November 20, 2002
by Frank Cadenhead
Americans perhaps too often ask the question "What's next?" The high rate of divorce and the native restlessness is all too evident in literature and society. It might explain why the contract of Kurt Masur with the New York Philharmonic was not extended. Replacing a conductor at the top of his game just when he was moving to "living legend" status seems a grievous error given his masterful reading of the symphonies of Beethoven with the Orchestre National de France. There have been some successful long-term musical marriages in America, notably George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra and Solti in Chicago but these are the exception.
Kurt Masur is clearly one of the great conductors still working and the audience in Paris appreciates what chance has given them. His concerts are already a hot ticket, even though he has only appeared in his new role as Music Director a handful of times. He has clearly made his mark with the orchestra and their playing has a commitment and passion not always in evidence in recent years. His Beethoven has plenty of bite and power, weighty in the Central European tradition, and is played with richness and measured balance.
A giant of a man and a giant artist, the radio audiences can certainly hear his foot stomping and sometimes guttural groans which urge them on. The strings play like they are possessed and the woodwinds manfully rise to the occasion. It is only in the brass section that the inattention to quality in recent years is most apparent. Their struggle to play the music is painfully obvious and this weakness will need major surgery for the orchestra to achieve its promise.
Masur has the rare privilege to be the first to perform the symphony cycle in the newly published critical edition from Breitkopf & Härtel. He has said, in published interviews, that he has found new clarity, particularly in the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies. His reading of both of these symphonies revealed a lightness of touch and a musical grace that is new. He plays all the repeats and his unidiomatic, serious approach simply elevates the musical dialogue. Here is Beethoven's music, with all the power and rhythmic force where you expect it. When you slide into your seat at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées for these concerts, you know that his feeling for these works will fit with the composer's intent like an old, comfortable glove. Hearing all these symphonies, played in order, was to experience unforced exhilaration. After a while, the purple prose of Berlioz's flamboyant musings on this music, contained in the program, seemed more and more to be a measured assessment of this glory.
The concluding Ninth Symphony was an example of the dedicated music making that went into this project. A quartet of extraordinary talent was assembled and placed to the left of the maestro, stage front. The inestimable bass Hans Sotin was the first heard and was in magnificent vocal estate. Seemingly ageless his career spans some 40 years on stage he delivered his exhortations with a fine feel for the words and their underlying power. Donald Litaker was also the outstanding tenor of all I have heard in live concerts of this symphony by Bernstein, von Karajan, Haitink and others. Soprano Christine Brewer, most recently heard as the Ariadne at Châtelet last season, handled her awesome musical task with unforced clarity and power. Sylvie Brunet was the splendid mezzo-soprano.
The choir was accurate and, with some encouragement, sang with rich strength. Not of the same level of that of the chorus of the Orchestre de Paris, founded by the recently retired master Arthur Oldham, it is still of first rank. The orchestra is still becoming acquainted with their new leader, as seen in the infrequent ragged attacks. His downbeat is sometimes not clear but, after a season or two, they will learn to breathe together. It is an auspicious musical beginning and one can only wait with anticipation his Mendelssohn cycle coming in February.