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:

Beethoven’s Hymn of Thanksgiving

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Beethoven inscribed the transcendent third movement of his Op. 132 String Quartet with the descriptive title, “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” (Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode). The words reflected Beethoven’s gratitude for a burst of renewed health, following a near-fatal stomach ailment during the winter of 1824-25. They are the words of a composer who, earlier in life, grappled with the devastating realities of hearing loss, and ultimately triumphed.

Written in the final two years of Beethoven’s life, following the completion of the Ninth Symphony, the String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132 enters the strange, mysterious world of Beethoven’s “late string quartets.” These works were so groundbreaking and radical that they left audiences baffled when they were first performed. The violinist and composer Louis Spohr called these quartets “indecipherable, uncorrected horrors.” Another musician said, “we know there is something there, but we do not know what it is.” After hearing the Op. 131 Quartet, Franz Schubert remarked, “After this, what is left for us to write?” In the twentieth century, Igor Stravinsky called the Große Fuge, Op. 133 “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” Even Beethoven seems to have understood the power of these musical revelations. Writing in English to a friend in 1810 regarding the String Quartet No. 11 in F minor (“Serioso”), Op. 95 he said, “The quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public.” It would be easy to call Beethoven’s late string quartets “ahead of their time.” In fact, they seem eternally timeless. Listening to this music, you don’t get any sense of style or historical period. They become music in its purest form.

The “Holy song of thanksgiving” is the longest movement in the Op. 132 Quartet and comes at the heart of the five-movement work. The overlapping voices in the opening can be heard as a reference to the ghostly opening of the Quartet’s first movement. Throughout the third movement, the music alternates between the opening chorale (in modal F) and a slightly faster section in D major, which Beethoven marks, “with renewed strength.” Each time the D major section returns, it becomes more embellished, joyful and frolicking (listen to the sense of breathlessness in this passage). By contrast, the opening chorale becomes increasingly introverted. Toward the end of the movement, the music fades into open fifths (a sound which emerges out of silence in the opening of the Ninth Symphony). The final moments of the third movement reach for an ultimate climax and then fall back into tender acceptance. As the chorale returns one last time, giving each voice of the quartet a final statement, we sense that the music is trying to hang on, as if afraid to let go. When we reach the end, the final chord in F feels strangely unresolved, overpowered by the preceding passage’s convincing pull to C major. Beethoven’s “Holy song of Thanksgiving” moves beyond conventional key relationships, making us focus on the moment, rather than a far-off goal, and leaving us with a sense of the circular and eternal.

Josef Gingold: A Rare 1944 Profile

Earlier in the week, a Listeners’ Club reader sent me a fascinating and rare slice of American violin history. Below is music critic Russell McLauchlin’s profile of a 35-year-old Joseph Gingold which appeared in the Detroit Jewish News on December 8, 1940. Gingold had just left Toscanini’s NBC Symphony in New York to become concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony. Within a few years, he would go on to hold the same title with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. Later, Gingold would join the faculty of Indiana University, building a reputation as one of the most influential violin teachers of the twentieth century. (Hear a sample of Gingold’s recordings in past Listeners’ Club posts).

McLauchlin’s profile gives us a sense of Gingold’s humanity and the warm, respectful and collegial atmosphere he fostered within the Detroit Symphony violin section. Most notably, we see his generosity and passion for teaching: he opened his home to weekly coaching sessions for younger and less experienced members of the section. A true leader brings the team together to accomplish a common goal, allowing everyone to produce their best work. In this regard, Josef Gingold provides a fine example.

Thank you to photographer Herman Krieger, who took the story’s photo of Gingold and his son, for sharing this old news clip. Click on the image and click again in the top right corner to make it larger:

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Here are a few of Josef Gingold’s recordings:

Das Lied von der Erde: Mahler’s Farewell

915-CFHUAeL._SX522_As late summer fades into fall, this seems like a good time to listen to the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”). The text, based on ancient Chinese poetry, evokes seasonal cycles…a sense of death, separation, and resignation, followed by rebirth, loss of the ego, and ultimate immorality. In this music, completed in 1909 near the end of Mahler’s life, the endless forward drive of Western music, everything from the first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth to the epic climax of a Wagner opera, dissolves into something more circular and timeless. As Leonard Bernstein mentions, “death becomes a synonym for eternity,” and, in the end, both are greeted with peaceful acceptance.

Bernstein called Das Lied von der Erde “Mahler’s greatest symphony.” In this blend of symphony and song, there is never a sense of the orchestra merely accompanying the vocal line. Instead, all voices are seamlessly integrated. The work is scored for a large orchestra, including two harps, mandolin, glockenspiel and celesta. But small groups of instruments often converse with each other, creating the intimacy of chamber music. In Mahler’s music, each instrument’s distinct persona becomes especially vivid. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear that each voice has something to say, and although we can sense pain, melancholy, joy, transcendence, and more, the message is impossible to capture in words.

