New York Philharmonic/Masur – Beethoven & Bruckner

Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Symphony No.7 in E [Robert Haas Edition]

New York Philharmonic
Kurt Masur

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 13 May, 2010
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Kurt Masur. Photograph: kurtmasur.comThe New York Philharmonic’s Music Director Emeritus, Kurt Masur, who served as its Music Director from 1991 to 2002, returned to lead the orchestra in symphonies by Beethoven and Bruckner. As always when he returns to these familiar precincts, the Avery Fisher Hall audience greeted him with a prolonged ovation. Masur appeared rather more energetic and spry than when I last saw him here some three years ago.

Masur and the Philharmonic gave Beethoven’s First Symphony an incisive and energetic performance. In the Adagio introductions to the first and last movements, Masur brought out the audacity and, especially in the finale, the humor of the brash young composer. Masur sees these passages as Beethoven’s providing an insight into his creation of the ensuing themes, both of which the conductor took at a brisk pace. In the opening movement’s exposition, attacks were precise with expressive oboe solos and a repeat that sustained the music’s forward impulse rather than merely rehashing its first iteration. Fine woodwind playing marked the development, and the antiphonal seating of the violins (not a normal requirement for Masur) was used to full advantage. The brief recapitulation and trumpet-accented coda brought the movement to a dramatic finish.

The second movement was lively, never dragging, with the opening section feeling more ‘cantabile’ the second time through. The strings were outstanding both in their seriatim recital of the opening theme and later in their tripping accompaniment to the woodwinds, which were at the forefront, capturing perfectly this early example of Beethoven’s distinctive and characteristic woodwind sonority. In the scherzo, misleadingly marked ‘Menuetto’, Masur aptly contrasted its forceful accents and trumpet and timpani punctuations with the delicacy of the winds, horns and violins in the trio. Then, in the finale, he let the wit and jocularity of the introduction continue through the entire movement, with its boundless energy and interweaving of melodic lines and counterpoint.

Following the interval, Masur led a glowing performance of Anton Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. A lengthy discussion in the concert’s programme-note concluded thus: “The bottom line is this: what you hear in this concert is Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony using the Robert Haas edition that most closely adheres to the composer’s original conception, with all later accretions discarded.” In particular, Masur rejects the insertion of a cymbal clash and triangle roll at the climax of the second movement Adagio, which most conductors – even some who otherwise use the Haas Edition – include.

The Philharmonic responded superbly to Masur’s direction, playing with precision and sensitivity. The brass section and the strings – a large but not gargantuan complement (15 first violins and 8 double basses) – were particularly outstanding, and there were marvellous solos from many of the orchestra’s principals, including Philip Myers (horn), Philip Smith (trumpet), Robert Langevin (flute), and Mark Nuccio (clarinet).

Masur’s tempos sustained the forward impulse of the music throughout the entire symphony, and each movement took on its own distinct character without upsetting the overall balance and continuity of the work. He also managed dynamics exquisitely. At the symphony’s start, shimmering pp violin tremolos engaged the listener even before the beautifully-played rising motif on solo horn and cellos that began in the third measure, and, later in the Allegro moderato, blaring brass fanfares rocked the Hall. But Masur did not resort to such dynamic extremes indiscriminately, reserving them for appropriate dramatic or climactic points. Indeed, his quite faithful observance of the score – in setting tempos as well as dynamic levels – was a hallmark of this performance.

Bruckner’s inspiration for the Adagio came when he learned that Richard Wagner, whom he idolised, was seriously ill, and when Wagner died a month later, Bruckner completed the movement by adding a coda that featured four Wagner tubas. Masur and the Philharmonic ably conveyed the music’s mournful character, with the coda a still more intensely heartfelt threnody.

Masur did not allow the lengthier durations and greater weight of the first two movements to overshadow the scherzo and finale. In the scherzo, the Philharmonic brass sounded quite Wagnerian (where were the Valkyries?), and the jovial character of Smith’s brilliant trumpet contrasted nicely with the more gentle and introspective trio. An air of nobility pervaded the finale, in which allusions to the beginning of the symphony lent a sense of completion, with bright trumpets above the brass choir capping the work off in a blaze of glory.

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