THE WASHINGTON POST|
October 7, 2002
Philharmonic Convergence -- London and Kurt Masur Hit It Off
by Tim Page
The Washington Performing Arts Society kicked off its 2002-03 season with some magnificent Beethoven and Bruckner at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Saturday afternoon.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Kurt Masur, who has lately taken on some of the trappings of a cultural martyr. Hired by the New York Philharmonic in 1991 to clean up the shambles left by former music director Zubin Mehta, Masur quickly drilled the orchestra into the best shape it had been in decades. His reward? He was pushed out in an elaborate power play and eventually replaced with the egregious Lorin Maazel, whose first appearances with the Philharmonic have met with a decidedly tepid press.
Masur has made no secret of the fact that he felt poorly treated by his former orchestra. It was tempting to speculate that he has undertaken his present tour with the London ensemble to "show" his opponents in New York. If so, he may well succeed, for this was the finest performance I've ever heard from him, and one of the most involving orchestra concerts to hit Washington in quite some time.
The English orchestras have improved mightily in the past few years; Colin Davis's recent recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra, for example, have been hymned to the skies. On Saturday the London Philharmonic sounded every bit the equal of the New York Philharmonic in its power and virtuosity, and there was not a trace of the disgruntled agitation that sometimes mars the latter group's performances.
Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in C began the afternoon. From the series of quizzical chords that start the first movement through the rushing, unfettered exhilaration of the finale, this was a fleet, fastidious and beautifully tapered rendition. The sound was full and rich, yet remained lithe and pliant throughout -- like "small orchestra" Beethoven played with a full ensemble. It was a rather grander interpretation than is customary nowadays, sounding more like the symphonies Beethoven would write later in his career than the more or less contemporaneous works of Franz Joseph Haydn (to whom it owes much). Indeed, it seemed an expression of Jovian exuberance, rather than the simple welling of happiness that usually typifies early Beethoven. Still, it was altogether convincing.
Even better, perhaps, was Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 in E ("Lyric"). For those of us who are not full-fledged Brucknerians, this composer can seem dull unless he is magnificent. One doesn't listen to Bruckner expecting spellbinding, heart-in-mouth narratives: rather, one enters his symphonies in much the same way one enters a house of worship -- to reflect and meditate within the extraordinary sound space that the composer has created.
On Saturday, Masur conducted the Symphony No. 7 with such blazing, brilliant intensity that it called to mind a long and fervent prayer that was being answered even as we listened. Bruckner shares one quality with Jean Sibelius: His compositions seem a defiant negation of silence -- which is nonetheless felt, to an unusual degree, throughout everything he wrote. (How radiant the afterglow at the end of a long movement from Bruckner!) There are few "tunes" in the traditional sense. Rather, Bruckner creates intricate, ecstatic clockworks that follow one another as if preordained. If you can surrender to Bruckner's gigantism, the effect can be quite otherworldly.
It is terrific to have Masur back on American soil, however briefly. Our debt to him is great.