A conductor for 60 years, Kurt Masur spent most of his career in the former East Germany, forging an international career only after the collapse of communist in 1989.These days, Masur works with many orchestras, including the London Philharmonic, of which he was Principal Conductor until 2007.And now, aged 82, he has commenced a new association with the Philharmonia Orchestra.
The performance of the opening work, Mozart’s Symphony 39, was highly successful. Masur’s approach, featuring modern instruments, smooth textures and lack of antiphonal violins, might be described as old school. However, the balance between the string section (numbering around 40) and the rest of the orchestra was close to ideal, with flutes, bassoons and trumpet clearly audible when they needed to be, and highly expressive playing from the violins. Masur’s interpretation, conducted from memory, included a wonderful sense of simplicity and gravitas in the slow movement and a feeling of joy in the finale.
All this came perilously close to being ruined, however, by a high pitched whistle from a hearing aid that started in the slow movement and continued to the end of the symphony. It was painfully audible throughout the hall and must have been as distracting for the players as it was for the audience.
The qualities which had made the Mozart performance so compelling were less apparent during Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. Here the sound that Masur drew from the orchestra was powerful but often amorphous, not helped by a rather legato approach to phrasing. Other passages were dominated by the brass, largely a result of Masur’s decision to augment Bruckner’s requested forces with additional players. Why some conductors think that Bruckner requires extra brass, in the Royal Festival Hall of all places, is a mystery. Most puzzling of all, however, was Masur’s decision to lop some three minutes of music from the end of the Scherzo, a cut not even promulgated in the early edition of the score by Lwe and Schalk.
Masur was at his most impressive in the Andante, aided by refined and atmospheric playing from the Philharmonia, and generally conveyed a sense of line through the symphony’s long movements. However, the interpretation as a whole was too inconsistent to be convincing, doing little to displace the memory of Christoph von Dohnnyi’s excellent performance with the orchestra a couple of years ago.