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30.4.08

Masur and the Orchestre National de France

Kurt MasurWashington Performing Arts Society brought the Orchestre National de France to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Monday night, for its first visit to Washington in 17 years. The orchestra's current U.S. tour is being offered as a valedictory of sorts for departing Music Director Kurt Masur, who has stepped down from several podiums in the last few years. Masur's health issues sadly have worsened visibly since his last visit here: he shuffled to and from the podium, and when his hands dropped to his side, they shook. If this concert turns out to be Masur's final appearance in Washington, then the odd program is surely the best of the possibilities offered on this tour. How welcome the chance to hear Masur conduct Bruckner instead of Tchaikovsky or Dvořák, especially since the planned Bruckner 4th of Masur's last visit (with the London Philharmonic) was replaced with Brahms. The only regret, perhaps, was not to have the Bruckner combined with Masur's Shostakovich.

Bruckner 7th:
available at Amazon
NY Phil/Masur


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Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, Herreweghe


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NDRS/Wand


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Lucerne/Abbado
We reviewed the Bruckner 7th just last year from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but you will not hear us complain. Masur shepherded expansive crescendi in the first movement, adding the brass carefully until ear-crushing volume was reached. The intonation of all of the suspensions and sequences was lovely, and the woodwind principals had bucolic solos in the Rühig section, as Masur paid careful attention to the soft as well as the loud. Problems in the certainty of brass attacks, especially in the horns and Wagner tubas, began here and continued throughout the work. This was doubly unfortunate because the low brass's transition to the Moderato section of the second movement was utterly mysterious and showed what we were missing at other points.

For you Brucknerians keeping track, Masur opted not to include the disputed cymbal crash (or other percussion) in the second movement, a decision supported in no uncertain terms by Robert Haas in his edition (but opposed by Leopold Nowak). An active scherzo revealed a few woodwind intonation clashes, when they were exposed in high range in the Trio, and the movement rattled out of unity as cross-rhythms pulled the texture apart. In general, though, the ONF played with an impressive sense of ensemble and showed clear devotion to their departing director.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Masur Evokes A Golden Bruckner Memory (Washington Post, April 30)

Matthew Guerrieri, A master performance, decades in the making (Boston Globe, April 30)
The concert opened with Beethoven's second piano concerto (more of Masur's Beethoven, after his last appearance with the NSO). The young, mildly eccentric French pianist David Fray was the soloist, seated slouch-backed in a chair and humming along in a technically polished, pearly-toned reading. Fray's gentle, flat-fingered touch made for a fairly reserved performance in the first two movements, balanced appropriately by the ONF, guided expertly by Masur. Fray handled the pseudo-cadenza at the end of the slow movement (marked Con gran espressione and Ped.) with dreamy freeness, allowing the triadic gestures to ring out as echoing chords. Fray provided more of a dazzling show in the third movement, paced at a breath-taking speed for all those trills, runs, and arpeggiation. Generous applause from the capacity audience earned an encore, a finely tooled Allemande from Bach's sixth partita (E minor, BWV 830). Masur sat in an empty chair at the back of his violin section and listened, too.

The penultimate concert in the WPAS season will be this Sunday (May 4, 4 pm), a recital by violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Rohan DeSilva at Strathmore.

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