Four Last Songs
Symphony No.3 in D minor (1889 version, edited Nowak)
Dame Felicity Lott (soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 16 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
Having booked out of the Royal Albert Hall from a Proms season turned on its head by the events of 11 September, a little respite might have been welcome before the new London round of orchestral concerts begun again. This would have been the case normally – even recognising that the LPO finishes its subscription year early so as to reside at Glyndebourne – but with a poignant Proms’ Last Night still in the memory (where it will long linger), there was a welcome continuity in returning to the fond surroundings of the Royal Festival Hall just twenty-four hours later.
Inevitably, and rightly, the concert began with a minute’s silence for those lost in the recent horrors, which followed an address by Serge Dorny, the LPO’s Chief Executive and Artistic Director. One felt for Kurt Masur, a humanitarian, whose thoughts must have been in New York, where he is Music Director of the Philharmonic (and where he would be travelling immediately after this concert to open its season, not with the planned Gala Concert, but with Brahms’s German Requiem). It seemed as if Masur was shocked to the core; music offered some compensation and solace.
The first half should have been Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Anne-Sophie Mutter. She was ill and advised not to travel. Beethoven with a demonstrative soloist would have been apt, but Strauss’s valedictory cycle seemed ideal; Felicity Lott was equally the ideal soloist. It’s always a pleasure to hear a singer who puts the music first. Lott’s restrained singing, emerging from the orchestra rather than dominating it, allowed Masur’s fastidious accompaniment an equality that recordings do not usually accommodate. Lott simply let the music flow; no need to force her tone or dynamics, to ’bump’ a phrase, or offer display outside of the music’s own dignity. Lott’s radiance and Masur’s subtlety conjured reflections – no doubt heightened by tragic events – that brought resignation to the second song, ’September’, an orchestral blackness to ’Beim Schlafengehen’ and, finally, a fall to silence with ’Im Abendrot’, where birdsong (two piccolos) is heard against a beautifully orchestrated ’final’ chord, muted trombones contributing to the texture. This proved a very moving memorial.
In a sense, Bruckner 3 then became a concert on its own terms. Kurt Masur opted for the final version of this much revised work. It was good to hear this “abortion” (as relayed by a friend) following a gradual move to the 1877 score. I still prefer the structure, harmony and orchestration of 1889; I suspect I’m in the minority!
I’ve not heard Masur conduct this symphony before; it was not the reading I had anticipated. In the wake of the ghastly events in the States, this Bruckner 3 drew a response from the musicians, and/or from me, that seemed generated by extra-musical experience.
Masur might have been expected to lead a straightforward, honest and resolute account. What we had instead was something that seemed continually tinged by external forces expressed through the mystical force of music. Not having Masur’s Leipzig Gewandhaus recording as a reference, I cannot say if his conducting tonight relates to a consistent view of the symphony. Yet, in this sweetly and powerfully played performance, Masur’s spacious conception (from memory), built upon acutely observed dynamic contrast, allowed the slower, lyrical episodes to yield, to find their own space, and conjure vistas of wonderment.
It is perhaps fanciful to suggest that the trio – a country-dance – here very deliberately paced, accents weightily underlined, was of peasants too sorrowful to step, their heavy tread a slow-motion ’in memoriam’. Similarly, the finale’s Polka, long-spun and deeply expressive, appeared burdened with so much regret. The last movement itself was determined, a dogged ascent to triumph – the allusion to Wagner’s ’Magic Fire Music’ luminously sounded – with the ultimate peroration majestic, burnished and life affirming.
Masur, clearly moved by the music and seeming to relate to each player individually, found in the music a message of consolation and hope that communally encapsulated recent events and reaction to them. Whether reflective or transcendent (this rendition was both), what will stay with me was Masur’s ability to dissolve Bruckner’s expression into an inner sanctum of peace – a world away. Also, the range of characterisation he introduced – a scherzo alternating trenchancy and delicacy, or a slow movement with moments of barely audible ’hush’ that drew us all closer. It shouldn’t be overlooked that Masur had the symphony’s direction under control (but so discreetly) and that he teased-out some clarinet detail in the outer movements unfamiliar to me. In the finale he also found a muffled-drum gesture in the horns; this took on funereal connotations – it was that sort of night.
I won’t forget this compelling performance. Nor shall I forget Masur’s face – not least his disbelieving eyes – as tragedy was countered by human and musical alliance; his smiles to his players testified to friendship and the music’s eloquence.
- On 28 September, Vernon Handley conducts the LPO in a programme that includes Brahms’s Second Symphony
- Kurt Masur returns on 7 October for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (Sarah Chang) and Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony
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