Avery Fisher Hall
Robert Schumann: Concertstueck in F
Anton Bruckner: Symphony # 4
Philip Myers, R. Allen Spanjer, Erik Ralske, Howard Wall (horns)
New York Philharmonic
Kurt Masur (conductor)
Advances in the technology of the horn occurred at just the right moment for Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms to change the method of composition for this notoriously difficult instrument. Prior to this era, the only way to change the key of the device was to physically replace one set of pipes, or crook, with another. Thus, the Haydn concerti have different keys per movement but no changes of tonal center within the body of a section (except to a relative minor). The invention of the valve allowed Schumann to modulate at will in his horn music and the resulting three pieces are really the first to exploit the delicious blendings of multiple horns (prior to this point, composers like Leopold Mozart wrote horn ensembles which were expressly dissonant, meant to invoke the sonic world of the foxhunt). The brightest of Schumannís pieces was presented this weekend by the New York Philharmonic, an opportunity to feature one of their strongest instrumental sections.
Surprisingly, it was not the sound of the horn quartet on which I concentrated as a listener, but rather that of the orchestra as a whole. In Central European repertoire there are few alive today more conversant than Kurt Masur and the resulting performance exhibited the benefit of his expertise. This mellow sound was perfect for early German Romanticism, fitting for a maestro who led Mendelssohnís Gewandhaus Orchestra for so many seasons. The horns were impressive, although some sliding around by principal Philip Myers detracted from the overall brilliance. In an encored quartet without accompaniment, the four were more expertly radiant, the prodigious low notes of Howard Wall especially impressive.
I had never before thought of the Bruckner 4 as particularly religious, subscribing rather to the conventional wisdom which places the beginnings of the Austrianís search for God squarely on the opening of the 5th Symphony, and yet I was struck by Masurís reverent approach to this amazing work. As Tintner and Celibidache have shown, these vast melodies need a broad conception in which to thrive, a generous portion of time and space allowing them to flower naturally and spiritually. Masur concentrated on the brass chorale of the opening movement, expanding this bit of ceremonial religiosity into a paean of praise to the composerís beloved deity. The clean lines of the Haas edition (a hint of Naziism notwithstanding) helped immeasurably to communicate the elastic vigor of this particular style of worship. Many conductors champion a slower version of a classic work, only to lose patience along the way and revert to more standard tempi. Masur has the resolve to continue his slow pace throughout (only the unfurling of the banners of the joust in the third movement was taken at a more normal speed) and fashioned a revelatory performance as a result. The Phil sounds particularly good when inspired in this way and pulled out all of the stops (itís hard not to insert at least one organ metaphor when writing about Bruckner) in this solemn and heavenly rendition.
For seven years now I have been dissatisfied with Masurís platform positioning, his placing of the violas out front stage left an acoustical flaw which renders their sound inaudible in extended tutti passages (their sound boards face into the ensemble rather than out to the listeners). However, in rare instances the system works splendidly as it did for this concert. The many beautiful passages wherein the violas have the melody in the Bruckner were gorgeously executed without fear of immersion in the general sonority and Maestro was careful to have these normally unsung players stand as a unit for the initial curtain call. Like the little girl with the curl, when Masur is on point, he is very, very good. As I write this review on Memorial Day, the orchestra is about to present its annual gift to the people of this city: a free performance uptown which traditionally draws a huge crowd, the line for entrance wending its way around a very long extended block. It is this Bruckner opus this year and I can only imagine that these orgiastically spiritual passages will sound all the more angelic in the vast spaces of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. When the now discarded Masur was first introduced as music director in New York, he opened his reign with the Bruckner 7, instantly proving his credentials in this most crucial of repertoire. Although his seven years have been both lean and fat, one axiom is beyond discussion. His breadth of repertoire may be deficient, but his depth within his core knowledge base is prodigious.
Frederick L. Kirshnit