New York Philharmonic/Masur

Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Fantasy on Motifs from Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens
Scythian Suite, Op.20

Louis Lortie (piano)

New York Philharmonic
Kurt Masur

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 21 January, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

Kurt Masur, Music Director Emeritus of the New York Philharmonic, returned on 19-21 January to lead the orchestra in compositions by Beethoven, Liszt and Prokofiev, with pianist Louis Lortie performing in the Liszt works. Masur was greeted with warmth from the audience and outstanding music-making from the orchestra, which he had led as music director from 1991 to 2002.

Masur led a warm and charming Pastoral, true to Beethoven’s programmatic indications. The effects of babbling brook, birdsong, and thunder and lightning, all came through in quite naturalistic fashion, with the solo clarinet passages in the second movement (Scene by the Brook) being especially noteworthy. Masur’s tempos appropriately projected the spirit of each of the bucolic settings depicted in the score: leisurely but not torpid in the opening movement; gentle and delicate in the second and rollicking in the third; tempestuous in the fourth, and majestic in the finale.

Masur’s masterful and precise dynamic control enabled him to realize fully the symphony’s wide-ranging contrasts, with the tranquillity of the brook-side setting, played with exquisite delicacy, at one extreme, and the fury of the thunderstorm at the other. Masur portrayed fully Beethoven’s rich palette of tonal colours, maintaining the balance among the instruments in perfect equipoise. This balance was aided mightily by the superb playing of the strings, each section sounding as a single voice in perfect unison, enabling the winds and brass to shine through and create warm and rich sound-pictures. Passages throughout the symphony in which the horns were sustained over the strings were quite beautifully played, particularly in the final movement. Beethoven’s indication of “thankful feelings” in the work’s concluding section aptly describes the audience’s response as the symphony came to a satisfying close.

The second half of the concert began with two works by Liszt, a composer long championed by Masur, both with Canadian pianist Louis Lortie as soloist. (A number of the orchestra’s principals sat out this portion of the concert, leaving associate principals to head up their sections.) Liszt often added bravura piano pyrotechnics to pre-existing thematic material with which audiences were familiar – in these pieces the ‘Turkish March’ and other themes from the Beethoven work and, in Totentanz, the ‘Dies Irae’ theme used in such works as Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre. Lortie rattled off the trills, glissandos and other technical challenges with apparent ease and considerable musicality.

The Ruins of Athens Fantasy is based on several themes from the Beethoven work, with particular emphasis on the ‘Turkish March’. The Beethoven-like tonality of the orchestral introduction changes suddenly with the piano’s entrance and remains characteristically Lisztian thereafter. The work is short on subtlety and long on bombast, ending with much sound and fury. But what did it signify? Not very much!

Totentanz begins even more bombastically – the opening piano passage calling for as much sound as the instrument can produce to maximize the impact of the ‘Dies Irae’ theme – but it develops into a far more interesting and coherent composition than the Ruins of Athens Fantasy. Liszt’s dazzling array of variations, some for piano solo and others with full orchestral accompaniment, ran a wide gamut, and Lortie played them with appropriate brilliance, bringing out varying colours and moods, ranging from a tenderly played contrapuntal solo piano variation, to rapid percussive passages, scales, arpeggios and repeated glissandos.

The final work was Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, based on music he composed at age 24 under a commission from Diaghilev for a ballet that was never produced. Prokofiev certainly was influenced by Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which had its infamous, riot-torn debut just two years earlier, and which Prokofiev had heard in a concert performance. There are many similarities between the two works: they are both based on somewhat similar Diaghilev scenarios, utilise a large orchestra to paint exotic tonal colours, and make extensive and pervasive use of ostinato. In the first section of Scythian Suite, a pizzicato figure in the double basses lasts for nearly a minute and a half. Also, Prokofiev’s irregularly accented strings in ‘Dance of the evil spirits’ and the trilling flute at the opening of ‘Night’ are both strongly reminiscent of passages in the first part of The Rite.

Nevertheless, in the dissonance-laden yet tonal Scythian Suite, the youthful Prokofiev speaks with a distinctive voice that already contains many elements of the musical vocabulary that would characterise his mature compositions. The performance on this occasion was dazzling, with Masur in control of every detail from the slashing opening to the final (and increasingly dissonant) crescendo, ending abruptly as the sun rises to destroy the evil god of night.

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