Mahler added “symphony” to the title, partly to overcome the perceived “curse of the ninth.” (As we discussed in a past Listeners’ Club post, composers from Beethoven and Schubert to Bruckner died after completing nine symphonies). But Das Lied von der Erde was not included as a numbered symphony and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony became his last completed work.

The final lines were written by Mahler:

The dear earth everywhere blossoms in spring and grows green
anew! Everywhere and forever blue is the horizon!
Forever … Forever …

Here is the sixth and final movement of Das Lied von der Erde, Der Abschied (“The Farewell”). It’s a finale that is as long as all of the other preceding songs combined. This is Otto Klemperer’s 1966 recording with mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig and the New Philharmonia Orchestra. (Mahler frequently wrote for mezzo-soprano, favoring the slightly darker tone color in contrast to the brightness of a soprano). As a young man, Klemperer knew Mahler and served as his assistant during the premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (the “Symphony of a Thousand”).

  • Find this recording at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Listen to the complete Das Lied von der Erde here.
  • Find Mahler in the Listeners’ Club archive.

Schubert’s Mysterious Final String Quartet

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Slow down, maybe even close your eyes, and listen attentively to Franz Schubert’s hauntingly transcendent final string quartet, No. 15 in G major, D. 887. It’s one of a handful of pieces written in the final years of Schubert’s life that moves into strange, mysterious new territory. Schubert wrote this music in ten days in June of 1826, but it wasn’t until 1851 that it was published, posthumously.

During the same time, Beethoven was completing his own final work, the String Quartet, Op. 135. Both Beethoven’s final quartets and late Schubert offer a glimpse of profound revelation. But while Beethoven often takes us on a dramatic journey with an ultimate sense of resolution, Schubert’s music can be less goal-oriented and more open-ended. The pianist Paul Lewis offered this description in a 2012 New York Times interview:

Schubert asks the performer to speak softly, Mr. Lewis said, which renders the music more powerful. “If someone shouts at you it’s a shock,” he said. “But if someone gives you awful news in a softly spoken way it’s sinister.” With Beethoven, he said, “there is a sense of rising above or resolution, but with Schubert you end up with more questions, a sense of something hanging in the air.”

Similarly, Mark Steinberg, a violinist in the Brentano Quartet, writes,

[Schubert’s] experience of time can be more painterly than narrative; all is present simultaneously and we need to approach his works with a patience that allows us to grasp his yearning toward acceptance rather than resolution.

In some ways Quartet No. 15 anticipates the gradual, unfolding cosmic grandeur of Bruckner’s symphonies (listen to Bruckner’s Seventh for a comparison), music which has been compared to walking around a cathedral and viewing the same structure from an ever-changing perspective. In the hushed intensity of the quartet’s otherworldly tremolos, we hear echoes of Bruckner symphonies to come. As with Bruckner, Schubert’s quartet is built on key relationships and a restless sense of modulation (listen to the first movement’s second theme at 2:16 and the final movement). From the unsettled opening of the first movement, and throughout the piece, we hear the music alternate between major and minor, as if it can’t make up its mind where to go next. It isn’t until the first movement’s coda (14:17) that we feel firmly grounded in G major. Unlike most of Schubert’s music, which is almost always rooted in song, this quartet is strangely motivic.

A few details in the music to listen for: In the first movement notice the way the canonic overlapping voices are paired against each other, beginning around 1:23. This conversational overlap powerfully returns as a musical exclamation point in the final bars of the movement. You may notice a sense of instability and conflict increasing throughout the development section. Keep listening, and you’ll hear this tension explode in one shockingly dissonant chord (8:55) which says, “Go no further.” With the recapitulation, we return to the music of the opening, but as Mark Steinberg points out, everything feels different:

The recapitulation, or return to the opening material, in the first movement is extraordinary in that the sense of return is strong and unmistakable and yet nothing is the same. The startling dynamic contrasts are gone, the jagged rhythms are smoothed out. Instead of shuddering tremolos we have rolling triplets that seem gently to console. And yet, with all of this contrast, the sense is not that there were conflicts that have been resolved but rather that what we are hearing was there all along had we chosen to understand it in that way; we should have no expectation that the more difficult opening idea has been banished but only that we see how to admit it into our experience without being completely overwhelmed.

In the second movement we hear strangely terrifying shrieks (beginning at 18:17) which remain insistent and unchanging as the music around them changes. It may be the darkest, most frightening moment in all of Schubert’s music, and it’s left hanging and unresolved. Throughout the movement, we continue to return to an almost expressionless, static, canonic conversation between the violin and cello (20:28).

The third movement’s trio section (29:29) takes us to a world far from the terror of the second movement. The music lingers there, as if it doesn’t want to leave, even to return to the sparkling magic of the scherzo.  

The final movement keeps us off balance with one surprise after another, from sudden key changes to rhythmic shifts. Notice the quirky contrapuntal activity beginning at 34:55. For some reason, this passage reminds me of the ironic comedy of Mahler’s music. In the music that follows we hear almost comic references to opera (35:22). The buoyant cello pizzicati in the final bars brings the whirlwind activity and humor of the movement to a fitting close.

