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:

The Lonely Introspection of Brahms’ Op. 116, No. 4

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

 

Let’s finish the week with Johannes Brahms’ Intermezzo in E major, No. 4 from the Seven Fantasies, Op. 116 for piano. Written in 1892 in the final years of Brahms’ life, this is music infused with a deep sense of lonely introspection. It draws us into a dreamlike world where every chord and hesitating pause seem to have something important to say.

There are moments when the rhythmic feel changes in interesting ways, obliterating our sense of “strong” and “weak” beats. We also get a visceral sense of the spacial dimension in this music: lines pull apart and converge in an elaborate musical architecture. We feel the width of the piano’s keyboard. And listen to the aching beauty of this passage, in which a series of voices pour passionately from the piano in imitative, canonic counterpoint.

As Op. 116, No. 4 draws to a close, the pitch “E” in the bass takes on increasing power, as if to foreshadow the inevitability of a final resolution. When that resolution comes, it’s met with peaceful acceptance.

Here is American pianist Richard Goode’s 1987 recording:

  • Find this recording at iTunes, Amazon.
  • András Schiff plays the entire Seven Fantasies, Op. 116 in this live performance.

The Mercurial Romanticism of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73

MI0000979737Listening to Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 forces us to live in and enjoy the moment. The three short “Fantasy Pieces,” written in just over two days in February, 1849, are filled with abrupt, slightly schizophrenic, changes in mood. Moments of deep introspection, followed by bursts of euphoria, remind us of Florestan and Eusebius, the split personalities which inhabit much of Schumann’s music. In the Fantasy Pieces, each delightful and unexpected harmonic shift whisks us off to a new, distant world of expression. (Listen to the chord at 1:40 in the first clip, below, for example). These stream of consciousness “songs without words” develop through obsessively repeated musical fragments which toss and turn as they search for an ultimate resolution. The recurring opening motive in the last movement grabs our attention and then pauses, leaving us hanging. Listen for the moment towards the end where we get a sudden, sly resolution (9:58).

Schumann originally wrote this music for the clarinet, but his version for cello is equally interesting. In both versions there’s a strong sense of musical conversation between the piano and the other instruments. At moments (such as the passionate dialogue between the cello and piano at 6:50) you may be reminded of the musical link between Schumann and Brahms.

Here is cellist Mischa Maisky and pianist Martha Argerich:

…and here is the version for clarinet, featuring Martin Fröst and Jonathan Biss. Consider the ways the piece changes with each instrument.

Listen to the second and third movements.

  • Find the Mischa Maisky/Martha Argerich recording at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find the Martin Fröst/Jonathan Biss recording at Amazon.

Roman Totenberg’s Lost Strad Resurfaces

The 1734 The Ames Stradivarius
Roman Totenberg’s 1734 Ames Stradivarius, stolen following a recital in 1980.

 

An incredible violin-related news story broke yesterday. The 1734 Ames Stradivarius, stolen in 1980 from legendary Polish-American violinist Roman Totenberg, has been recovered by the FBI. The violin, valued at $250,000 when it was stolen and now estimated to be worth upwards of $5 million, was snatched from Totenberg’s office at the Longy School of Music as the violinist greeted well-wishers following a concert.

Fine instruments commonly disappear into a private collection following this kind of heist. Easily recognized, they become virtually impossible for thieves to sell. Totenberg’s anguish at losing his “musical partner of 38 years” was made worse by the fact that he believed he knew who the culprit was. Philip S. Johnson, an unremarkable California violinist was seen near the crime scene. Police said they lacked enough evidence to justify searching Johnson’s home. After Johnson died in 2011, his ex-wife discovered the instrument. She sought an appraisal and it was quickly identified as the Ames Strad. Roman Totenberg passed away in 2012 at the age of 101.

Nina Totenberg, legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio, talked about the rediscovery of her father’s instrument on NPR’s Morning Edition. The family intends to sell the instrument after it is restored. Nina Totenberg said,

We’re going to make sure that it’s in the hands of another great artist who will play it in concert halls all over the world. All of us feel very strongly that the voice has been stilled for too long.

Roman Totenberg is almost certainly playing the Ames Stradivarius in this live performance of Brahms’ Third Violin Sonata from a 1976 Boston recital. The pianist is Leonard Shure.

