Kurt Masur Kurt Masur at the New York Philharmonic...


January 10, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Kurt Masur

Kurt Masur at the New York Philharmonic. (The 10-CD set from New York Philharmonic Special Editions is available through the Philharmonic, 800-557-8268 or www.newyorkphilharmonic.org.)

The New York Philharmonic's 2001-2002 concert season has a title: "Thank You, Kurt Masur." Not the most deft PR slogan, perhaps, but an understandable effort to acknowledge one of the orchestra's most gifted and successful music directors in his last season after a decade at the helm.

By most accounts, Masur's departure was not diplomatically handled by Philharmonic management, but that's water under the podium now. Masur, 74, already has another job, as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic, and will become music director of the Orchestre National de France in September.

The New York musicians, for reasons only they may comprehend entirely, will soon welcome the fastidious, almost notoriously ego-heavy, though certainly brilliant, Lorin Maazel as music director. What that partnership will deliver remains to be heard.

Meanwhile, the Masur legacy can be savored in the remaining concerts of this season at the ensemble's home base in Lincoln Center and on a 10-disc box from New York Philharmonic Special Editions. This is the latest in a series of extraordinarily rewarding live recordings from Philharmonic archives. As with previous sets, this one boasts superb production values in terms of engineering, repertoire selections and informational booklets.

Producers Sedgwick Clark, Lawrence L. Rock and Barbara Haws have put together a package that clearly and powerfully documents Masur's distinctive tenure. In disc after disc, his confident leadership and total absorption of the score at hand come through vividly. So does the essential quality of the ensemble, which sounds every bit the "Big Five" American orchestra in these concert performances.

Masur has been criticized for putting a lot of emphasis on the core canon of symphonic music, especially Beethoven, Brahms and the rest of the German school. But, it can be argued, the Philharmonic had not always devoted enough time to the preparation and delivery of such music in the last few decades before Masur arrived.

And, besides, there is always room for cogent, powerfully realized interpretations of the masters, something Masur can invariably be counted on to provide; performances of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 and Missa Solemnis on this set make that plain. (Other conductors, including former Philharmonic leader Leonard Bernstein, may leave a more personal, even indelible stamp on a piece of music when they're through, but Masur is far from a faceless time-beater.)

The carping about conservative programming looks even sillier when you consider the track record for new music that Masur has also chalked up in his distinguished decade - 60 world premieres, another 18 U.S. premieres. The range of composers represented on both lists is remarkable, providing a who's-who of notables, from Hans Werner Henze, Krysztof Penderecki and Sofia Gubaidulina to Tan Dun, Thomas Ades and Ned Rorem.

Much of this contemporary record is preserved on this CD collection, which wisely does not duplicate material Masur and the Philharmonic have recorded commercially. This sizable dose of new music would alone make the set worth having. Highlights include Tan Dun's prismatic, unpredictable Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra, and Henze's challenging, sobering, unforgettable Symphony No. 9, with its evocation of the Holocaust and the power of the human spirit (the superb Berlin Radio Choir tackles the choral part).

Equally valuable here are 20th-century masterworks that have not gained a solid foothold in the active repertoire. Debussy's Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien, which the Philharmonic had not performed in 45 years, is brought back tellingly to life, with admirable contributions from narrator Maria Ewing and top-notch vocalists. The same goes for Stravinsky's Persephone and Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au bucher, both with effective soloists.

Exceptional choral singing, honed by Joseph Flummerfelt, complements those performances and several more in the set, notably Bach's St. Matthew Passion (lovingly shaped by Masur with stellar solo singing by Peter Shreier and others).

There's room, too, for admirable accounts of Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel, Rachmaninoff's Isle of the Dead, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1 and even Kurt Weill's September Song.

As Masur's days at the artistic helm of the Philharmonic dwindle down to a precious few, his contribution to the orchestra looms all the larger. ****

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