Throughout his career, conductor Kurt Masur has focused primarily on conducting the standard German repertoire, and now, at age 84, his mastery and understanding of this music is unmatched.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
As surprising as it may seem, the music of Johannes Brahms was once highly controversial. Throughout the late 19th century, Brahms and his supporters were often at odds with the acolytes of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt, whose emphasis on creating the “Music of the Future” clashed with Brahms’s more traditionalist views. This conflict was not limited to Europe: when Symphony Hall opened in 1900, music critic (and fervent Wagnerite) Philip Hale quipped that signs should be placed above the doors and inscribed “Exit — in case of Brahms.”
Thankfully, tempers have cooled in the ensuing hundred-plus years, even in Boston. This past weekend, the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) presented an all-Brahms subscription series featuring pianist Nicholas Angelich and conductor Kurt Masur performing the Piano Concerto no. 2 and Symphony no. 3. The result, when I attended on Saturday, was music making of the highest quality, with a probing, yet engaging, reading of the Concerto followed by a deeply moving performance of the Symphony that will linger in my memory for years to come.
Yefim Bronfman was originally scheduled to appear as soloist in the Concerto, but a finger injury forced his withdrawal on short notice. Instead, Nicholas Angelich, who has a flourishing career in Europe, made his BSO debut; whatever disappointment was felt at losing the opportunity to hear Bronfman in performance was assuaged from the moment Angelich first entered in the opening movement.
The Piano Concerto no. 2 is one of Brahms’s more peculiar creations: the piece falls into four movements (instead of the traditional three), and in the last two, becomes somewhat introverted in character. The solo part is famously difficult, though Brahms, with typically understated humor, described the work early on as merely “a bunch of little piano pieces.”
On Saturday evening, this “bunch of little piano pieces” came together as a compelling whole. The expansive first movement, which opens with a gentle dialogue between solo horn and solo piano before building to a series of tremendous climaxes, was beautifully shaped and majestically played. The “added” second movement, a Scherzo, was brilliant and stormy, the contrasts of mood and texture between its various sections accentuated with extraordinary clarity.
Jules Eskin ably handled the extended cello solos in the third movement, which also featured some of the most exquisitely soft playing of the evening between piano and orchestra. The finale was utterly charming, its bright first theme alternating with the somber second theme to beautiful effect.
Angelich’s performance of the demanding solo part was dramatic and poetic. The coloristic shadings he brought out of the piano were extraordinary, as was his ability to clarify Brahms’s knotty textures: as complex as this music is, his performance was always clear, never muddy. He also was not a “showy” soloist. In this Concerto, more than many, the solo piano and orchestra are tightly integrated (a note in the program booklet mentions how phrases like “symphony with piano obbligato” were often used to describe the work after its premiere in 1881), and in Angelich and the Orchestra’s sensitive approach, there was an aspect of chamber music being made rather than a concerto being performed.
The BSO and Masur proved ideal accompanists. Of particular note throughout this performance were the exceptionally clear textures they managed to execute; Brahms’s rich and sometimes dense rhythmic palate benefited enormously as a result.
After intermission, Masur returned to lead a magisterial performance of the Third Symphony, and if there is such a thing as a definitive interpretation of a piece from the standard repertoire, this was it. The Third, Brahms’s shortest symphony, is also one of his most tightly constructed works: motives and melodies recur in each of its four movements, and this lends the piece a powerful narrative quality that, in great performances, comes to the fore.
This was one of those performances. Throughout his career, Masur has focused primarily on conducting the standard German repertoire, and now, at age 84, his mastery and understanding of this music is unmatched.
Much has been written on the chemistry that must flow between a conductor and an orchestra in order to build a successful working relationship, yet words fall short in describing what went on at Symphony Hall on Saturday evening. Rarely does one see a conductor accomplish more with fewer gestures and arm movements than Masur provided, yet his command of the music was absolute even as he conducted from memory, and the BSO responded with extraordinary precision and sensitivity. There is clearly a strong and meaningful bond between this conductor and this Orchestra.
The first movement of the Symphony, whose opening melody is derived from a short passage in Schumann’s Symphony no. 2, was beautifully structured and featured remarkably clear textures, its inherent drama building as the movement progressed. Particularly memorable was the magnificent playing of the BSO brass, particularly the horns, as well as some very exciting string playing leading into the movement’s closing pages.
The pastoral second movement, which is essentially a dialogue between strings and winds, was played with breathtaking delicacy. The striking moments in the middle of the movement, where Brahms juxtaposes high unison sonorities with thick chords in the bass, came across as a dramatic exploration of musical space, while the closing measures—one of the most beautifully orchestrated passages in Brahms’s output—were played to perfection.
Of the dozen movements that comprise the Brahms symphonies, none is probably more famous than the third movement of the Third Symphony, which opens with an expansive, minor-key cello melody. The BSO and Masur led a noble account, with particular praise due principal horn James Sommerville and principle oboe John Ferillo for their solo turns in the movement’s middle section.
The reading of the finale was, like the opening movement to which it corresponds, magnificently structured, the contrasts between its different themes and textures articulated with sensitivity. This is one of the most exciting movements Brahms wrote, filled with soaring melodies and rhythmic jabs, and the playing of the Orchestra on Saturday evening was full-blooded. Again, textural clarity was a marvel; the result was that Brahms’s contrapuntal mastery was on full display throughout this performance. The closing pages, where the opening theme from the first movement makes its subtle reappearance, were luminous.
By a happy coincidence, this was the first of two programs Mr. Masur is scheduled to lead with the BSO this season. In February, he is slated to return to direct performances of Beethoven’s monumental Missa Solemnis with vocal soloists and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. As enticing as that program appears by itself, after hearing this most recent collaboration between conductor and orchestra, I can add a recommendation of my own: it mustn’t be missed.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.