Bring on the Wascally Wabbit

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The Richmond Symphony season is winding down. But this weekend we’ll be busy performing the popular touring show, Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II with conductor George Daugherty. The show is a tribute to the music of classic Warner Brothers’ cartoons. Generations of viewers gained an exposure to classical music through these zany cartoons, which included:

Schoenberg Meets Looney Tunes

Cartoons had an interesting influence on John Adams’ Chamber Symphony, written in 1992. Here is an excerpt from the composer’s website:

I originally set out to write a children’s piece, and my intentions were to sample the voices of children and work them into a fabric of acoustic and electronic instruments. But before I began that project I had another one of those strange interludes that often lead to a new piece. This one involved a brief moment of what Melville called “the shock of recognition”: I was sitting in my studio, studying the score to Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, and as I was doing so I became aware that my seven year old son Sam was in the adjacent room watching cartoons (good cartoons, old ones from the ’50’s). The hyperactive, insistently aggressive and acrobatic scores for the cartoons mixed in my head with the Schoenberg music, itself hyperactive, acrobatic and not a little aggressive, and I realized suddenly how much these two traditions had in common.

The witty, spare instrumentation of Adams’ Chamber Symphony is a direct reference to Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 9, written in 1906. Listen to Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 and you’ll hear what happens when you push the chromaticism of Richard Strauss’ music just a little further and over the edge into atonality.

Beyond the instrumentation, Adams’ Chamber Symphony, “infected” with its cartoon-inspired elements, goes in a slightly different direction. Its outer movements drive forward with an unrelenting pulse as exhilarating musical volleys fly by. At moments it’s Stravinsky with a drum set. The wandering trombone solo in the second movement seems to have taken a wrong turn from some unwritten chorale line in Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler (1934).

We hear a host of outrageous and indestructible characters. Despite crazy, fast-paced adventures, collisions, explosions and other mishaps, the beat goes on. And in each movement, one of the most interesting aspects of this piece is what happens around this steady and undisrupted pulse.

Here is the Aurora Orchestra’s performance from their recording, Road Trip, released last year:

1. Mongrel Airs:

2. Aria with Walking Bass:

3. Roadrunner:

What did you think of John Adams’ Chamber Symphony? It’s a piece that can inspire strong emotions. Regardless of whether you loved or hated the music, take a moment and tell us about your experience in the thread below, as well as any other thoughts on music and cartoons.

The Brahms Violin Concerto: 8 Great Recordings

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Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 stands with Beethoven’s Concerto at the pinnacle of the violin repertoire. No concerto unleashes the soaring, heroic power and poetic potential of the violin more profoundly than Brahms’. It’s music that runs the gamut between smoldering ferocity and tranquil introspection, encompassing a universe of expression.

Brahms’ forty-plus year friendship and musical partnership with the German violinist and composer Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) was central to the Violin Concerto’s inception. Beginning with an August 21, 1878 correspondence, Joachim offered Brahms technical and musical advice after seeing sketches of the concerto, which was originally conceived in four movements. With Brahms conducting (inadequately), Joachim gave a hastily prepared and technically insecure premiere on January 1, 1879 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. This was followed by another slightly more successful performance in Vienna. But even Brahms’ most dedicated supporters, such as Joachim and the powerful Vienna critic Eduard Hanslick, seem to have needed time to warm up to the new composition. This initial lukewarm public reception and Joachim’s complaints of “awkward” violin passages show how profoundly Brahms’ Concerto pushed the envelope musically and in terms of violin technique. As affection for the work grew, Brahms wrote to a friend:

Joachim plays my piece more beautifully with every rehearsal, and his Cadenza has become so beautiful by concert time that the public applauded into my Coda.

As a composer, Brahms was haunted by the “footsteps of a giant,” Beethoven, whose music had profoundly changed the course of music history. Following the example of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Brahms’ Concerto is set in D major and opens with a long orchestral introduction. From the opening of the first movement, there’s a sense that the music is searching for a way forward. Following the opening statement, the oboe takes us in a new, unexpected direction. Then, resolute octaves turn into chords and suddenly we know where we are. In the passage that follows, listen closely to the canon that develops between the high and low strings. The first movement’s introduction concludes with a ferocious buildup to the violin’s entrance. Notice the rhythmic instability Brahms sets up in the low instruments, which causes us to lose track of the downbeat. You’ll hear Brahms play these occasional rhythmic games throughout the movement, especially in the final bars.

