Masur Beethoven (6 & 7)

Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Kurt Masur

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 19 January, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This third instalment of Kurt Masur’s Beethoven cycle found the LPO paused in mid-flight. Having played the complete cycle in Athens over four nights the previous week, the orchestra returned to London for one-night-only before continuing on to Dublin to repeat this concert. If either the musicians or Masur were jaded by this punishing schedule it did not show in these invigorating accounts. Masur has been the LPO’s Principal Conductor since 2000 and the benefits of the relationship are self-evident in the orchestra’s quality and discipline. The strings, in particular, now play with a much-improved clarity and focus and only the horns remain a persistent source of weakness.

In this performance of the Pastoral, pleasant feelings were certainly evoked by one’s arrival in the countryside. Speeds for all five movements were conspicuously well chosen, consistently forward moving but always allowing one to savour the passing landscape. The first movement, complete with repeat, sounded not a moment too long whilst the ‘Scene by the brook’ meandered not at all, Beethoven’s unusual marking, Andante molto moto, being understood with particular care lavished on the joins between sections. The Birdsong at the movement’s close, arriving at 8 p.m. on the dot, was augmented by a flock of electronic beeps from watches. (God help us!) The ensuing ‘Peasants Merrymaking’ was neither jollied-along nor hammed-up whilst the ‘Storm’ was allowed to build to the most convincing climax. Had the finale’s Benediction been on the same exalted level, this would have been a superlative performance. Unfortunately it got off to a bad start when the solo horn muffed his all-important lead-in to the ‘thanksgiving’ string theme and further split notes followed from the rest of the section; a degree of the earlier magic had been lost – a real pity.

The Seventh was similarly impressive – lean, focussed strings, detail impressively worked out – but, for all its virtues, it did not erase memories of Staatskapelle Dresden’s recent, extraordinarily impressive rendition with Bernard Haitink at the Barbican. Masur did not play the first movement repeat and the second movement brought the one controversial tempo of the evening, decidedly on the slow side for an Allegretto, although one could follow his reasoning given the full complement of strings. The scherzo, however, was cunningly paced, just measured enough to integrate the trio. The headlong finale sounded determined rather than Dionysian and one felt a certain degree of strain creeping into the playing; hardly surprising given the orchestra’s punishing schedule.

All said, whatever the occasional fallibility in execution, Masur’s cycle is turning out to be extraordinarily impressive in its combination of interpretative penetration, textual fidelity, and Beethovenian vigour. The recordings due for release on the LPO’s own label will be well worth acquiring – but there were no microphones present at this concert!

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