Masur Evokes A Golden Bruckner Memory

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Bruckner's Seventh Symphony, autumnal, mellow and beautiful, has about it a sense of valedictory. My own most memorable experience of it was on the 100th anniversary of Bruckner's death, in the priory church of St. Florian in Linz, Austria, where Bruckner was organist and where he is buried. On that occasion a dozen years ago, the piece's towering spires of music rose from the strings of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra led by its longtime music director, Kurt Masur, who was just leaving that orchestra and also reigning as music director of the New York Philharmonic. The final movement was like a sunrise in the church, exuding rays of brilliant brass.

So I was both eager and afraid to hear Masur do the work again Monday night at the Kennedy Center with the Orchestre National de France, where he has been music director since 2002 and which he is leaving at the end of the season.

Masur, 80, has aged. Always a physically dominating man, he was whiter, thinner and apparently less steady on his feet when he took the stage on Monday night, and a notable tremor rose and ebbed in his left hand. This did not seem to affect his musicmaking -- the orchestra had a nice vividness from the first entrance -- but a certain rudderlessness was conveyed by the program itself. Juxtaposing Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto with the Bruckner smacked of a one-from-column-A, one-from-column-B approach -- which it may well have been, since touring orchestras often submit a menu of pieces for the delectation of their presenters. In this case, it wasn't even clear that the columns were on the same menu.

The pianist David Fray certainly contributed his own batch of ingredients, foremost among them a heavy dose of Glenn Gould, whom he emulated with the fidelity of a cover band, from his clear, analytic touch to his hunched posture in a chair with his nose almost touching the keyboard. He played with a firmness that was not quite of the classical period, giving each note a little, liquid weight of its own, and turning the cadenza into a fugal exercise, at some length. It was an impressive performance but not altogether a winning one.

Having given a responsive and buoyant performance in the Beethoven, the orchestra turned to the late-Titian-colored chiaroscuro of Bruckner, delineated in shaggy brush strokes by Masur's batonless hands. It took several performances for me to realize that Masur has a natural affinity for Bruckner; he does not exude the mysticism of some other Bruckner specialists, but he does instinctively grasp the large-scale cragginess of these symphonies' architecture. Monday's performance moved: The hour-long work sped by, certain of its trajectory.

Less sure were the details; this reading was blurred, conveying an underlying sense without focusing on the particulars. Indeed, some of the piece's highlights -- the intoxicatingly beautiful second-movement theme -- were presented more like conventions, referring to a beauty that was already accepted by everyone in the room rather than unveiling it afresh. And the orchestra itself -- lithe strings, strong winds, occasionally tottering brass -- was better suited to motion than to Brucknerian monumentality. Indeed, the scherzo was played with such deliberate restraint that it ultimately sounded almost sluggish. One felt one was witnessing a crumbling, if doughty, edifice.

And then Masur began the final movement with an unexpected burst of radiant joy. Suddenly this was the glee of late evening, of old age, the sun-warmth of Verdi's Falstaff, basking in the moment. The final movement is not usually thought of as this symphony's strongest, but Masur understands exactly how it needs to go. The sun was out again.

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