The Profane and the Sacred
10/07/2002 - 10/08/02
Serge Prokofieff: Symphony # 5
William Walton: Viola Concerto
Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony # 1
Anton Bruckner: Symphony # 7
Yuri Bashmet (viola)
Kurt Masur (conductor)
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the concert hall, Kurt Masur returns to New York the very first full week of the season, completely comfortable with both his new kidney and new orchestra. Only conspiracy theorists would speculate that his projected return to the New York Philharmonic in May as conductor emeritus purposely conflicts with his supplanter Lorin Maazel’s own Brahms series with Bavarian Radio down the street at Carnegie Hall and as such represents a certain meanspiritedness on the part of Philharmonic management. More likely, it was simply the scheduling gods’ playful sense of irony.
“The great pullman was whirling onward with such dignity of motion
that a glance from the window seemed simply to prove that the plains
of Texas were pouring eastward. Vast flats of green grass, dull-hued spaces of mesquite and cactus, little groups of frame houses, woods of light and tender trees, all were sweeping into the east, sweeping over the horizon, a precipice.”
Stephen Crane, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky”
Aesthetic considerations aside, for me the music most emblematic of the struggle of the twentieth century is the profound Symphony # 5 of Serge Prokofieff. Contemporary works of his friend Shostakovich may capture the anguish of the Soviet peoples more dramatically, but they are by their very nature limited in focus, snapshots from a particular time and place. Prokofieff creates in the 5th a Beethovenian essay on both the illusion and disillusion of mid-century, particularly appropriate for a work whose centerpiece is a reworking of the master’s ”Moonlight” Sonata, albeit this is the consumptive and wan moon of Pierrot Lunaire. Beauty and violence, pessimism and optimism, war and peace exist side by side. There are lustrous blacks and shimmering whites, with most of us dwelling somewhere in the chiaroscuro.
From the very first notes, it was apparent that the London Philharmonic is a world-class ensemble. Particularly striking was Masur’s ability to delicately balance the tuba with the high strings, the overall sound clean and clear, sumptuous and varied. The second movement was a bit slow for my taste, but I realized over time that Maestro was preparing us for a dizzying accelerando and wanted as far as possible to travel. As the tempo increased, one became aware of a perpetuum mobile spinning dangerously out of control and yet always grounded in proper intonation. This was music making of the very highest order.
When the dissonances came, as they always do in Prokofieff, the third movement was handled with the utmost tastefulness, even though frighteningly aggressive. Somehow, while unleashing the beast, Masur was taming him at the same time. As that train made its way across the tundra in the finale, it whizzed by a landscape of indescribable color.
Rich hue was also on display in the second half. Yuri Bashmet has a tone to die for and exploited it to the full in the Walton (celebrating his 100th birthday this year). English music as a whole doesn’t travel well, but this striking reading left us all wanting more. It seemed as if the concert program was turned on its head, what with the big work presented first, but it was eventually made clear that Masur wanted to save his best for last. Humor is the most elusive of all of the musical virtues, but this corpulent Teutonic style is right up this particular conductor’s strasse. I have heard Maestro conduct Till before; he really gets it (unlike James Levine, whose heavy handed rendition with Munich last season was simply an embarrassment). All in all, an evening of bright color and intense clarity generously and warmly appreciated by the old hometown crowd.
“Bruckner did go to one affair: the Upper Austrian Forester’s Ball…he had asked his Frau Kachelmayer to fish out black socks instead of the customary white from the disorder of his clothes cupboard…he finally took a dirndled maiden by the waist and for the length of an oom-pah-pah laendler bobbed around the hall with her.”
Frederic Morton, A Nervous Splendor
Masur began his era with the Phil with a performance of the Bruckner 7 and is one of the current maestros most familiar with its unique Upper Austrian peasant gait (his fealty to the score leaves him open to charges of leadfootedness from less perceptive critics). Here we have the composer first inhabiting his mature aural landscape, what we now think of as how a Bruckner symphony should sound. In homage to his meister Richard Wagner, who died during the composition of the movement (#2) meant to be his paean, thus turning it into a memorial, the enraptured acolyte introduces the Wagner tuba, perhaps the most “Brucknerian” of all the instruments of the orchestra. Suggestions of a following round, ala the third movement of the Schubert E Flat trio, haunt this essay of praise and remembrance, Bruckner substituting a slow and measured tempo, as befits the solemnity of the occasion (his two most often used score directions are 1. feierlich - solemnly and 2. inning - heartfelt), for Schubert’s original bonhomie.
The sold out crowd was even more appreciative this second night and was treated in turn to a truly expert performance of the Bruckner, notable especially for the loving shaping of each and every movement. By the close of the opening allegro moderato, the progression from opening cello and horn melody (cf. the Andante of the Mahler 6) to the glory of the brass chorale left everyone stunned, speechless and extremely moved. There was an audible silence of clear recognition: New Yorkers realized in an instant what they had indeed lost forever. An hour of so much intense spirituality exploded into a prolonged standing ovation.
One of the aspects that I admired most in Masur during his years in our city was his reverence for and cherishing of the first two Beethoven symphonies, works often neglected or at least slighted by others. This night’s reading was particularly adoring, the hesitant opening snatches of melody in the finale beautifully and sensuously drawn out and allowed to linger before the fast section began. This is truly great music, Masur seems to be saying, not just interesting sketches for the ”Eroica”. Maestro was, of course, not at all happy to lose his post in New York (he has, in fact, not relocated his home) but he must now be extremely gratified to stand before such a superb ensemble. All of us in the audience were certainly delighted to sit before same.
Frederick L. Kirshnit