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Masur Shines in Brahms with NSO

Kurt Masur
Kurt Masur (b. 1927), conductor
The last time Kurt Masur appeared at a podium in Washington, it was as part of his final tour before stepping down as music director of the Orchestre National de France. That was one year ago, and the visible effects of Masur's worsening health problems (he is now in his 80s) -- shuffling gate, shaking hands -- caused me to wonder if it would be his final appearance in Washington. Those problems are still in evidence, but happily Masur proved me wrong, joining the National Symphony Orchestra as guest conductor on Friday night in an all-Brahms program. Brahms is one of the composers most clearly under the hands of Masur, the ultimate German Kapellmeister who cut his teeth in Dresden, East Berlin, and Leipzig. He opened this program with a sonorous, easy-riding performance of the Variations on the Choral St. Antoni (a catchy tune that can not be reliably attributed to Haydn as it once was), op. 56a, the orchestrated version of a piece originally for piano.

Brahms Requiem:
available at Amazon
C. Oelze, G. Finley, Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, P. Herreweghe

available at Amazon
A. Auger, R. Stilwell, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, R. Shaw
It is the first evidence of Brahms as an innovative orchestrator, the beginnings of a somber, dark-oriented style that is now inseparably connected with his name. Masur's success in this performance, led without a score, began with his choice of tempo in the theme, a gentle pace that allowed a bouncy emphasis on the low horns and contrabassoon. The sense of ensemble was clear and focused, and the music was allowed to unfold without any real manipulation, including at the end of sections. Widely varied colors and textures, as well as pleasing dynamic contours, created an individual character for each variation, sunny in the third, autumnal in the minor fourth, percolating in the fifth, naive in the seventh. The horns played with gusto and savvy, and the new principal oboe continued to impress with a smooth, controlled tone.

The second half was (coincidentally) an anniversary performance of the choral masterwork Ein deutsches Requiem, op. 45, premiered (for the second time, with six of the seven movements Brahms eventually composed) on April 10, 1868 (by another coincidence, when it was also Good Friday), in Bremen. People generally either love or hate the music of Brahms, and indeed more than one friend (including professional choir singers) reacted to the offer to be my guest at this concert with a roll of the eyes. What made this performance so pleasing to my ears was, once again, incisive conducting from Masur, with crisp, unexpected tempos, often on the fast side (like the imposing death march of Denn alles Fleisch), cutting away the fat heard so often in soupy renditions like that of Robert Shaw (on which many American choral singers, myself included, are nursed). Masur often had to be insistent, in fact, to keep the amassed voices of the Master Chorale of Washington, in its penultimate performances before disbanding because of lack of funds, in line with his surging beat.

Other Reviews:

Philip Kennicott, In a Requiem Played Like This, the Dead Have It Easy (Washington Post, April 10)
In general, the Master Chorale sang with clear diction and a solid, well-tuned and -balanced sound in full textures. As observed in their last concert the sound of individual sections can be thin and under-supported, and there were similar exposed moments here. The German diction was clear and mostly unified, even a little close to exaggerated at times. The most disappointing part of the performance, aside from some ugly sounds from the trumpets and some sour intonation in the flutes and piccolo, was the vocal soloists. Bass-baritone John Relyea wielded his considerable volume and resonance like a bludgeon, which made the loudest moments, powering over the chorus, exciting but leaving one wishing for some variation in tone. By contrast, soprano Heidi Grant Murphy could barely be heard in the fifth movement, added by Brahms after the death of his beloved mother, with her voice, all swallowed and discolored by a billy-goat vibrato, covered even by soft strings. The high point of the evening was my favorite movement, the sixth (Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt), with the opening section set by Masur in a deliberate, almost plodding tempo. That choice provided a greater contrast with the fast sections after the sounding of the trumpet, when the joy of the elect at the downfall of Death approached a wild-eyed blood lust, setting up an equally fast closing fugue.

This concert will be repeated this evening (April 11, 8 pm). Next week's concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra will feature Leonidas Kavakos playing two of the big Romantic violin concertos, by Mendelssohn (April 16 and 18) and Tchaikovsky (April 17). Iván Fischer will conduct, and the program will also include Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony and a new work by Colorado composer Daniel Kellogg.

1 comment:

zurga said...

Thank you very much for your very insightful review.
After reading Phillip Kennicott insulting remarks at the Washington Post,I was wondering if we were at the same concert.
It is always a privilege to hear Kurt Masur conduct.