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The Lame Duck

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
12/04/1998 -  
Richard Strauss: Don Juan, Horn Concerto #1, Death and Transfiguration, Four Last Songs
Deborah Voigt (soprano), Philip Myers (horn)
New York Philharmonic, Kurt Masur (conductor)

Now that Kurt Masur's tenure with the New York Philharmonic is coming to an end (he is not being invited back) it seems appropriate to evaluate what he has done with and to this orchestra. Certainly he improved the sound of the ensemble as it was hoped that he would do. His first evening of Bruckner at the beginning of his era showed an immediate marked improvement and all were hopeful of better days. But in this what have you done for me lately city Masur has been a major disappointment. New Yorkers have slowly realized the secret that those of us who have followed the Gewandhaus for years already knew: Kurt Masur is dull. His repertoire is extremely limited and consists only of the Central European classics excluding Wagner, for all good Leipzigers of his generation have shunned the great operatic master due to a heavy dose of Nazi guilt and East German contrition (there is not even a bust or statue of Wagner in his native city; only a small plaque at his birth site). He does not venture out of this comfortable little world and does little to explore its sonic possibilities. It is ironic that his title in Leipzig was Kappellmeister for so many years as this is exactly what he is, one of those boring pedants who overpopulated German music in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Now that he has accepted the principal post of the London Philharmonic for the 2000-2001 season his concerts with New York are exceedingly rare. Other than a cycle of Beethoven symphonies, last night was his first appearance this season. It is perhaps understandable psychologically that he is only going through the motions, but it is certainly not acceptable artistically. He has even relegated himself to the conductor for the New Year's Eve concert, a little like Emil Jannings voluntarily consenting to fall from doorman to washroom attendant.

In any case the all Strauss program was meant to inaugurate the 50th anniversary season of the composer's death but any solemnity which they were trying to achieve was shattered by these lackluster performances. After a very dull reading of Don Juan during which Maestro Masur literally just stood there for many measures not even pretending to conduct we witnessed what should have been an excellent reading of the Horn Concerto #1 by a man who knows it backwards and forwards, the Philharmonic's gargantuan principal hornist Philip Myers. His immense bulk has given him a seemingly unending supply of breath (local horn players call him the "airmaster") and a seamless tone, so rare in this difficult instrument. Myers hit all of the notes in this technically challenging work but conveyed none of its inherent excitement, mostly because he adopted an extremely lazy style of slurring his way through the normally staccato parts and seemed to take his cue from the slovenly conducting emanating from the podium, a phenomenon which lead to at least three wrong entrances by the subdued accompanying ensemble. Franz Strauss must have been rolling over in his grave, for this concerto was written in his honor by his young son, and this giant of the horn, who premiered all of the difficult parts in the Ring and Tristan at Bayreuth, would never have played in such a lackadaisical manner (although he never played this particular concerto in public). I have followed Mr. Myers' career for many years and this performance was actually shocking to me. It is not inconceivable, knowing the heart on sleeve climate at the Philharmonic, that he purposefully "threw" the performance to embarrass the departing conductor.

After the break things picked up a little. Tod und Verklaerung might almost be described as poetic in this rendering as Mr. Masur exhorted, for the first time this evening, his string section to emote properly. One could actually settle in and think about the piece rather than the orchestra. Glenn Dicterow played the violin solos admirably and, had this been a performance at a different concert, I would have given it a tolerable grade. Of course, the overall sound of the Philharmonic is still second rate and this has been the case for so long now that New York ears are inured to it, but they are light years away from a world class timbre. Someone once described Masur as morbid and perhaps they were right as he seemed to warm up to the thanatological thematic material of this profound tone poem.

The death theme continued with the only really fine performance of the evening. Deborah Voigt is a major star of the New York opera world. I first saw her about ten years ago as Chrysothemis to Behrens' Elektra and she was wonderful. She has sung a great deal of Strauss (Ariadne, the Kaiserin, Helen of Troy) and is a marvelous Sieglinde to Domingo's Siegmund. Her mastery of Strauss lieder came through stunningly and Masur's quiet accompaniment worked in this setting. Particularly moving (and yet maddening) was that gorgeous moment in September (the last music that Strauss ever wrote) when the horn, played by Mr. Myers, sings its poignant song of recollection of the idealized father come to visit the dying man one last time and in this performance the horn playing was superb. Ms. Voigt's rendition of Im Abendrot with its quotations from Death and Transfiguration was electrifying and, true to her operatic background, after she intoned the last line "Ist dies etwa der Tod?" (is this perhaps Death?) she continued to search her now internalized heavens with her anticipating eyes during the long orchestral passage which ends this crepuscular work. She saved the evening from disaster and treated us to a fine interpretation of the beautiful words of Hesse and Eichendorff.

The program was also supposed to include the Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome but this piece was inexplicably cut from the program. Perhaps it required too much animation from the conductor.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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