July 20, 2007
BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London
Let the retirement age among conductors be a lesson to us all. On Wednesday, Kurt Masur spent his 80th birthday giving a celebratory concert at the BBC Proms with a capacity audience of 5,000 as his guests, capping Charles Mackerras's 80th birthday performance at Covent Garden a couple of years before.
It was no ordinary Prom. Masur holds two posts, principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and music director of the Orchestre National de France, so he invited both orchestras to the party. Even the capacious platform of the Royal Albert Hall was filled to the point where the back desks of the strings were in danger of falling off the edge.
Masur's entry in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians lists Tchaikovsky and Bruckner as the composers with whom he has a special affinity, and those were indeed the pair that he chose for this occasion. The surprise in Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings was not that the massed ranks of players sounded so rich but that they could play so quietly. At some points, the audience hardly dared to breathe.
Both orchestras must know his way with Bruckner's Symphony No.7 backwards by now. Having such a huge combined force ready to do his bidding at the flick of a baton might have been a temptation to indulge in a performance that would shock and awe, but Masur has never seen Bruckner's symphonies as an exercise in hyperbole. The early movements here moved forwards with his usual sense of purpose. Only in the finale did he let the rows of brass players have their head. In Masur's many performances of this symphony, the climax always comes, as Bruckner surely intended, with the triumphant chorale at the end.
There was time for one encore. The Overture to Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg closed the evening in proper celebratory style, and never mind that the huge brass department came awry in the final seconds. Choruses of "Happy Birthday" rarely stay in unison either.