THE NEW YORK TIMES|
October 10, 2002
A Reassuring Visit From Masur
by Bernard Holland
The place and the faces were different, but Kurt Masur was a familiar and reassuring presence for New Yorkers on Monday and Tuesday nights. The London Philharmonic was in town, playing in Carnegie Hall and offering the rapt, informed audiences and congenial acoustical space that his years at the New York Philharmonic were hard-pressed to provide. Mr. Masur is currently the London orchestra's principal conductor.
It was an uneven and oddly chosen collection of pieces, smoothed on Monday by Walton's wistful and always amiable Viola Concerto (with the amiable Yuri Bashmet) and mitigated on Tuesday by a great monument to 19th-century generosity, the Bruckner Seventh Symphony. Given the quality of their audience, Mr. Masur and his players might have thought up more imaginative music than Prokofiev's Fifth and Beethoven's First Symphonies. Here, and in Strauss's "Till Eugenspiegels Lustige Streiche," a favored Masur war horse, one could at least admire the work ethic of gifted players.
The Bruckner vast, achingly lyrical and orgiastic in the most spiritual of ways played into this orchestra's hands. I have heard Mr. Masur conduct the piece before but not with the patience and the sense of space that emerged on Tuesday. The London Philharmonic creates the kind of full, well-tuned blocks of sounds that follow Bruckner's slow-moving contours handsomely. This is also an orchestra that cares; one hears it in every measure.
The Prokofiev and Beethoven, on the other hand, were less congenial. String articulation in rapid passages sounded vaguely together but just loose enough that delicate detail kept clotting into amorphous masses of sound. Prokofiev thrives on rhythm at sharp angles; Beethoven, too, though the colors are less garish. One admired the spirit spent on both but not always the result.
Everyone admires London's self-run orchestras: for negotiating harrowing schedules and squeaky finances, for stamina and extraordinary sight-reading skills and for an ability to display anything but cynicism in incessant, day-in-day-out music making. But the constant parade of visiting conductors does seem to set limits. Great modern orchestras in Cleveland for example or at the Metropolitan Opera manage to be transparent and powerful at the same time. It is less a technical achievement than a matter of exquisitely focused musicality, a shared purpose reaching from front to back.
The London Philharmonic's traditions of survival and adaptability are lessons for apathetic and often better-heeled orchestra players around the world. The Bruckner was wonderful, deeply moving, and the Prokofiev finale irresistibly wild. On the other hand this is an orchestra condemned by its nature to be always on the run. If it ever has the luxury of catching its breath and finding one single guiding hand, it may find out who and what it really is.