Thursday’s almost live (recorded at Tanglewood, July 20, 2002) New York Philharmonic broadcast had a program that was entirely appropriate for the outgoing maestro: Kurt Masur is retiring as music director (Lorin Maazel takes up the baton officially on September 18). It was fourteen years ago that Seiji Ozawa (outgoing music director of the Boston Symphony), Michael Tilson Thomas and Leon Fleisher feted Leonard Bernstein on the same stage with a concert that included the Double Concerto and Mahler (choral movement from the “Resurrection” Symphony with the incomparable Christa Ludwig) on the occasion of the former NYP’s music director’s seventieth birthday. If only the trees could talk!
Even though Masur had to work himself on his farewell mini-series (a Beethoven program followed on the 21st), he was clearly relishing every last minute with this remarkable ensemble.
In the chatty interview with the soloists and conductor prior to the performance of Brahms’ musical peace offering to Joachim (if only other disputes could be settled so beautifully), we learned that this autumnal masterpiece would contain “zip and zing,” but were also cautioned that the last movement would be the “most enjoyable to listen to.” Nonetheless, rather than skip the first two, I decided to endure all …
And it was well worth it. Carter Brey’s deep chestnut sound, immaculate intonation and technical wizardry set the stage for a performance that should rank amongst the finest ever. Then on the heels of a strangely tentative wind interlude NYP Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow followed suit with his equally convincing opening statement. Soon the pair were seamlessly passing their lines to and fro with aplomb and, well, zest! But from the first full-blown tutti it became obvious that the recording engineer had determined that the orchestra’s role would be secondary rather than part of Team Brahms. And so I wished I was in the shed to hear what Masur’s balance had produced.
And outdoors we were: the birds added many charming notes, the occasional scream added drama, and the outside reverberation provided a wonderful depth that Lincoln Centre never will.
As the movement progressed there was much to admire: Brey’s C string ignited the orchestral outlines like a firecracker; the silences were unhurried and allowed to breathe, yet once the development began the forward thrust was lost until the quasi recapitulation rekindled the flame.
There can’t be many more movements in the repertoire that are as sublime as the “Andante,” whose unison call would only need inversion to morph into the opening notes of Mahler’s first symphonic essay. I’m sure the audience smiled inside and out as Dicterow and Brey delivered Brahms’ exquisite melody with commitment and minimal affectation. Masur provided solid, steady support but failed to coax his charges into putting an equal portion of diminuendo and crescendo into the countless “hairpin” dynamics that fill the pages. The coda, though refined and warm, fell just shy of the oh-so-poignant aural depiction of regretfully waving goodbye; such a compelling musical metaphor, given the occasion.
Going attacca to the “Vivace non troppo” was a happy surprise. From here the soloists took flight and, together, propelled the music forward without allowing it to lose any of its charm and poise. My only quibble was during the Poco meno allegro where both players pushed a little too hard into the string adding insult to injury given the recording levels and leaving the nimble winds once more far in the background.
The last time I heard the NYP play a Mahler Symphony was a couple of decades back at a rehearsal and performance of the Seventh led by Rafael Kubelik. His attention to detail, combined with the courage to take ensemble risks in order to “find the music” have burned those results forever into my memory.
Masur took a far more cautious approach, producing a gorgeous, polished sound but often at the expense of the purposely craggy canvas found in the score.
Where was the mystery of the opening soundscape? Why didn’t the leading notes (particularly downward) pull us into the next revelation? To be sure, the brass astonished, the woodwinds sang and the strings (including the just-right interjections of the harp) shimmered, glistened and flew across their fingerboards with ease, but the accents, the staccati, and the constantly shifting dynamic plane were shoved into the back—sound led substance—though what a glorious sound it was!
Accordingly, the great climaxes in the outer movements were decibel rich, but structurally (yes, HERE, NOW!!!) poor. Even the waltzer/ländler seemed more an academic dissertation than the frolicking then reflective fun that can lift the music off the page. The famous “frère Jacques” had fine solo bass then bassoon declamations, but their phrasing of the same theme couldn’t have been further part—the latter’s long lines winning my vote.
Understandably, the capacity crowd and many in the green room at intermission, expressed regret as Kurt Masur’s eleven-year tenure comes to a close. That he has left this wonderful instrument in fine shape for his successor is not in doubt. It will be fascinating to observe which direction Maazel will next try to steer this world-class institution. JWR