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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Concert Review: Kurt Masur and the Philharmonic Look Back

Kurt Masur
Kurt Masur returned to the New York Philharmonic this week. His return was marked with a boisterous performance of Beethoven's First Symphony, paired with an expansive reading of the mighty Seventh by Anton Bruckner, the symphony which began his 11-year tenure as Music Director in 1989. Despite a visible tremor in his hands, the maestro (who turns 83 this July) showed that his rapport with the orchestra is still strong and his touch on the podium as skilful as ever.

The concert opened with Beethoven's First Symphony. Mr. Masur's performance disputes the notion that this is a "light" Beethoven work. Yes, it's shorter than the Eroica or the heaven-storming Ninth, but the First shows the light of what is to come from Beethoven's pen. The slow movement demonstrates Beethoven's mastery of the fugue, with the theme tossed back and forth between the four string sections to thrilling effect. Under Mr. Masur's baton, the Mozartean finale resonated with warmth and good humor.

Mr. Masur led a tour of the magnificent architecture of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony, guided by the heroic playing of the Philharmonic's brass section. He made sense of the structure of these mammoth movements, building huge arches out of the blocks of sound, taking the first movement all the way to its thrilling coda, a cascading chorale of brass and strings. Given the acoustic limitations of Avery Fisher Hall, and the difficulties of balancing a gigantic brass section (including four Wagner tubas) with the strings and winds, Mr. Masur's achievement is all the more remarkable.

The highlight of this hour-long symphony was the second movement. Written as a eulogy for Bruckner's friend and inspiration Richard Wagner, this is an Adagio that soars even as it mourns. The final passages, where the Wagner tubas come to the fore, was played with stirring force. Conducting without a score, Mr. Masur made the dance movement stomp and roar like a chained giant. The finale, with its noble theme and a return of the "cascading" brass from the first movement, brought the work to a thunderous, harmonious close.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats