Masur Beethoven (8 & 9)

Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Christine Brewer (soprano)
Carolin Masur (mezzo-soprano)
Thomas Studebaker (tenor)
Alastair Miles (bass)

Finchley Children’s Music Group
London Philharmonic Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Kurt Masur

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 22 January, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The London Philharmonic’s Beethoven symphony cycle conducted by Kurt Masur came to a thrilling conclusion with a reading of the Choral’s finale quite among the most uplifting and, yes, joyous accounts of this ground-breaking music.

Earlier the Eighth had been anything but ‘little’ (as this concentrated work has been described, if only as a stepping-stone between the Seventh and Choral symphonies) and Masur led a wholly beguiling account of it. A measured, perfectly judged tempo for the opening movement encompassed both the exposition’s song and dance and the vigour and incisiveness of the development. The metronome-punning second movement tripped delightfully and was shaped with affection and keen accents; Masur then brought unusual energy to the Minuet and relaxed significantly for the trio, the pair of horn-players sailing through their exposure with ease (and the first musicians that Masur signalled for applause). The finale was, once more, tempo-perfect in articulacy, dynamic contrasts were potent, the woodwinds played with gossamer lightness and one couldn’t help but smile at the duetting bassoon and timpani.

The Choral wasn’t quite as successful overall. The opening movement, while once more cannily equitable in tempo – the climax reached organically and with something held in reserve for a blazing coda – didn’t quite have that apocalyptic sense of power that seems best suited to this music (although Masur’s lyrical shaping was patrician). Then the scherzo was too fast, with unlikeable gruff horn-tone snarling through, and somewhat pressured (like the finale of the Seventh had been a few nights earlier) and weakened in scale by the removal of the second repeat. Conductors who give the scherzo its proper dimension are few – although Masur used to (in his 1974 Leipzig recording, for example) – and given his generosity of repeats throughout this cycle (including twice-through the scherzo of the Fifth, which Beethoven may not have wanted … did his copyist forget to add the repeat marks?…) this does seem somewhat inconsistent (if commendably non-slavish). Although the non-repeated exposition of the 7th’s first movement (in the penultimate concert) may be considered convincing, the diminishing of the 9th’s scherzo is not … but, then, rarely has the trio been as mellifluously rendered as it was here, truly Elysian.

The four vocal soloists then entered – although should they not be on the platform from the off (in this of all unifying works) and is there also not a case for them to be situated behind the orchestra as they, actually, have little to do? Fortunately nobody applauded their arrival, which would have ruined the music’s continuity, and Masur led a sanguine account of the Adagio molto e cantabile, very much ‘cantabile’ and, tempo-wise, a halfway-house between a so-called ‘authentic’ approach and the massive conception of, say, Furtwängler. Masur’s elucidation of how this movement augments and contrasts was indivisible with the music’s progress and he swung attacca into the chaotic opening to the finale.

It was in this choral movement that something ‘great’ happened. Masur saw the movement whole and seemed to find one tempo to make seamless the episodes. The choral outbursts were a little more spacious than ‘normal’ and with it came the sense of a processional, a ceremony that was completely convincing and compelling, one begun by the superb Alastair Miles who invited rather than hectored more happier tones than heard hitherto. Masur’s finite balance of cellos and double basses as the ‘ode to joy’ theme begun, his extraordinary range of dynamics (always meaningful and never pedantic) and his use of percussion as colour rather than noise were memorable features of a whole that blazed with life-affirming qualities and, despite thoughts of where the soloists are best placed, with an integrity that brought Beethoven’s vision to the fore. Everybody responded with , no pun intended, one voice – the choir of over 200 included 30 or so young ladies from the Finchley Children’s Music Group, young participants being a Masur characteristic in this work – and the coda mixed majesty and exhilaration, unforced. (Presumably Carolin Masur is the conductor’s daughter? Her biography is silent on this, but his informal way with her afterwards suggested something familial.)

So the end of a memorable cycle, some of it recorded in the RFH for the LPO’s forthcoming CD label; microphones were not present this week, but maybe the concerts in Athens were taped – although this Choral culminated in a way that demanded posterity.

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