The year 2007 has seen a full diary for Kurt Masur. In celebration of his eightieth birthday he has undertaken concerts with each of the orchestras of which he has been Music Director within the last thirty years: the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the New York Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic, and his current tenure, the Orchestre National de France. In 2008 he will also celebrate his sixtieth year as a professional conductor.
In the finale of a week-long tour of the United Kingdom, Masur and his orchestra were joined by soloist Louis Lortie for a programme of Mozart and Bruckner as part of the International Concert Season at Leeds Town Hall. Kurt Masur has been at the helm of the Orchestre National de France since the start of the 2002 season, and whilst the orchestra already had a fine reputation with many notable conductors preceding him, the orchestra continues to go from strength to strength under his direction.
Mozart's Piano Concerto in A major, K.488, was written when the composer was pre-occupied with producing Le nozze di Figaro during the winter of 1785-86. It was one of three piano concertos - the others are K482 and K491 - he wrote as a way of relaxing from the more taxing demands of creating the opera.
Louis Lortie, the Canadian pianist currently based in Berlin and in demand with orchestras across the globe, gave an intelligent and refined interpretation of the concerto, even if he seemed a little rushed at times by the intervention of the orchestral phrases. The opening Allegro, precise and diligent as it was, lacked clarity and seemed too light. This was only temporary as the Andante and Presto that followed showed his true gift, with beautiful phrasing and weaving between the flutes, clarinets and strings.
Although Bruckner had reached his sixtieth year by the time of the premiere of his Seventh Symphony in 1884, it probably brought him his first real public accolade; his path to recognition had been slow and laborious. A deeply religious man, he had concentrated mainly on sacred compositions until his First Symphony of 1866.
As a disciple of Richard Wagner, it is no surprise that Bruckner's music has many Wagnerian characteristics, and the Seventh Symphony also uses Wagner tubas in the opening theme of the second movement, Adagio.
Masur's interpretation of the opening of the Allegro, with its warm and accelerated strings, brought an eerie atmosphere until the profound entrance of the brass section. The quiet, sombre Adagio is the heart of the symphony and Masur ensured it lived up to its structural significance. Opening with a theme in the Wagner tubas which is then passed onto the strings and changes to a more light-hearted mood, it reaches a fanfare which was thrillingly played by the ONF; its diminishment to a haunting conclusion was also expertly calculated. The rustic and rhythmic dance of the Scherzo must have reminded Bruckner of the homeland of his childhood, and Masur brought out its peasant undertones. The finale brings this epic symphony to its conclusion with the re-introduction of the theme from the first movement. Anyone in the audience must have felt as I did, that we had been taken on a rare and special journey.
A maestro of the old school, Kurt Masur brought as authoritative an interpretation to this warhorse symphony as would be expected from a musician of his stature. Watching him direct the orchestra with no score or baton and with only the use of his hands and facial expression to convey his instructions to the orchestra was to witness a master at work. All this came from a man in his eighties, who may not be as energetic as in his heyday - hardly surprisingly - but can still command the authority and respect of his orchestra and deservedly almost sell out the concert hall.
By Paul Dalton
Read recent concert reviews, including a recital by Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Wagner Rarities at the Royal Opera House, here.