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:

Mendelssohn’s Orchestra Plays Melusine

an architectural detail featuring Melusine, half woman, half mermaid.
an architectural detail featuring Melusine, half woman, half mermaid.

Felix Mendelssohn’s overture, The Beautiful Melusine, was inspired by a legend which Max Derrickson describes:

The legend of the half-mermaid, Melusine, appears to date back over nearly twelve centuries.  The arrestingly beautiful Melusine, born of a mortal father and water sprite mother, is cursed to take the form of a serpent from her waist down (a mermaid) one day each week.  This was done by her mother, furious with Melusine for entombing her father in a mountain for his mistreatment of her mother.  Some years later Melusine is proposed to by a man of nobility.  As did her mother years before, she agrees to marriage but with the one condition that she maintain absolute privacy on her “serpent day” of secrecy.  Great happiness envelopes the two lovers, until the inevitable day arrives when the condition is broken.  Upon being discovered she is doomed to remain in her mermaid form for eternity.

For Mendelssohn, the legend seems to have been a jumping off point. You won’t hear a depiction of the story, although there is a feeling of flowing water throughout the music. At moments, there is a hint of the clear, yet complex imitative counterpoint of J.S. Bach, whose music Mendelssohn was dedicated to reviving.

Here is a great recording of The Beautiful Melusine by Kurt Masur and Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra. Mendelssohn was principal conductor at the Gewandhaus between 1835 and 1847. The concert hall he would have known, constructed in 1781, was replaced in 1884. That hall was destroyed during the fire-bombing of the Second World War. Conductor Kurt Masur laid the first stone of the foundation for the current Gewandhaus, completed in 1981.