Not A Kurt Goodbye
Avery Fisher Hall
Alfred Schnittke: Cello Concerto # 1
Anton Bruckner: Symphony # 3
Natalia Gutman (cello)
New York Philharmonic
Kurt Masur (conductor)
Thompson: It didn’t end very well, did it?
Bernstein: It ended.
Herman J. Mankiewicz and
Orson Welles, Citizen Kane
Exactly ten years to the day before the destruction of the World Trade Center, Kurt Masur mounted the Avery Fisher podium for the first time as music director of the New York Philharmonic. A recent relistening to that performance of the Symphony # 7 of Anton Bruckner revealed an extraordinarily dull reading, notable only for its sloppy entrances and lackluster phrasing, not dissimilar to the occasional Philharmonic performance of today. Since everyone was obviously on their best behavior for the new maestro, there were few problems of intonation to be heard that evening, but the overall effect was one of bland stolidity. Masur can never be accused of chicanery or grandstanding: what we saw that night was what we got for eleven seasons. As advertised, this central European kapellmeister stayed within the comfortable bounds of his very limited repertoire, offering only mid-range, mid-level and middle of the road renditions of the nineteenth century German masters, excluding Wagner. Masur, maturing in an East Germany paralyzed by Nazi guilt, where there wasn’t even a statue to Wagner in his, and this conductor’s, own hometown of Leipzig, did not program any of the sybaritic genius’ works until very late in his administration. Unlike Wolfgang Sawallisch, his counterpart and contemporary in Philadelphia with a similar Teutonic background, Masur showed little conversance with the masterworks of the twentieth century. Compositions from France or England were non-existent, and, when he tried to conduct American music, his attempts at creating a jazzy atmosphere were embarrassingly reminiscent of Richard Nixon talking to the war protestors about college football.
Masur’s initial move as music director was a disaster that haunted him and his orchestra for their entire run. He transferred the violas down to his immediate right, where their tables turned into the ensemble, rendering much of their play inaudible and creating an odd void in the sound emanating from stage left. Although there was a tradition for this type of platform positioning, most notably nurtured by Serge Koussevitzky in Boston, it was the type of tradition that another former conductor of the Phil, Gustav Mahler, described as “only the memory of the last bad performance”. Masur is credited, perhaps with a dollop of hyperbole, with being a fine orchestra builder, and there is no doubt that the group can now sound competent on any given night, however these evenings tend to be more often reserved for those few guest conductors, notably Andre Previn, Ivan Fischer and Riccardo Muti, who seem to be able to penetrate the union-inspired white tie wall and can elicit fine performances out of this recalcitrant band. Actually, Maestro inherited an orchestra much stronger in fundamentals than did his predecessor Zubin Mehta, who had to lift the group out of the doldrums from the nadir of the Boulez years. Perhaps the fairest assessment of Kurt Masur is that he was an able caretaker; the orchestra that he hands over to Lorin Maazel is about the same as the one that he encountered on September 11, 1991. Those among us who are disappointed by this lack of improvement need to go back and revisit the decision of the board at that time. Kurt Masur, as his years with the Gewandhaus should have demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt, was never the right man to bring the New York Philharmonic up to the next level.
“Omnes amici me dereliquerunt”
Anton Bruckner to Gustav Mahler, November 13, 1892
Bruckner’s lament (“all my friends have abandoned me”) was delivered after many years of public misunderstanding and critical invective, but the process really began on the evening when Mahler witnessed the inauspicious premiere of his mentor’s Symphony # 3. So bad was the reception for this groundbreaking work that the younger composer, with the aid of fellow student and later staunch ally Rudolf Krzyzanowski, fashioned a four hand piano reduction as an homage, a gesture which did indeed soothe the damaged sensibilities of the avuncular composition professor for a time. Bruckner would become the prime target in the bloody Brahms-Wagner feud, even going so far as to expunge the quotes from his idol’s operas that he used in his own instrumental works (the 3rd was originally dubbed the ”Wagner” Symphony), although to no avail, as the vicious barbs of Hanslick caused not only public resistance but, far more damaging, creative hesitancy in an artist already suffering from extreme self-effacement.
Masur, although trying hard not to show it, must also feel a sense of abandonment as his final days in New York melt away. Critics have struggled over the past few weeks, trying to put a good face on rather a lackluster stewardship neither exciting enough to adulate nor incompetent enough to condemn. Most fall back on that cliché of Masur the orchestra builder, conveniently forgetting many nights of his administration defined by amateurish tone and anarchic exits. Whatever the substantive improvements, they were all accomplished in the first three months of his reign, leaving an entire decade for plateauing and backsliding. The fact that he was in trouble with management has been bandied about for more than four years now; most here in town are just waiting for the ordeal to be over. The decision to present this final season as a valedictory has struck a hollow chord in the hearts and minds of an audience too sophisticated not to realize that the separation was hardly agreed to without acrimony. Now the man is everywhere: even on my night off this week, he showed up at the gala for the Young Concert Artists to express his gratitude and regrets. Last evening at the Philharmonic, he stoically appeared on the podium with the chairman of the board who fired him to honor the various anniversaries of the orchestra’s personnel. One wonders when his parade through the canyon of heroes will take place.
Last evening’s performance demonstrated that there has not been much improvement in Masur the Bruckner interpreter. Where there should have been high drama there was only routine. Maestro’s rhythms were secure and his tempi brisk; what was missing was any sense of the power of accents. Everything moved along at a quotidian pace, instrumental color only an occasional and accidental by-product. As in last week’s Mahler, the ensemble was awash in slurs and approximations rather than aglow with confidant attacks. The horns, so vital for this medievalist, were especially vague in enunciation, their world one careless glissando. Coming full circle, Maestro went out as he came in, tentative, compromising and, yes, boring.
Alfred Schnittke is full of surprises. I have always found him in the past to be more clever than profound, a creator of puzzles and games rather than works of high art. And yet his Cello Concerto # 1 was quite moving, at least in the passionate hands of Natalia Gutman, who did everything but stand on her head to wring the last drop of emotional perspiration out of her instrument. The work is immediately accessible, not only because it follows a familiar movement pattern, but for its Shostakovich style anti-agitprop stance, itself harking back to the pity and power of Mussorgsky. Kurt Masur also surprised so late in the game with a sensitive reading of something post Mayerling. This was actually one of the best Phil performances of the entire season.
Next week brings down the final curtain with a presentation of the ”Eroica”. I am reminded of the analysis of that great work by one of the most entertaining Beethoven idolaters of all time. Karl Haas always described its rather overblown and repetitious ending with the frustrated phrase “…oh, just go already!”
Frederick L. Kirshnit