Remembering Kurt Masur: Five Great Recordings

Kurt Masur

Conductor Kurt Masur passed away on December 19, following a battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 88.

Masur will be remembered for his 26-year association (beginning in 1970) with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, a storied ensemble once led by Felix Mendelssohn. Kurt Masur brought powerful political, as well as musical, leadership to Leipzig. In 1981, following the destruction of the previous Gewandhaus in the fire-bombings of the Second World War forty years earlier, he was instrumental in rebuilding the orchestra’s concert hall. In 1989, as the Iron Curtain began to fall, Masur assumed a surprising diplomatic role, easing tensions between protesters and the Stasi police of East German dictator Erich Honecker, by publicly calling for restraint and opening the Gewandhaus for political dialogue.

I remember watching Kurt Masur’s nationally televised first concert as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1991. The program opened with John Adams’ Tromba Lontana and Short Ride in a Fast Machine and concluded with Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, part of the German Romantic core of Masur’s repertoire. Kurt Masur was widely credited with restoring the tonal depth and cohesiveness of the Philharmonic, which had gained a reputation for undisciplined performances and displays of disrespect towards visiting conductors. Masur may have had the New York Philharmonic in mind when he said, “An orchestra full of stars can be a disaster.”

In 2002, Kurt Masur stepped down as music director of the New York Philharmonic and went on to hold principal conductor positions with the London Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de France.

If you’ve ever wondered what sets a great conductor like Kurt Masur apart, watch a few brief clips from Masur’s masterclasses with young conductors at the Verbier Festival Academy (here, here, and here). Masur seems to demonstrate the power of a focused, inner energy which goes beyond mere time beating to unlock the soul of the music.

Here are five of Kurt Masur’s extraordinary recordings. His style seems be characterized by honest, straightforward, noble music making without a hint of ego or flashiness. His tempos, free from arbitrary expressive “push and pull,” allow the music to speak naturally.

Brahms’ Second Symphony

Here is a live concert performance of Brahms’ Second Symphony with the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester at Leipzig’s Church of St. Nicolai. The concert marked the twenty year anniversary of the “Peaceful Revolution” which began on October 9, 1989. Twenty years earlier, to the day, Masur led the orchestra in Brahms’ Second Symphony at this location:

Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony

Here is the first movement of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony from a 1978 recording with the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester:

Listen to the second, third and fourth movements.

Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

Following a long hiatus, the New York Philharmonic began to record again during Kurt Masur’s tenure (on the Teldec label). Here is an extraordinary live concert recording of Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun with the New York Philharmonic:

Schubert’s Eighth Symphony

This recording of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra, was released in 2007. From the opening lower string lines to the shivering string tremolos, this performance captures the ghostly essence of late Schubert:

Listen to the second movement here.

Brahms’ German Requiem

Nine days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Kurt Masur led the New York Philharmonic in Brahms’ Requiem. The benefit concert was broadcast to more than 30 television networks and 8,000 radio stations. This recording, featuring the New York Philharmonic with soprano Sylvia McNair, baritone Håkan Hagegård, and the Westminster Symphonic Choir was released in 1995:

Exploring the Lullaby

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The lullaby is universal and timeless. It’s one of the clearest expressions of the deep bond between mother and young child. Its gentle, repetitive, rocking rhythm lulls infants to sleep. The simple expression of its melody evokes warmth and security. At the same time, many lullabies contain an inexplicable hint of sadness.

From Franz Schubert to George Gershwin to U2, music history is full of lullabies. Here are five of my favorites:

Schubert’s Wiegenlied, Op. 98, No. 2

We’ll begin with the simple perfection of Franz Schubert’s Wiegenlied, Op. 98, No. 2, written in November, 1816. You can read the text here. Listen to the way this performance by mezzo-soprano Janet Baker and pianist Gerald Moore fades into sleepy oblivion:

Brahms’ Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No. 4

Johannes Brahms may have written the world’s most famous lullaby. Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No.4  was dedicated to Brahms’ former lover, Bertha Faber, after the birth of her son. The melody found its way into the first movement of Brahms’ Second Symphony in a slightly altered form. You can hear it at this moment about four minutes into the movement.

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine included a transcription of the Brahms Lullaby on her 2013 Violin Lullabies album (pictured above).

The text is from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of German folk poems which inspired composers from Schumann and Mahler to Webern. Here is a performance by Anne Sofie von Otter and pianist Bengt Forsberg. Notice the gentle rocking rhythm and hypnotic repetition of the tonic in the piano line.

Julie’s Lullaby from Dvořák’s “The Jacobin”

Antonín Dvořák’s rarely performed 1889 opera, The Jacobin, is set in Bohemia around the time of the French Revolution. The aging Count Harasova is preparing to hand over power to his nephew, Adolf. Harasova has disowned his son, Bohuš who has just returned home from Paris with a French wife, Julie. The scheming Adolf has convinced Harasova that Bohuš is a dangerous revolutionary, allied with the Jacobins. By the end of the opera, Count Harasova realizes that he has been deceived and proclaims Bohuš to be his true successor.

In Act III, Scene V, Count Harasova hears Julie sing Synáčku, můj květe (“Son of mine, mine flower”)It’s a lullaby that the late Countess sang to Bohuš as a child, many years earlier. In the opening of the aria, the sound of the horn seems to take on mystical significance, as if preparing us for the dreamscape of nostalgia and memory which follows.

Julie’s Lullaby enters the same magical Bohemian folk world we hear in Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarercompleted around the same time, in 1885. As in the Mahler, Dvořák’s aria conjures up a complex and confusing mix of indescribable, but powerful emotions. Notice the way the music slips between major and minor.

Here is Eva Randova and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra:

Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque

Ferruccio Busoni’s haunting Berceuse élégiaque turns the lullaby on its head with the subtitle, “The man’s lullaby at his mother’s coffin.” Written in 1909, the first performance was given by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on February 21, 1911 with Gustav Mahler conducting. Mahler must have felt strongly about this music because he insisted on conducting, despite a fever of 104. It was his final concert. He returned to Vienna and died three months later.

The rocking rhythm at the opening of this piece is similar to what we heard in Brahms’ Lullaby, but this is an entirely different world. In the opening, dark, murky string colors suggest the feeling of being under water.

Here is a 2010 performance by Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Ed Spanjaard:

Ravel’s Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Fauré

Maurice Ravel wrote this short lullaby in 1922 as a tribute to the 77-year-old Gabriel Fauré. The piece’s motive grew out of Fauré’s name (GABDBEE FAGDE). Behind the music’s innocence and simplicity lies a hint of something dark and ominous. But, like so much of Ravel’s music, we only catch a glimpse of the storm clouds. The piece concludes with a sense of joyful, child-like detachment. It’s like watching a young child who is completely absorbed in the imaginary world of play. The final bars evaporate into a dreamy haze.

This performance comes from a recording by violinist Chantal Juillet and pianist Pascal Rogé:

Hush, little one, and fold your hands;
The sun hath set, the moon is high;
The sea is singing to the sands,
And wakeful posies are beguiled
By many a fairy lullaby:
Hush, little child, my little child!

Dream, little one, and in your dreams
Float upward from this lowly place,–
Float out on mellow, misty streams
To lands where bideth Mary mild,
And let her kiss thy little face,
You little child, my little child!

Sleep, little one, and take thy rest,
With angels bending over thee,–
Sleep sweetly on that Father’s breast
Whom our dear Christ hath reconciled;
But stay not there,–come back to me,
O little child, my little child!

-Emily Dickinson (Sicilian Lullaby)