Here is the Brandis Quartet’s 1997 recording:

  1. Allegro molto moderato –0:00
  2. Andante un poco moto –14:50
  3. Scherzo, allegro vivace –26:30
  4. Allegro assai –33:25

Postscript

Now that you’ve heard String Quartet No. 15, take a moment and review two other late Schubert pieces, the monumental Ninth Symphony and the String Quintet, completed two months before the composer’s death. If you feel inspired, please share your thoughts on the music in the discussion thread below.

Unfinished Schubert

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No, not the “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8, a piece which feels strangely complete at two movements. We’ll get to that masterpiece at some point, but today let’s listen to the unfinished C minor string quartet (Quartettsatz, D. 703) Franz Schubert began in December, 1820. Schubert completed the first movementAllegro assai. Interestingly, its opening bears a slight resemblance to the hushed, shivering string lines in the first movement of the “Unfinished” Symphony, which was started eight months later.

Schubert only completed 41 bars of the exposition of an Andante before permanently abandoning the work. Did he just get too busy with other projects? Or, as musicologist Javier Arrebola has speculated (citing other unfinished Schubert works from the same period), perhaps it “…did not yet represent the great leap forward he was striving for.”

Regardless, the greatest composers seem to innately know when the creative powers are speaking, or not. The C minor Quartet’s second movement remains a beautiful and intriguing fragment. The music simply trails off where Schubert stopped…

Beauty in Simplicity: A Schubert Sanctus

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Sometimes the most profound musical statements flow out of simplicity. Rooted in song, the music of Franz Schubert often seems to say a lot with a few, seemingly effortless notes. The Sanctus from Schubert’s Deutsche Messe, D. 872 (German Mass) is a good example. 

In the traditional Latin liturgical text, Sanctus sounds like a stirring proclamation, “Holy, Holy, Holy, God of power and might.” These lines have inspired composers from Mozart and Verdi to John Rutter to write soaring, contrapuntal music. By contrast, Schubert’s Sanctus is a simple, introspective chorale. 

Written in 1827, near the end of Schubert’s short life, the German Mass is set to poems by Johann Philipp Neumann rather than the traditional Latin text. Neumann commissioned Schubert to write simple, homophonic music that would be easy for an entire congregation to sing. Although intended for a Catholic service, the work was banned because it was an “unauthorized” German translation of the Mass. You can listen to the entire German Mass here.

Listen carefully to the inner voices. Schubert sets up our expectation and then throws in some thrilling harmonic surprises:

Schumann’s Piano Quintet, Op. 44

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The year was 1842 and Robert Schumann was on a roll. In just over nine months the composer, who up until that point had written mostly piano music and songs, completed the three Op. 41 string quartets, a piano quintet (Op. 44), a piano quartet (Op. 47), and the Fantasiestücke piano trio (Op. 88). It’s no wonder that musicologists refer to 1842 as Schumann’s “chamber music year.”

The monumental Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44 brought together a new cast of characters. Schumann paired piano and string quartet, practically inventing a virtuosic new genre.  Prior to this, the piano quintet had typically used double bass rather than cello, as in Franz Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet. Schumann’s quintet greatly influenced Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minorwritten twenty-two years later.

The first movement opens with a noble, collective statement…a joyful celebration of this powerful, new combination of voices. But quickly a musical conversation begins. Listen to the way each voice contributes to the conversation. The participants in this passionate musical conversation agree, argue, occasionally finish one another’s sentences, and frequently pick up on an idea, taking it in a sudden, new direction. The movement’s coda ends with a playful cadential nod to Felix Mendelssohn (8:33), capped off with an exuberant exclamation point in contrary motion (8:41).

In the second movement we enter a solemn funeral march in C minor. But, as in the first movement, we find ourselves in sudden, unexpected places. Listen for rhapsodic changes from darkness to light. For me, one of the second movement’s most incredible moments comes around the 16:03 mark when the cello joins the violin in a passionate statement of lament. A few moments later, the gloomy funeral march is interrupted by a cry of terror (17:22), which leads to the movement’s sudden conclusion.

Schumann wrote the Op. 44 Piano Quintet for his wife Clara Wieck, one of the most distinguished pianists of her day and a composer in her own right. The Scherzo’s first trio section (19:06) features a descending four note motive that originated in Schumann’s 10 Impromptus on a Theme of Clara Wieck, Op. 5. The same motive pops up in the base line at this moment in the introduction of the first movement of the “Spring” Symphony No. 1 

Near the end of the final movement, we get a hint of the first movement’s opening theme (27:51). Then, at 28:15 the movement’s momentum comes to a crashing halt and the first movement’s opening theme reappears triumphantly, boldly stated in a single piano line, as if to say, “I’m still here!” This theme and the final movement’s main theme are blended into a double fugue and the Op. 44 Piano Quintet finds a heroic conclusion.

Here is a great performance by the Emerson String Quartet and pianist Menahem Pressler:

  1. Allegro Brillante 0:00
  2. In modo d’una marcia. Un poco largamente 8:56
  3. Scherzo. Molto vivace 17:51
  4. Allegro ma non troppo 22:40