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:

Appalachian Spring at UMD

Unknown-41A recent University of Maryland School of Music student performance of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is gaining well deserved attention. The performance was unique because it defied almost all of the conventions of the typical concert experience. There were no chairs or music stands onstage and there was no conductor. Instead, the 25-minute-long work was performed by memory and the musicians not only played, but incorporated elements of dance and motion created by Baltimore choreographer Liz Lerman. The Washington Post critic called it, “one of the standout performances of my many years in Washington.”

In 2012 the school offered a similar performance with Debussy’s sensuous Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The concept is similar to recent Broadway theater productions of shows such as Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, in which actors on stage also played instruments.

In this piece, the Washington Post’s Anne Midgette suggests that visual elements are an important ingredient to building new audiences:

What part does movement have in musical performance? Musicians seem uncertain — or unaware. On the one hand, it’s a new truism that classical music concerts “need” a visual element to captivate new audiences (“Classical music must, in order to survive, introduce visual elements into its presentation,” wrote Patricia Handy in her program notes for Augustin Hadelich’s ostensibly theatrical “Tango, Song and Dance” program at the Terrace Theater last week).

But how much truth is there in Midgette’s “new truism?” Statements such as these, part of a constant and often assumption-based media drumbeat that “classical music is dying”, seem dubious. Copland’s Appalachian Spring and other great music, when performed well, will always have an audience. The expressive power of music lies in the fact that it’s fundamentally about listening, not watching. Audience members who lack the attention span to really listen will miss the true experience. It’s the challenge of music education to teach audiences how to listen. Exposure to music at an early age is an important part of this education.

The University of Maryland’s exciting and heartfelt performance is interesting for what it is: a creative way to blend dance and music into a new kind of performance art. In this case, it may be especially successful because Appalachian Spring was written as a ballet. For the students, who gained a deeper understanding of the way the piece fits together and experienced it as chamber music, there is also value.

Here is the complete performance:

Ballet for Martha

Premiering in 1944, Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring was written for choreographer Martha Graham, who danced the leading role. It was originally scored for a chamber orchestra of 13 instruments. Listen to the original version here. Copland gave the piece the simple working title, Ballet for Martha. Later, after the music had been written, Graham suggested Appalachian Spring, a reference to Hart Crane’s poem, The Bridge:

O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;
Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends
And northward reaches in that violet wedge
Of Adirondacks!

From its opening pandiatonic chords, Appalachian Spring embodies a distinctly “American” sound. Rob Kapilow offers fascinating insights about the way the piece develops out of these chords and why they evoke the wide open spaces of the American frontier. The incorporation of variations on the Shaker melody, Simple Gifts, suggests a nationalism similar to the use of Russian folk songs in Stravinsky’s ballet music.

In this rare recording of Copland rehearsing Appalachian Spring with an unknown orchestra, we hear the composer urge musicians to play passages with less sentimentality, finding a more honest, “American” sound. The clip offers valuable insights into what Copland had in mind in terms of tone color, articulation and balance.

If you’re looking for a great recording of this piece, I recommend Leonard Bernstein’s 1983 recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.