Kurt Masur’s tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic began in September 1991 and will conclude at the end of the current, 2001-2, season. Commentators on and subscribers to Avery Fisher Hall (Lincoln Center) concerts will best assess Masur’s achievements during this time. That said, a number of ’live’ performances have already been issued (mostly by Teldec) and, similarly, the recordings included here are composites from several concerts, excepting that of Beethoven 9 (31/12/99) – overall, quite a document of Masur’s Philharmonic years. My own direct experience of the New York/Masur partnership is of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, given a couple of years back in London’s Barbican Hall, which was lucid and deeply moving; the Philharmonic’s corporate commitment and superb solo playing being especially memorable.
This set – all recordings are digital by the way – includes heavyweight and rare repertoire, showpieces and new music. Partly because I find it disappointing, instead of Beethoven 9, a coupling of, say, a Schumann and a Tchaikovsky symphony (which no doubt Masur has given New York airings to) would have opened up the repertoire picture. The Choral, perfectly good (like everything here), is swift and somewhat earthbound, clean-textured if a little too scrubbed; the finale has voices balanced close (something equally true, unfortunately, of some other vocal pieces) and rather constrained in flow. The Missa solemnis, by contrast, is wonderful. Alive with communication, this Missa abounds in sharing and meaning. Spontaneous, if not quite a Heaven-reaching statement, it offers consolation and fervency for us on Earth. This humane and inspiring Missa enjoys a ravishing violin solo from Glenn Dicterow in the ’Benedictus’.
Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion is an understandable inclusion given Masur’s long association with Leipzig (Bach’s residence from 1723 until his death in 1750 and where Matthew Passion was written) and its Gewandhaus Orchestra; and of course for the music’s universality and spirituality. Cards on the table, it’s not a work that particularly moves or enlightens me – my loss – but I do periodically return to it. I recall a broadcast of Matthew Passion from Leipzig under Masur about twenty years ago that I found stimulating. Curiously I didn’t build on that. It was only last year that I found the most elucidation from Sir Colin Davis (by coincidence, Sir Colin is the New York Philharmonic’s Principal Guest Conductor) whose lyric-tinged 200-minute reading convinced and compelled. Masur times in at 162. In this respect he is more in keeping with authentic-conscious interpretations. (It might be noted that Klemperer’s EMI recording is 224 minutes – an hour longer!) Masur treats us to full, radiant strings, a big sound and an urgently expressive rendition. Perhaps it’s nit-picking to say that I find the harpsichord continuo rather prominent, distracting even; this rich-toned, colourful, drama-relishing account is certainly enlivening. The big-sounding choir contributes greatly to the story’s progress, instrumental soloists (all named) are eloquent confreres to the singers, and the ’cast’ includes the greatly experienced Evangelist of Peter Schreier.
Sharing this three-CD set is another Saint – Sebastian in martyrdom-mode, Debussy’s incidental music fashioned into concert-form by Desire-Emile Inghelbrecht. (Incidentally, Inghelbrecht’s own recording has just appeared on Testament SBT 1214.) Masur thinks it Debussy’s “greatest score” and conducts it accordingly. This fragrant, gleaming music is handled with sensitivity and focus, detail is immaculate and the whole has an inner-lit radiance that confirms Masur’s opinion. I’m tempted to say that the music is duly anointed; certainly, for this listener, the extended score (rather than the more familiar ’Symphonic Fragments’) is lifted to an altogether higher plane than previously considered (although I haven’t yet heard Inghelbrecht!).
The other music-dramas also prove outstanding. Honegger’s highly intense Joan of Arc at the Stake is dark and claustrophobic – eerie, harsh and chilling as required with a soundworld all its own, ondes martenot and a trio of saxophones being among the diverse scoring. One assumes that for the concert the sound of flames was re-created, which would explain air-pricking sounds. Forgive the puns, this is a cracking performance, one burning with thrilling tension. There is also heartbreaking tenderness that informs the transcendental closing bars, which underlines Honegger’s depth of achievement – a terrific composer in my view; under Masur, the massed forces score a bullseye. Persephone is one of Stravinsky’s ’coolest’ creations; neo-Baroque, it has a crystalline beauty that is expressed through time-honoured forms and gestures. Masur’s objective stance is well judged; his account of Pulcinella is less successful being either dour or too fleet.
