Written by: Colin Anderson
Seated in his Royal Festival Hall dressing room, Kurt Masur asks if I’m interviewing him for radio or television. I explain. He makes a writing gesture and says, “ah, good.” Masur, in his late seventies, is maybe best described as a progressive traditionalist. He is currently conducting Beethoven. I ask if this music becomes even more significant in such troubled times (I saw Masur before the Tsunami disaster)? “That’s absolutely the thing. Very often people say, ‘why always Beethoven?’ Because a new generation should know it; and Bach and Beethoven and Mozart, and all those composers, are necessities of our time, the message of humanism.”
Masur continues his RFH London Philharmonic Beethoven symphony cycle. “Beethoven has captured the spirit of the French Revolution – but not the bloody revolution, not the terror of the revolution. I think a lot of people are necessarily going to listen to this music because they hear enough horrible things about the happenings in the world. Maybe the message of the Ninth Symphony is that joy will unite us.” I remind Masur that when the Berlin Wall came down, Leonard Bernstein performed this symphony as ‘ode to freedom’. “But it was wrong. Freedom doesn’t unite people; otherwise we would be united.”
Masur, the progressive, uses the new edition of Beethoven symphonies by Breitkopf & Härtel, not the more-favoured one by Bärenreiter. “There are still misunderstandable things and we must bring clarity to the metronome marks.” Surely these are marked too fast for the potential of the music? “Of course; it has to be meaningful. You know he changed the metronome marks of the Ninth Symphony; he corrected it by 20 percent slower for the first movement. Nobody will be a slave to the markings.” Masur has already recorded Beethoven’s symphonies 2 and 6 in the new edition (with Orchestre National de France, Naïve V4971); his first, early 70s Leipzig cycle is now re-mastered for SACD on PentaTone (PTC 5186 159) and this current LPO cycle is being recorded for the orchestra’s new in-house label.
As for authentic-performance – ultra-fast speeds, small ensembles, no vibrato, etc – Masur the traditionalist speaks. “We should now be clear that then they had not enough money to pay enough musicians, and they played in halls where the echo was so long, four seconds vibration, which means that with lesser strength you still had a full sound. In the Royal Festival Hall we will satisfy the audience with the full body of feeling of Beethoven’s music.”
So the LPO cycle reaches the Pastoral Symphony (No.6), which is surely more than a description of country life? “No description. Beethoven was defending his sensitivity against the brutality of the people around him and tried to describe his feelings through nature. He was deaf and uncomfortable with society; to go into nature was his paradise, searching for inner peace.” Sharing the concert is the vital Symphony No.7; in the finale, Beethoven “took a march from Gossec and captured the spirit of liberty and fraternity – this from a man so sick, totally deaf and totally lonely.”
The concentrated Symphony No.8 is maybe rather nostalgic; formally, a minuet replaces a scherzo. “No, no, no. The eighth is the most Viennese symphony; it’s like a Vienna waltz. He had a dream to have a wonderful woman on his side, the immortal beloved.” There’s humour and wit too? “Absolutely. It ends like a Verdi opera, repeated notes, just to make jokes. Beethoven’s humour was enormous. I had a lot of discussion with Alfred Brendel. We did the five Beethoven concerti in San Francisco and he spoke always about Beethoven’s humour, and he’s absolutely right.”
Was Beethoven consciously writing for posterity? “Of course. His imagination looked beyond the possibilities of his time; the fantasy of this man was outstanding. He believed that God had given him the duty to make people happy.” And think? “And think! The young people are already starting to suffer enough to come back.” In what way suffer? “Insecurity, no faith in politics; not the fear of terrorism. In Germany unemployment is so high.” So, there is solace in classical music? “Exactly. Something to believe in.”