The solo violin explodes onto the scene with its first entrance, as if unleashing all of the introduction’s tension. Listen to the way the strings snarl back at the solo line in this opening. The way the solo and orchestral voices fit together is a huge part of the drama of this piece. Joseph Hellmesberger, who conducted the Vienna premiere, accused Brahms of writing a concerto, “not for, but against the violin.”

One of this concerto’s most serenely beautiful moments is the first movement’s coda, following the cadenza. In these bars, time seems suspended and we almost hold our breath as the final tutti is delayed. Just when we think the violin can’t reach higher, it somehow does. As the movement inches towards its final resolution, listen to the quiet, suspended fanfare in the horns and woodwinds.

The second movement opens with one of the most tranquil and sublime oboe solos in orchestral music. This extended statement is the last thing we would expect in a violin concerto. The Spanish virtuoso, Pablo de Sarasate complained that he refused to “stand on the rostrum, violin in hand and listen to the oboe playing the only tune in the adagio.”

The final movement is a sparkling, fun-loving romp. You can hear echoes of the final movement of Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. Brahms’ opening theme apparently served as a model for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s pop song, Don’t Cry for me, Argentina from the musical, Evita.

Eight Great Recordings

Here are eight contrasting recordings of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Explore the list and then share your thoughts in the comment thread below. If you have a favorite recording that didn’t make the list, leave your own suggestion below.

Henryk Szeryng and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Henryk Szeryng’s 1974 recording with Bernard Haitink and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is one of the most inspiring recordings I’ve heard of this piece. There is a straightforward classicism to his approach. At the same time, the drama of the music shines through. The tempos on this recording capture the expressive weight of the music. Szeryng plays Joachim’s cadenzas:

Jascha Heifetz and the Chicago Symphony

This classic 1959 Heifetz recording, with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony, was my first introduction to the piece as a child. The searing intensity of this performance is unparalleled. With Heifetz’s trademark fast tempos, this is one of the most exciting, yet soulful performances you’ll hear:

Hilary Hahn and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

If you’re looking for a modern performance, you won’t go wrong with Hilary Hahn’s 2001 recording with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. The motto of this CD might be, “opposites attract,” because the Brahms is coupled with an equally great performance of the Stravinsky Violin Concerto.

Bronislaw Huberman and the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York

This historic, live 1944 recording of Bronislaw Huberman and conductor Artur Rodzinski in New York offers a unique slice of history. As a child, Huberman played the concerto in Brahms’ presence in Vienna in January, 1896. According to the biographer Max Kalbeck:

As soon as Brahms heard the sound of the violin, he pricked up his ears, during the Andante he wiped his eyes, and after the Finale he went into the green room, embraced the young fellow, and stroked his cheeks. When Huberman complained that the public applauded after the cadenza, breaking into the lovely Cantilena, Brahms replied, “You should not have played the cadenza so beautifully”…Brahms brought him a photo of his, inscribed, “In friendly memory of Vienna and your grateful listener J. Brahms.”

In his book, Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz recounts that someone overheard Brahms promise to write a short violin fantasy for the young Huberman, adding jokingly, “if I have any fantasy left.” But Brahms died the following year.

Julia Fischer and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra Amsterdam

Julia Fischer’s 2006 recording with conductor Yakov Kreizberg is the most recent CD on the list. Fischer offers a Romantic and introspective reading, filled with mystery. The disk includes Brahms’ “Double” Concerto with German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott.

Anne-Sophie Mutter and the New York Philharmonic

Anne-Sophie Mutter recorded the Brahms early in her career with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (listen here). It’s interesting to compare that more straightforward interpretation with her later 1997 recording with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic. The later recording is definitely more romantic with more emphasis on vibrato. Mutter’s dynamic range is also remarkably wide. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on which version you prefer.

David Oistrakh and the French National Radio Orchestra

Few “great recordings” lists are complete without a performance by David Oistrakh. Oistrakh recorded the Brahms Concerto several times. Otto Klemperer conducted this reverberant 1960 studio recording.

Ruggiero Ricci and the Sinfonia of London

This 1991 Ruggiero Ricci CD features sixteen cadenzas including those written by Ferruccio Busoni, Leopold Auer, Eugène Ysaÿe, Fritz Kreisler, Adolf Busch, and Nathan Milstein.

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

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)