July 30, 2004
BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London
by David Murray
Kurt Masur looks kindlier and move benevolent by the year: no imperious commandant but a conductor who gently coaxes his orchestras here the London Philharmonic into just the performances he wants. In Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony he seemed to make no special effort; yet the allegro moderato opening often read nowadays as a kind of moderato agitato, to lend it an anxious undercurrent was kept to a deadly, breathless pianissimo (just as marked) and the whole movement offered a floating, lyrical intertwining of the solo winds' haunted lines. Not showy, but the more riveting for that.
Masur then stepped aside to let Petr Fiala lead the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno in Janácek's "Hukvaldy" Songs from his native village. A lovely choir: though perectly tuned, warm-timbred and balanced, never remotely tempted to add cute sentiment to simple folk-stuff. But their pièce de résistance came after the interval: Janácek's "Glagolitic" Mass.
Newcomers need not fret over what kind of Mass a "glagolitic" one could be. The unbelieving Russophile Janácek chose to set his Mass in a timelessly reverent, distanced Old Slavonic, and mistook the name of its written "glagolitic" script for the language itself. But he fathomed the spiritual states of mind that successive sections of the Mass reprtsent and composed them better than anyone else in the 20th century. Its huge popularity now is no fluke.
Masur's account of it with the LPO, his Czech choir and four sterling Czech soloists was exemplary, and roundly rewarding. For once Janácek's exuberantly multiplied brass sounded more cogent than brazen, and the "inward" episodes thoughtfully explored. Among the excellent solo quartet, main roles went to the soprano Zdena Kloubová, forcefully eloquent and bright; and a remarkable, genuine "high tenor" Pavol Bresnik. Unlike most previous exponents of his vital part, Bresnik is not a "heroic tenor" (i.e., a natual baritone who has forced his voice upwards) but a sharply expressive musician who exploits his natually high register to unstrained and elevated effect. It's a long time since I heard anybody like him; we shall surely hear much more. (Five stars.)