April 20, 2009
Smoothly melding pieces' elements
David Patrick Stearns
The conductor now most often venerated among the great figures of the past is Kurt Masur. Long lauded for building the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra into one of the most refined ensembles in the world, and for disciplining the New York Philharmonic into the great orchestra that everybody knew it could be, Masur had a regrettably short guest stint with the Philadelphia Orchestra and violinist Sergey Khachatryan (only Friday and Saturday at the Kimmel Center) that was among the year's best. Physical infirmity has sometimes impeded the command of his art of late, but not Friday.
Always too much of a classicist to brood or ruminate, the 81-year-old Masur has always concentrated on performing any given work as a purely musical entity, so that what Brahms' Symphony No. 2 said grew out of what the music did, with utmost functional clarity. All elements - surface sheen, rhythm, individual orchestral choir - were integrated and balanced, with seams joined perfectly to make the music unfold smoothly and effortlessly, emanating from the three-note motif from which all four movements sprang.
Masur has rarely been one for interpretive originality - he's a curator of the highest order. Yet the symphony's dramatic climax occurred not in the first movement as usual, but in the second, suggesting a kinship with Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2. Wind solos were wonderful, though the real moment of glory for those players came in the sinister-sounding blends achieved in Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1.
As soloist, Khachatryan staked his claim among the best violinists of his generation, but the intermittent lack of his trademark tone suggested he was still becoming accustomed to his newly loaned Lord Newlands Stradivarius. He's probably incapable of an unexciting performance, but this one also tracked the Shostakovich logic meticulously. The long, brooding first movement was like a slow introduction to a three-movement concerto, with Khachatryan masterfully charting the thematic progression from the third movement's coda (played with a concentration I haven't heard from anybody) into the long, increasingly hysterical cadenza. While Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg plays it like an outpouring of personal anguish, Khachatryan delivered a no-less-scintillating global protest.
After that, I wasn't much in the mood for Strauss' playful Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, but my mental rebellion only lasted minutes as Masur encouraged all manner of raucousness amid the piece's tragicomic narrative - in one of the only Strauss tone poems in which the programmatic underpinning is essential to understanding the music.