Masur Beethoven (4 & 5)

Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Kurt Masur

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 27 November, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

It was perhaps inevitable that this Saturday evening concert ending with Beethoven’s Fifth would be more popular than the perhaps unpalatable three-symphony diet of the first concert that opened Kurt Masur’s long-awaited Beethoven Symphony Cycle. There’s been some bizarre criticism that you shouldn’t do a Beethoven cycle if you haven’t anything to say.

Kurt Masur, nothing to say about Beethoven? Oh, I think Masur has a lot to say. We tend to think of the German tradition mired in syrup, the pursuit of beauty of sound precluding instrumental individuality and left standing in the excitement-stakes by ‘authentic’ performance. But Masur can be fleet of foot and with individual lines clarified: ideal for the Fourth Symphony. Seeing him conduct these symphonies has been revealing: his rather unorthodox, baton-less style with sudden gesticulations, a flickering of fingers coaxing the woodwinds, and the plentiful thanks, either a wink, a craggy smile, or a quick raise of his left hand to his lips in a silent kiss of gratitude.

Once again – as in the first concert – all repeats were played, including the scherzo and trio of the Fifth, which Beethoven’s copyist may or may not have been slack with. Jonathan Del Mar’s Bärenreiter edition of this symphony does not mark the repeat (and there is no mention of it in the preamble, although it has long been the subject of comment). Whether the Breitkopf & Härtel edition favoured by Masur marks the repeat I know not, but play it Masur did, and to revisit these sections, not least the trio’s breathtaking quaver runs, helped balance the conjoined scherzo and finale.

As the audience left the auditorium the orchestra was set for a patching session; Masur’s Beethoven is planned for the LPO’s forthcoming CD label. I am already looking forward to re-hearing these performances; hopefully, the CDs will replicate the frisson of the live occasions. Some of the playing may not have been note-perfect (although the horns were better this second concert than the first) – but when played in this spirit the occasional fluff doesn’t matter; Giulini was fond of saying that you should listen tothe music, not the performance.

A thrilling concert, then. The musicians seemed as animated post-performance as the audience; a sign of a major series shaping up very nicely indeed.

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