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A fitting farewell

06/29/2011 -  and June 30*, 2011
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 op. 125
Melanie Diener (Soprano), Birgit Remmert (Alto), Jorma Silvasti (Tenor), René Pape (Bass)
Schweizer Kammerchor, Fritz Näf (Chorus master), Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, Kurt Masur (Conductor)

K. Masur

It was heart-warming to see the venerable Kurt Masur still conducting, quite regularly it appears from looking at the calendar on his website, at the ripe age of 84. No-one could surely bemoan his current choices of works, music he knows like the back of his hand, and having the luxury of using international soloists of his choice. Masur did look frail from the start and washed out by the end, though he needed no chair (nor, of course, a score) to conduct this lengthy work. The hall was full to bursting, standing room only in the wings, Masur was the obvious draw.

This was, entirely as one expected, a sturdy rendition, with steady speeds (unlike some conductors nowadays) and in the big-band Beethoven style. Masur built up the first movement’s tension very gradually and relished its sense of elemental struggle, though the slowish tempi made the whole somewhat torpid. Then disaster struck: a kettledrum broke audibly and three percussionists (waiting for their moment in the final movement) rushed off stage to locate and tune a replacement waiting in the wings, which they carried onto the stage even before the movement ended. Concentration was not aided by the ensuing kerfuffle but orchestra, conductor and choir kept their nerve.

Then on to the rhythmic jauntiness of the second movement, with a visibly much relieved timpanist. Calm repose followed in the slow movement, Masur delighting in exposing the various layers of melodic line. Then that famous finale: fine international soloists and the Tonhalle Orchestra in good shape, with special mention going to principals Sabine Poyé Morel (flute) and Mike Reid (clarinet).

The soloists all but one impressed: René Pape boomed "O, Freunde, nicht diese Töne", Jorma Silvasti rang out his "Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen" and Melanie Diener was powerful and accurate when needed. Only Birgit Remmert made a lesser impression, lacking the sheer volume of her neighbours.

Masur’s conducting, sometimes with the right hand, sometimes with the left, often not at all, is now restricted to some rather vague gestures and one can therefore, on the grounds of Masur’s age, forgive a certain lack of vigour in the performance. Towards the very end of the last movement, orchestra and chorus were not together for a short while.

The Schweizer Kammerchor: as mentioned in previous reviews, due to funding problems this was their final swansong before disbanding and transmogrifying, more or less, into the Zürcher Singakademie, whom we shall soon have a chance to hear at the Lucerne Summer Festival. Consequently they sang their hearts out and drew the loudest cheers at the end (though whether the standing ovation was for Masur or the choir can remain conjecture). The choir have sung in 200 works over their short 14 year history, which is really quite an achievement. This performance was a very fitting farewell.

John Rhodes



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