New York Philharmonic/Masur Anne-Sophie Mutter – Mendelssohn

Ruy Blas Overture, Op.95
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Die erste Walpurgisnacht, Op.60 [Revised Version]

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)

Christine Knorren (mezzo-soprano)
Jorma Silvasti (tenor)
Albert Dohmen (bass-baritone)
Thorsten Grümbel (bass)

Westminster Symphonic Choir

New York Philharmonic
Kurt Masur

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 7 February, 2009
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Kurt Masur. Photograph: kurtmasur.comKurt Masur, who preceded Lorin Maazel as music director of the New York Philharmonic, led the Orchestra in a program of music by Felix Mendelssohn in honor of the composer’s 200th-birthday. As the former music director of that composer’s ‘home town’ Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, this repertoire is second-nature to Masur, but neither his contribution nor that of a heavily pared-down Philharmonic (just over 60 players on this occasion) seemed routine. There was plenty of force and energy in the Ruy Blas Overture, but also a less bright, appealing overall sound from the orchestra, especially the strings, than one hears under Maazel. The forward placement of the musicians may have played a part, but each time Masur has conduct the Philharmonic since his departure as music director, he has elicited consistently warmer and more pleasing playing than any other guest conductor.

About a decade ago, I attended a recital by Anne-Sophie Mutter, with pianist Lambert Orkis – an evening of collegial, involved and thought-provoking music-making. It’s a pity that the violinist from that evening failed to show up for this performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, which was programmed to coincide with her new DG recording of the work with Masur and the Gewandhausorchester (a heavily-flogged autograph session was to follow the concert).

Anne-Sophie MutterFrom the first, shockingly out-of-tune note to the final E major chord, Mutter was so unsatisfying and unmusical that this may be the very worst concerto performance I have yet heard from a ‘front rank’ soloist. Mutter played the first movement as if she were tackling Brahms’s Concerto on steroids, hitting the beats with too much force and often producing a grating, harsh sound. The beautiful main theme of the second movement was completely undermined by Mutter’s ultra-wide ‘death-ray’ vibrato that would surely have been the envy of Mravinsky-era Russian brass-players. The finale was a fiasco, with Mutter pushing the tempo again and again – at a couple of points, she and the orchestra were well out of sync. The only unifying elements in her approach was kitsch-laden portamento, uneven attacks, and serious issues regarding intonation.

The only redeeming aspect of the performance was Masur and the Philharmonic, which played with elegance, restraint and charm – and managed to bring a coherence to the work that Mutter seemed almost hell-bent to undermine.

“Die erste Walpurgisnacht” is not performed with particular regularity outside of the German-speaking world, and that seems a shame. The work celebrates the legend behind the establishment of a uniquely German holiday that combines May Day with elements of Halloween; Mendelssohn’s setting of Goethe’s poem is characterized by colorful orchestration, memorable melodic material and dramatic mood shifts, and this music not only demonstrated Masur’s mastery of ‘big picture’ form and pacing but brought out his most energetic music-making of the evening.

Most of the solo vocal material falls to the baritone, which Albert Dohmen carried off with fervor and dramatic enunciation. The Westminster Symphonic Choir sang at its usual superb standard, with a beautiful sound at both extremes of the dynamic range. The performance of “Die erste Walpurgisnacht” was one of the most rewarding I’ve attended at the Philharmonic in a very strong season – and, considering the disaster that had preceded, a triumph of art over commerce.

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