Volume Three makes a satisfying concert of Russian music. Isle of the Dead’s brooding intensity guides the coffin-carrying boat on its grim journey in this graphic rendition. Excellent solos (horn, cor anglais), the upper strings’ chill beauty, luminous textures and dynamism combine powerfully. Shostakovich’s symphonic debut is a Masur favourite. He’s led it three times in London in the last few years – London Philharmonic, LSO and Israel Philharmonic – and is an undeviating guide to the score’s concentration and force, if not always revealing its irony, rebellion or the confined ambience that would be an expressive essence of Shostakovich’s later music. If the music’s obliqueness fends for itself, Shostakovichian ciphers ’silent’, it’s a pleasure to hear this precocious symphony so brilliantly executed.
Shostakovich’s successors, including Gubaidulina and Kancheli, have been more musically open-formed to categorically express personal circumstance, though what might be termed Schnittke-isms can easily pall. I find myself ambivalent to Kancheli’s 24-minute Shakespeare-setting for violin, countertenor and large orchestra. Perhaps I do not have the requisite patience, or ability to ’withdraw’. I can report the music’s privacy, nervous expression and quiet ecstasy; and while thinking disruptive outbursts gratuitous, I recognise an excellent performance. Like Kancheli’s piece, Gubaidulina’s was a millennium commission – a year early ... and that's another story. Two Paths (also 24 minutes) issues from danger; this study of two violas’ relationship and theirs with the (also large) orchestra is certainly involving. If there is ’no way out’ for such haunted expression, Gubaidulina’s singular declaration is very intense – varied textures, violent contrasts, hallucinatory harmonic shifts, and two (notable) soloists that can be perceived as characters in a nightmare.
Of the recent pieces, Henze’s Ninth Symphony stands out. On paper its seven movements (lasting over 50 minutes) look less a symphony and more redolent of an oratorio, each is stand-alone and titled – from the two-minute ’Persecutor’s Report’ to the 18-minute ’Nighttime in the Cathedral’. Henze has a message also; one afforded the specific gravity of musical organisation, which makes for symphonic coherency. Even if any subject matter was not known, the composer’s identification with it, and the music’s magnitude, could not be mistaken. To quote Henze, his Ninth “deals with the German fatherland as I experienced it as a young man during and before the war. [It] portrays an apotheosis of terror and grief … a settling of accounts with an arbitrary world that suddenly overtakes us. [The symphony evokes] the world of terror and persecution that still throws its shadow to the present”. Setting Hans-Ulrich Treichel’s text based on Anna Seghers’s wartime novel, "The Seventh Cross", Henze employs a chorus – the Berlin Radio Choir, of course, has German as its first language – and a large orchestra that is used transparently irrespective of the level of complexity. From the opening movement’s Schoenbergian construction to the closing Mahlerian elegy-enchantment, depth of response, emotionalism and fragile beauty interact – strictness never impeding expressive blossoming, sense of line never contradicting dramatic narrative. Kurt Masur, a close contemporary of the composer (born 1928, Henze in 1926) understands the symphony’s genesis, precision, communicative release and rapt interior – an impressive performance preferable to Metzmacher’s (equally fine) EMI version by dint of being more explicitly recorded.
In the final volume, Till and Sorcerer (the latter here is sub-Wagnerian – think Valhalla not Mickey Mouse!) are top-flight in orchestral terms; efficiency and inspiration in tandem. The glossily arranged Weill, well, once you’ve heard Walter Huston… Tan Dun’s concerto – oh dear! The soloist’s water sounds and noises-off plus orchestral wind and horse-impressions equate to a (not very good) ’fifties score for a documentary on Chinese life. Having seen Christopher Lamb and Masur give the London premiere (LPO), I know of Lamb’s memory and stamina tour de force; all credit to him but 0 out of 10 for Tan’s derisory effort. (Poor Takemitsu!) Helen Huang gives a most enjoyable, crisp and affectionate account of Shostakovich’s ever-delightful concerto, Masur a tactful accompanist. This along with Debussy's, Honegger's and Stravinsky’s theatre pieces, Missa solemnis, Isle of the Dead and Henze 9 are the top-mark winners in this handsomely produced tribute to Kurt Masur’s New York occupancy.
- 10-CD set priced at $140. 3-CD volume is $39, 2-CD sets are $26 and single CDs $16. Prices exclude postage
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