The late Kurt Masur (1927-2015) was Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 2000 to 2007 and a welcome guest with it either side of those years, a quarter-century association (he had similar longevity with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and New York Philharmonic). He was a notable Beethovenian, as these performances testify, readings that combine wisdom, humanity and discipline, old-world values. Not one for fads or fancies, Masur leads accounts that are ‘modern’, lively and detailed, observant of the text, and without the need to exaggerate or makes points.
The First Symphony is pregnant with anticipation in the slow introduction, a quality that cues a bouncy Allegro high in spirits (Beethoven a young man as well as flexing his musical muscles) and always articulate and vivid – ‘big-band’ Beethoven that also has clarity, light and shade, and a palpable affection which doesn’t compromise the bigger picture. Thus the march-like second movement ‘walks’ and also has a beguiling serenade-like character; the Minuet (a Scherzo in effect) is fleet and crisp, the dancing Trio continuing at a related pulse; and the Finale, opening with a commanding summons enjoys the most-joyous of intentions.
The Fourth Symphony, if not as monumental as the straddling ‘Eroica’ and Fifth Symphonies, is sometimes perceived as lighter than can be, something that Masur ensures is not the case here, not through overly-measured tempos (indeed the Finale is very nifty, and played with nimble virtuosity) but because of weight of attack and having the LPO’s reserves saved for when needed, especially in the bass line. The Symphony opens in terms darkly glowing, the ensuing Allegro sees the arrival of a vigorous new day (short grace-notes in the development) and the highlight is the Adagio, here a love-song without words including some seductive clarinet contributions, the tempo properly spacious, the music emotionally unburdened at its midpoint, and followed by an ebullient Scherzo and lyrical Trio (ABABA).
These are refreshing and reassuring readings, DDD-engineered by Mike Clements to faithfully reflect the immediate and lucid Royal Festival Hall acoustic. Was the rest of Masur’s Beethoven cycle recorded at this time? Then Symphony 4 was coupled with the Fifth, and the First was followed by Two and Three as a grand opening concert. It would be good to have the lot made available. On this present release, Masur is generous with repeats, except for – and this will please those who consider it erroneous – the printed reprise of the first section of No.1’s Scherzo on its return. Applause is retained; difficult to remove it when the endings are loud without the use of falsehood reverb to cover its absence.