crashed in almost unexpectedly and then kept up its manic pace even through the more dolorous interludes. The piece is a brass killer, from the offstage fanfares at beginning and end to the cataclysmic explosions that periodically rock the section. But this is a great array of talent, and there was nary a flub – certainly nothing that detracted from the excitement. String sound, too, is gorgeous, one of the rare cases of hearing each section honed into a single voice.

When Mahler gets hold of a good thing, he can’t seem to stop himself from bringing it around again and again, but the final in this case – which seems about to end twice before it actually does – was too much fun to let go of too quickly. Maybe that’s what Mahler knew about it all along.

The following afternoon was all Beethoven, or both Beethoven: two pieces –  the Emperor and the Eroica – comprised the bill. With Yefim Bronfman at the piano for the Concerto No. 5, it kicked off with all the high-blown intensity the piece demands. Unfortunately, that intensity never let up, at least as far as Bronfman was concerned.

He’s an artist with a powerful technique who makes the formidable scores of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev seem like child’s play. But his Beethoven approach was so bombastically Romantic that it allowed none of Beethoven’s trademark wit to shine through. The piece is grounded in a Classical voice, and much of its fun comes from the collision between those sensibilities.

We heard how nicely Bronfman could pair himself with the orchestra in the second movement, which he took through its stately, tuneful paces to a very deft accompaniment, but the third movement again brought out that harsh edge, coupled with a lack of precision in his phrasing found him finishing passages well ahead of the orchestra.

And then the Eroica. Masur presented it New York in May to great acclaim; this was no less a milestone performance. H.L. Mencken termed the work’s 1805 premiere “the most portentous phenomenon in the whole history of music,” and it’s important to note what a revolutionary work it was to 19th-century ears.

Ears of the 21st century are accustomed to much more, but the work’s power still compels, provided that, like the Emperor concerto, it’s shaped with its Classical background intact. Masur seemed almost too polite about it at first, keeping the brass a little subdued in their first wail of that main theme, but then it became clear that he was marshaling those forces, building the intensity.

One of Masur’s more subtle talents is his ability to match dynamics around the orchestra, so that a clarinet can answer the first violins without a jarring drop in volume. This became increasingly more evident as the first movement roared to its close, and was a prime feature of the dark-hued funeral march that followed.

Crisp tempos in the trio section of the third movement and a sense of the dance of the fourth rounded the emotional sweep of the work: it’s peasant music mocking royalty by shrouding itself in royal robes, and this is behind its never-ending appeal. However stormy the Masur decade may have been with this orchestra, they united in a thrilling display of what they do best, and the crowd couldn’t have been happier.

The New York Philharmonic
Kurt Masur (outgoing music director)
Glenn Dicterow (violin)
Carter Brey (cello)
Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Sat 20 July and Sun 21 July 2002
Tanglewood, Lenox, Mass.

Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor, Op. 102
Mahler: Symphony No. 1, “Titan”
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major, Op. 73, “Emperor”
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major, Op. 55, “Eroica”, July 25, 2002

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