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The Most Exciting Birthday

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
02/03/2009 -  & February 5*, 6, 7, 2009
Mendelssohn Bicentennial Celebration: Felix Mendelssohn: Overture to “Ruy Blas”, Opus 95 – Concerto in E Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 64 – Die Erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night), Opus 60

Anne Sophie Mutter (Violin), Christine Knorren (Mezzo-soprano), Jorma Silvasti (Tenor), Albert Dohmen (Bass-baritone), Thorsten Grümbel (Bass)
Westminster Symphonic Choir, Joe Miller (director), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Kurt Masur (Conductor)

Kurt Masur (© Christian Steiner)

Two weeks ago, this column wrote about what should have been a historic event: world premiere performances of 13 vocal and chamber works by Felix Mendelssohn, found in archives around the world. It was historic, yes, but hardly mind-blowing, for the prolific German composer wrote hundreds of pieces. They resemble each other in being tuneful, deft, and employing Baroque counterpoint (the composer was proud of having “discovered” J.S. Bach). And they bear more than a cigar-ands-brandy whiff of the early Victorian salon.

With these pieces, Mendelssohn was less the musical architect and more the aesthetic engineer.

Last night—and for tonight and tomorrow night—another Mendelssohn has been heard. The grand Mendelssohn of tone-paintings and melodrama, a composer for the virtuoso player, the virtuoso orchestra, and the virtuoso choir. And for these evenings, one of the great Mendelssohn conductors, Kurt Masur, takes the helm for a surprisingly exciting concert.

Maestro Masur has, by geography and temperament, a special ear for this most proper composer, discovering elements which are most im-proper and, with a technique honed over seven decades, broadcasting it to any audience.

This was evident from the very first portentous brass-wind chords of Ruy Blas, chords which Wagner might have envied, and which here, resonated almost frighteningly around Carnegie Hall. Nor did Mr. Masur let go after that. His was a tension-ridden overture, and the orchestra played on a high wire of suspense. The most exciting Mendelssohn always came through his overtures, painting winds and waves and cavernous caves. In Mr. Masur’s Ruy Blas, it was theatre, not nature in the raw, in this case theatrical melodrama, punctuated by swirling strings and the Philharmonic sheen.

Ironically, the overture to the Walpurgis Night oratorio, which is supposed to show a maelstrom (described in the program as “Bad Weather”) was a rather mild affair. The composer loved his Goethe (from which the words are taken). But the wordless opening was a meek introduction.

That was not to last. Walpurgis Night is rarely played, because in its relatively short duration, it needs three heroic male soloists, and a chorus that can present pagan fury, Christian fear and grand dramatic anthems.

Mr. Masur had one virtual heldentenor in Metropolitan Opera favorite Jorma Silvasti. The bass-baritone and bass, Albert Dohmen and Thorsten Grümbel are both Wagnerians. And this is exactly what is needed for the wild night depicted by Goethe and Mendelssohn.

The piece itself should have been a favorite for the Romantic Age, since the two opponents are the Pagans, who want to see nature free and wild, and the Christians, who want to tame nature, to turn the natural furies into… possibly Mendelssohn chamber music?

Not to fear. The Pagans win out. Rather, the choruses win out. The Westminster Chorus snapped to attention, as double choruses, male Christian Guards, sympathetic women and finally a great climax for heathens.

Says a Druid priest, “Even if they rob us of our ancient rituals, who can take your light from us?”

Mr. Masur made certain that this light was blazing for 45 minutes, that its witchcraft was clean, clear and ever exciting.

Finally, what can one say about Anne-Sophie Mutter, who must have played the Violin Concerto thousands of times? Only that this great artist always surprises us. As the years go by, she has been noted for playing as fast as possible (witness her Bach concertos played here last year). But most important is her sweet yet never mawkish tones more silvery clear than ever. For the first two movements, the pace was brisk but never too fast, and at times, as before the cadenza, Mr. Masur slowed the orchestra even more than usual. In the final movement, Ms. Mutter predictably took the Allegro vivace as fast as possible. The miracle was that the phrasing was impeccable, not a single note was blurred.

It might have been simply a light performance, a soufflé for the greatest virtuoso. Ms Mutter, though, transcended such ease. This was never showmanship, but something ebullient and life-giving.

Mendelssohn, who was 200 years old last Tuesday, would love to have been given that life just to hear Messrs Mutter and Masur create such a beautiful birthday present.

Harry Rolnick



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