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:

Sibelius 5’s Evaporating Tonal Center

A part of the Sibelius monument in Helsinki.
A part of the Sibelius monument in Helsinki.

 

In Monday’s post, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Jean Sibelius’ birth, we listened to Leonard Bernstein’s live concert performance of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. Returning to this music, I was reminded of that chilling moment in the first movement when the tonal center completely evaporates.

Virtually all music from J.S. Bach through Late Romanticism was tonal, built on relationships between a tonic (the key’s home base) and dominant. We naturally sense these relationships and the pull of a dominant (V) chord back home. For example, imagine how unfulfilled you would feel if the final resolution was missing from the end of Gee, Officer Krupke! from Bernstein’s West Side Story.  The music would be left hanging in midair.

As the twentieth century unfolded, this tonal center sometimes began to fray and disappear altogether. We hear tonality slipping away in the last Mahler symphonies (listen to the haunting Adagio from Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony), and in Debussy’s floating Eastern harmonies (listen to the dreamy Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun). When tonality completely disappears, it sounds like Arnold Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31In this music, all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale are treated equally and all sense of hierarchy is gone.

But let’s return to that frightening moment in the first movement of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, written in 1915, when tonality briefly disappears. As the bassoon wanders through a desolate landscape, we hear wispy, ghostly spinning motives in the strings. It almost sounds like a distant howling wind. Moments later, the tonal center abruptly returns, but the shock of this passage (beginning around 6:43) remains with us for the rest of the piece:

The Oceanides: Sibelius’ Ambient Tone Poem

The Oceanides, Op. 73

When you think of ambient concert music that conjures up vast sonic landscapes, the name John Luther Adams may come to mind. Adams, an American composer and longtime resident of Alaska, was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his orchestral work, Become Ocean, premiered by conductor Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony in June, 2013. It’s music which unfolds slowly in rich, colorful waves of sound, evoking the eternal power, depth and cool darkness of the awesome bodies of water which cover seventy-one percent of Earth’s surface.

But Adams wasn’t the first composer to create an ambient sonic portrait of the sea. Listen to Jean Sibelius’ tone poem, The Oceanides, Op. 73, and you’ll get a similar sense of murky depths and mythological “Nymphs of the Waves” (the loose translation of the Finnish title, Aallottaret).

The Oceanides emerges from the depths of the orchestra, as rising and falling string lines wander in a daze. Flutes provide a playful splash of color. The dreamy serenity of the flutes’ opening motives would be at home in any hazy New-age composition. And while the motives develop (certainly at a faster clip than in the static Become Ocean), we are left with a feeling of the circular and timeless. In this excerpt, listen to the way the horns resolve, only to quickly move back to unsettled dominant territory and then dissolve into something new.

At moments, there are hints of that other piece about the ocean, Claude Debussy’s La mer, completed eight years earlier in 1905. But beyond a few passing similarities, Sibelius’ tone poem feels different than La mer. As with Sibelius’ symphonies, the music spins forward and develops, yet we quickly realize that there is no ultimate goal, just another icy, slowly changing landscape over an endless horizon. That’s the feeling we get from the long, endless series of waves in Become Ocean. The Oceanides has one climactic moment of resolution that feels strangely similar to the crest of one of Become Ocean‘s sonic waves. From there, the music falls back and we’re left with the unending expanse of the ocean.

  • Find Osmo Vänskä’s recording of The Oceanides with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (featured above) at iTunes, Amazon.
  • The Oceanides underwent a series of revisions. Hear one of Sibelius’ earlier versions, set a half step lower in the key of D-flat.
  • Find John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Browse the Listeners’ Club archive and find other posts featuring Sibelius’ music.

Remembering Joseph Silverstein

Joseph Silverstein (1932-2015)
Joseph Silverstein (1932-2015)

 

Legendary violinist, conductor, and teacher Joseph Silverstein passed away yesterday in Boston. He was 83.

Born in Detroit, the son of a public school music educator, Silverstein studied with Efrem Zimbalist, William Primrose, Josef Gingold, and Mischa Mischakoff. He served as concertmaster of the Boston Symphony for 22 years, beginning in 1962. In 1971 he was appointed assistant conductor of the BSO. He was music director of the Utah Symphony between 1983 and 1998. Silverstein was on the faculty of New England Conservatory and the Curtis Institute. He was also a member of the Suzuki Association of the Americas Honorary Board.

In this informal interview from last December, Joseph Silverstein shares thoughts on violin playing, the role of the concertmaster, auditions, stage fright, and much more. He remembers performing concertos with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra and accompanying Jascha Heifetz with the Boston Symphony. He recommends that students aspire to “a life in music,” celebrating all aspects of playing (solo, chamber music, orchestral), as well as teaching. The interview provides a hint of Silverstein’s famously gruff and uncompromising teaching style, which underlies intense conviction. Silverstein demonstrated a great love for the violin. When the student interviewers asked why he continued to practice rigorously (including scales) at his stature, he answered “I want to get better.”

