Free But Happy
Royal Festival Hall
Johannes Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Kurt Masur (conductor)
Opening night for the London Philharmonic this season was also the beginning of a festival of the major orchestral music of Brahms led by one of the most solid interpreters of Central European music alive today. In this “land without music” there are no less than six fine symphonic ensembles performing in the capital alone, two currently sharing quality time in the South Bank’s Royal Festival Hall. As this was my first visit to the centre, my original thought was that none could be as happy as I to be there for this glorious event, but, upon further consideration, there was indeed someone even more overjoyed: Maestro Masur himself.
Of course, this renowned and dignified leader has had a distinguished career primarily as the longtime conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus and was so beloved by the people of the East that, after unification, the presidency of Germany was his for the asking. He opted instead to become the music director of the New York Philharmonic, perhaps remembering Clemenceau’s “what a comedown” remark when first learning that Ignace Paderewski had become the prime minister of Poland after concert pianism had made him famous. Masur surely has had many sleepless nights since rhapsodizing about how much easier being only a world leader would have been than to have suffered the slings and arrows of New York critics (I confess my own guilt in this sordid matter) and the brutal treatment of Philharmonic management over the last few years of his troubled administration. Even unrepentant serial killers aren’t forced to stand on the stage of the Lincoln Center and smile whilst the people who condemn them echo hollow words of praise (to the credit of Gotham audience members, there was much booing and unanswered questioning of the cultural commissars on these occasions).
Not knowing the protocols here, I at first thought that the work must be the Beethoven 9, as the seats for the chorus filled up rapidly. The motley of dress confused me at bit, but being a Connecticut Yankee in Queen Elizabeth’s Court, I held my tongue. These places turned out to be simply more chairs for the audience in back of the performing ensemble, spots which my London hosts remarked were some of the best in the auditorium. My own perch in the first row balcony was a satisfying one, although it was disconcerting to spy from there so many empty seats throughout the hall. What we did receive instead was “Beethoven’s Tenth”, so dubbed by Hans von Buelow as the supreme compliment for Brahms the fledgling symphonist (although already well into his forties). There was a fleeting moment when maestro first emerged from the wings with such a lively step that I expected him to celebrate his escape from the New York gulag with something more exuberant, say his beloved Mendelssohn’s ”Italian”, but, in the end, we were all treated to the granitic masterpiece of Northern German music.
Over time, Masur has adopted a decidedly Baroque conception of this work, striving for an homogeneity of tempo which is pleasant and comforting overall, but seems rushed in the more lyrical passages. Those who remember the stormy relationship of Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein over this very problem in the first concerto, loggerheads which led the conductor to express his disagreement with the pianist in a formal announcement before a celebrated concert, will sense the struggle of a truly committed conductor who wants to move things along and a fine group of musicians who feel deep in their bones that they should slow just a tad. In the “voices striving towards Heaven” passage, for example, it seemed that both the audience and the performers wished for a broader violin and horn line, but the propulsion from the podium brooked no such quarter. I found myself rocking a little less gently in the allegretto, as if mum’s hand on the cradle were rather impatient this particular evening, but the method in the madness was eventually revealed in the statement of the finale’s great theme which so evokes the Beethovenian original: here the briskness was ennobling, although it could have been perhaps even more effective as a contrast to rather than a mirror of the previous speed. Certainly there were moments of great power in this production, but there were an equal number of unsynchronized exits leading to dissonances surely not in Brahms’ lexicon.
How does one follow such a mighty work? The mood after the interval must be very different: another craggy ascent would never do. Maestro opted for the solution of the composer himself, following his stuermiest and drangiest opus with a much more gentle stroll in the Tyrol. The second symphony fared much better this night, the relaxed pace agreed upon by all, the cellos especially lovely (as they had been in the 1st), the horn solos, so evocative of those alpenhornen that Brahms and his composer friend Ignaz Bruell used to love to hear in the distance on their fruitful walks, reaching just the right pitch of recollected beauty. Certainly a fine evening as a whole and a preview of what should be a reliable and balanced festival. I would have loved to stay for the entire week, especially since a favorite, Garrick Ohlsson, will be performing the Second Concerto, but hearing Kurt Masur conduct in an acoustically challenged hall made my companion and I rather homesick for New York.
Frederick L. Kirshnit