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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Concert Review: Full Silken Jacket

No tuxedos for Kurt Masur, just Schubert and Shostakovich.
Busted: Kurt Masur, 2009.
Sculpture by Bertrand Friesleben.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Former New York Philharmonic Music Director Kurt Masur returned to  the podium of Avery Fisher Hall this week. Mr. Masur is now 84. And he still doesn't use a baton. But he remains a thinking man's conductor, a compelling music maker of the old school who does not let his age or medical conditions affect the beauty of his performance.

On Friday night, the maestro looked pale, frail-looking, and his left hand trembled uncontrollably. However, he delivered a compelling performance of a compelling program, music that sounded comfortable as the tangzhuang jacket he wore instead of white tie.

The concert opened with a thoroughly Romantic reading of Schubert's 8th, the most famous torso in the orchestral repertory. These two movements were played at a broad pace, giving the orchestra's players room to luxuriate in Schubert's phrases. But the horns had trouble early, creating unattractive tones in the first movement's signature theme. The cellos, integral to the rhythmic makeup of this symphony, played superbly. 

Mr. Masur's second piece was Dmitri Shostakovich's Thirteenth Symphony, a choral symphony also known as Babi Yar. The orchestra was joined by baritone Sergei Leiferkus and the New York Choral Artists, the same team that recorded this symphony in 1994. The most political of Shostakovich's fifteen symphonies, Babi Yar is a setting five uncompromising poems from the acid pen of  Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

The poems and their symphony are products of the "cultural thaw" that took place in Russia under Khrushchev. But even the "thaw" froze on the Thirteenth, which was banned in Russia in 1963 after only a handful of performances. The music is tough and uncompromising with snarling brass, complex percussion and slamming chords dominating the titular first poem, a reflection on the Nazi massacre of over 33,771 Jews outside Kiev on Sept. 29-30 1941.

The poems were sung by Sergei Lefeirkus, a Russian baritone with a long history of playing villains onstage. He was grim and dark of tone in the opening movement, singing with passion, pleading the case that as the "true Russian" is he who attacks and condemns the anti-Semite. With its frightening descriptions of pogroms and figures like Anne Frank, this movement is hard going. Mr. Masur brought out the stark, black-and-white quality in Shostakovich's writing, helped by superb brass and percussion work from his old orchestra.

Mr. Lefeirkus did his best to inject a light note into the jaunty second poem Humor, with its brassy, Mahlerian march figure. The setting also recalls the nose-thumbing of Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel, although the Russian phrase "юмор показывал кукиш!" translates to something other than what appeared in the super-titles. Mr. Leiferkus returned to seriousness for the slow In the Store, accompanied movingly by Mr. Masur.

Fears is the toughest movement of this symphony, opening with a long 11-note tuba solo that recalls Wagner's dragon from Siegfried. Alan Baer played that difficult solo with superb breath control, laying groundwork for the dark movement that followed. Mr. Masur cast a familiar spell over his old orchestra, weaving his fingers in complex patterns, lifting an elbow, shifting a shoulder and drawing out Shostakovich's complex tonalities and instrumental textures.

Mr. Lefeirkus lightened up for the final A Career, a sarcastic meditation on the wisdom of speaking out against visionaries like Galileo, Newton and Tolstoy. His interaction at that point with the men of the New York Choral Artists ("Lev?" "Lev!") was a high point. As the symphony came to an end, Shostakovich brought back the "Humor" theme (as a chilly solo for bass clarinet) and the final "Babi Yar" motive, played very softly, with chamber-like textures by the principal strings and wind.

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