In his 1983 book, Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz wrote,

Whenever I hear Joseph Silverstein, I am convinced that there is no more fastidious violinist around. His playing is so finely chiseled, his tone so warm, his interpretation in such good taste, that he has few rivals.

Early on, Silverstein played a 1773 J.B. Guadagnini which had been owned by Arthur Grumiaux. For most of his career he played the 1742 “ex-Camilla Urso” Guarnerius del Gesù.

Here is a sampling of Joseph Silverstein’s numerous recordings:

Concertmaster Solo from Swan Lake

Here is solo from the Danse russe from the third act of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet score. It was recorded with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony in 1978:

Barber Violin Concerto

Here is the first movement of the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto, recorded in 1985 with the Utah Symphony:

Stravinsky Violin Concerto

Silverstein’s recording with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony, released in 1965:

J.S. Bach Partita No. 3

Here is the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for solo violin:

Debussy Sonata

Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, recorded in 1975. Michael Tilson Thomas is playing the piano.

  • Find Joseph Silverstein’s recordings at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Excerpts from a violin masterclass with Silverstein
  • Frank Almond’s tribute

An Electrifying Oberon in Berlin

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)

In the clip below, conductor Mariss Jansons leads the Berlin Philharmonic in a spectacular and rousing performance of the overture to the opera Oberon by Carl Maria von Weber.

Weber’s music contains some of the earliest seeds of Romanticism. His orchestration was new and innovative. It mixed tonal colors in exciting ways and expanded the size and power of the orchestra. (Notice the trombones, which were a relatively new addition at the time). Berlioz referred to Weber in his influential Treatise on Instrumentation and Debussy remarked that the sound of Weber’s orchestra was “obtained through the scrutiny of the soul of each instrument.” Weber’s opera Euryanthe anticipated Wagner’s Leitmotif technique, in which a short, recurring musical phrase is used to represent a character or idea. Even twentieth century composers returned to Weber’s music. (Listen to Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis, which is based on themes by Weber).

The Oberon Overture begins with a distant horn call and slowly awakening strings. Listen to the harmony at 1:15 and you’ll be reminded of yet-to-be-written Wagner. A few moments later at 1:33, we hear the playful laughter of Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. And then, after this sleepy and introspective opening, the music suddenly explodes into a fireball of virtuosity. A cast of characters comes alive through the instruments of the orchestra. The overture, which began so quietly, ends in a high-flying flourish of euphoria.

Oberon was first performed at London’s Covent Garden on April 12, 1826. The three act Romantic opera’s plot dates back to a medieval French story, Huon of Bordeaux. You can hear Maria Callas sing an excerpt from the opera here.

  • Find Carl Maria von Weber’s overtures at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find the complete opera here.

Live Concert Recording: Gingold Plays Fauré

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Over the weekend, I ran across this amazing 1966 live concert recording of Josef Gingold performing Gabriel Fauré’s First Violin Sonata. The recording’s sound quality isn’t the best. But the essence of Gingold’s soulful, sweetly vibrant tone and smooth, golden phrasing cuts through the tape hiss and audience noise. In a recent interview Joshua Bell described the tone that poured out of Gingold’s Strad as, “the most beautiful sound of any violinist, to this day, that I’ve heard.”

A student of Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931), Gingold performed in Toscanini’s NBC Symphony and served as concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. Remembered as one of the twentieth century’s most important violin teachers, Gingold served on the faculty of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music for more than thirty years. His students included Joshua Bell, Corey Cerovsek, Leonidas Kavakos, Miriam Fried, and William Preucil. In a past Listeners’ Club post, we explored Gingold’s approach to violin playing and teaching.

Gabriel Fauré’s music often seems to float with an elegant effervescence and buoyant sense of forward motion. Musicologists have viewed Fauré as a link between Romanticism and the hazy, rule-breaking Impressionism of Claude Debussy. We hear all of this in the Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major. First performed in 1877, the piece was initially rejected by Parisian publishers who found its harmonies shockingly adventurous. Camille Saint-Saëns, who had been Fauré’s teacher, wrote:

In this Sonata you can find everything to tempt a gourmet: new forms, excellent modulations, unusual tone colors, and the use of unexpected rhythms…And a magic floats above everything, encompassing the whole work, causing the crowd of usual listeners to accept the unimagined audacity as something quite normal. With this work Monsieur Fauré takes his place among the masters.

Here is the first movement, Allegro molto. The music opens with waves of luxurious sound in the piano. The violin enters, picking up the piano’s motive and developing it. The music soars increasingly higher, culminating in a particularly luscious passage (1:08-1:17) before falling back. At moments, you may be reminded of César Franck’s Violin Sonata, also in A major, written a few years later in 1886.

In this performance Gingold is joined by pianist Walter Robert.

The second movement, Andante:

The third movement, Allegro vivo:

The fourth movement, Allegro quasi presto:

  • Find this recording, The Art of Josef Gingold at iTunesAmazon.
  • Joshua Bell talks about Gingold in this Strad Magazine interview.

Ivan Moravec Plays Chopin

Czech pianist Ivan Moravec (1930-2015)
Czech pianist Ivan Moravec (1930-2015)

 

The legendary Czech pianist Ivan Moravec passed away on Monday at the age of 84. He was widely regarded as one of the finest interpreters of the music of Chopin. Mozart and Debussy were also high points of his repertoire. Born in Prague, and initially limited by the constraints of the Iron Curtain, Moravec first became known in the West through his recordings.

Listening to Moravec’s extensive discography, it’s easy to get a sense of the stunning, expressive beauty of his sound. His musicianship transcended flashy showmanship, transporting listeners to a deeper and more primal dimension. In a 1980 New York Times review, Harold C. Schonberg described Moravec’s playing this way:

Using an exceptionally warm sound, he played with a perpetually singing line. There was an architecture to the playing. This was an absorbing recital, played by a pianist who is very much his own man, with a degree of intensity, poetry and tonal subtlety very rare in these days of machine gun piano playing.

Here is Ivan Moravec’s recording of Chopin’s haunting Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52:

Now let’s hear two excerpts from Chopin’s Op. 25 Études. Robert Schumann referred to the Étude No. 1 in A-Flat Major as the “Aeolian Harp,” describing it as “a poem rather than a study.” It’s impossible to sustain a note on the piano. Once the hammer strikes the string, the sound begins to decay. But somehow the colorful splashes of sound in the arpeggiated accompaniment in this piece almost seems to defy this reality:

Étude No. 7 in C-Sharp Minor takes us into dark, melancholy territory. At the same time, it’s filled with moments of restless transcendence…tremendous drama packed into a small space where every note and chord counts. The main melodic line lies in a deep, sombre register of the piano, suggesting the cello.

The music is harmonically adventurous, with surprises around every corner. It must have sounded even more shocking to audiences in 1834 when it was written. There are hints of the late nineteenth century chromaticism of Richard Wagner.

Additional Listening

Debussy’s Études Turn 100

UnknownApart from the question of technique, these Études will be a useful warning to pianists not to take up the musical profession unless they have remarkable hands….

This was Claude Debussy’s warning to students who dared attempt to play his twelve fiendishly difficult Études for solo piano. The short pieces were even technically daunting for Debussy, who described them as “music that soars to the summit of execution,” and requires you to occasionally catch your breath, “as after climbing a mountain.” Each étude was designed to showcase a different set of finger gymnastics, from thirds, fourths, sixths, and octaves, to chromatic passages, ornaments, and dissonances.

Beyond the thorny technical challenges lie extraordinary music. The first étude, marked sagement (“well-behaved”), opens with a reference to the finger dexterity exercises of Carl Czerny. A five-note scale motive is interrupted by gleefully raucous outbursts which eventually take over the music completely. There are echoes of Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum from Debussy’s Children’s Corner. We hear a similar sense of wild humor in the “eight finger” Perptuum mobile of the sixth étude. The mercurial fourth étude (For Sixths) swings erratically from one key area to another and ends up awash in jazzy impressionism. Regarding this music, Debussy wrote to his publisher,

For a very long time, the continuous use of sixths gave me the feeling of pretentious demoisselles seated in a salon sulkily embroider- ing, envying the scandalous laughter of mad ninths…yet I am writing this study where the at- tention to the sixth organizes the harmonies only with aggregates of these intervals, and it’s not ugly! (Mea culpa…).

Tomorrow, Debussy’s Études turn 100. He began working on them on July 23, 1915 at a sea-side chalet in Dieppe in Normandy. Fear of an impending German occupation of Paris had driven him to the countryside. He was beginning to show signs of the cancer that would take his life three years later. The ghosts of past pianists seem to have been looking over Debussy’s shoulder. He considered dedicating the Études to Couperin, but instead chose Chopin. (He had just completed a new addition of Chopin’s works for his publisher, Durand).

You can hear Mitsuko Uchida’s great 1990 recording of the complete set of Études here.

For an excerpt, here is the dreamy Étude 11 (Pour les Arpèges composés). Listen to the way the initial musical “stream” of notes flows and develops, taking us on a series of sudden and short-lived adventures, and culminating with a playful splash of sound: