KURT MASUR and the art of reconciliation


Back in the early 1990s I was asked to host an onstage interview with the great German conductor Kurt Masur, the subject: Music and Politics. The prospect was just a little scary – my comfort zone was well and truly shattered – but having interviewed Masur before, and got on rather well with him, I thought I’d take the risk. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon at the Royal Festival Hall. I turned up on time, but Masur was late. He hurriedly breezed into the Green Room (where I was waiting), sat down and enquired, point blank, ‘so what do you want to ask me?’ I had no qualms about my first question. ‘I thought I’d start by addressing the fact that you’ve lived under two totalitarian régimes [Nazism and Communism] … so, as a musician, what were the essential differences between them?’ He coldly looked through me. ‘If you ask me that question it’ll be the shortest interview in history’ he replied. Yikes! Did he think I was implicating him in some way? Of course not. In fact, I think he misunderstood what I’d asked … so I had to mentally regroup and start again. It took the time needed to walk from the Green Room to the RFH stage to refashion my first question (don’t ask me what it was), which I burbled out awkwardly and Masur answered eloquently. The rest of the interview went fairly well; I even received a generous onstage hug at the end.

With Masur the larger perspective is morally imposing. As a teenage Wehrmacht soldier, he wanted to help save Germany, ‘fortunately without success,’ he added, ‘as it was a Germany that would have terrorised the whole world’. Years later, in Leipzig, East Germany (where he conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra to legendary effect) and with the Berlin Wall about to crumble, it was Masur’s aim to help facilitate a reunified Germany. He bravely supported peaceful demonstrations which did eventually contribute to the Wall’s collapse. Then, in 1991, he became Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. Former NYPO concertmaster Glenn Dicterow said in 2012 ‘It takes a big personality to unite 105 players onstage — to get everybody to be as inspired as he is — and, uh, it’s hard work . . . And he’s just so demanding and intense that I think that he got, just by his sheer intensity of his personality, I think it sort of transformed most of us.’


Kurt Masur made hundreds of recordings, initially in what was East Germany with the Gewandhaus Orchestra (including complete cycles of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Schumann symphonies). And yet his digital Warners legacy is special, with the honours divided largely between the Gewandhaus and New York Orchestras. There is hardly a work in this magnificent 70-cd set (Warners 9029661155, c£185.00; ie, around £2.50 a disc – released 22nd April) that evades Masur’s deeper-than-usual interpretative approach. He also has his own individual sound; mellow, warm, and with a palpable glow to subsidiary lines. We have the six numbered Tchaikovsky Symphonies, plus Manfred and other works, all played with a combination of keen structural awareness (the first movement of the Fourth), narrative engagement, emotion and wit (the Second Symphony, or ‘Little Russian’, meaning Ukraine by the way). Brahms’s four symphonies combine lyricism (the slow movement of the First) and might (the Fourth, especially the finale [beam up from 6:30]) and as for the Second Piano Concerto with a leonine Elisabeth Leonskaja the performance has all the strength and attack that Masur’s earlier version with Cécile Ousset (Berlin Classics) also commanded. A Schumann symphony cycle with the LPO is full of life. I fondly recall attending one of the sessions, which was a pretty engaging occasion.

With his humanist nature Masur syphoned deep compassion through a number of important works, Britten’s War Requiem – an extremely compelling performance – and Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony Babi Yar, which sets texts by Yevtushenko (who actually reads the poem before Masur’s powerful performance takes place). ‘No monument stands over Babi Yar’ wept the poet, who identified with both the massacred Jews and those who survived. What would he say today, I wonder, in the light of Putin’s attack on that very area? We must listen to this masterpiece newly humbled. Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony is similarly affecting, Masur allowing the first movement’s boot-clad invaders to crunch the gravel to a massive crescendo that’s like a malignant Boléro. Prokofiev is represented by, among other works, his five varied piano concertos (the soloist is the admirable Michel Béroff, who also performs Liszt’s works for piano and orchestra), a fully fired-up Alexander Nevsky (the super-fast ‘Battle on Ice’ comes within a hair’s breadth of plunging into the freezing depths), and a Fifth Symphony where the Coda’s tam-tam out-mushrooms even Karajan’s spectacular BPO version (DG). 

Returning to Liszt I think it’s fair to say that Masur and his Leipzig forces offer us the finest recordings yet to appear of the symphonies (Dante and Faust) and tone poems, his manner with them unfailingly dramatic but never crude or tawdry. Other works by Beethoven, Berg, Bruch, Bruckner (Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7, re-recorded in New York), Debussy, Dvorak (a truly memorable New World Symphony), Franck, Gershwin, Ives, Kodaly, Mahler, Mussorgsky (an imposingly outsize, Stokowski-style orchestration by Gortchakov – note by the way the highly topical, and imposing, Great Gate of Kyiv), Ravel, Reger, Rimsky-Korsakov, Schnittke, Schubert, Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Weber and Kurt Weill (the dark, conscience-pricking song-cycle The Seven Deadly Sins). So much, but I’ve left what’s possibly the best – both musically and symbolically – until last. Masur and his wife were passionately devoted to the music of Mendelssohn. ‘We have dedicated our lives to Mendelssohn’, as the conductor said to the set’s superb annotator Jon Tolansky. As a mover and shaker in the Leipzig of his day Mendelssohn was ‘your man’, if I may put it that way, but in the context of Warner Classics’ collection it’s Masur’s (second) Leipzig set of Mendelssohn’s complete mature symphonies that takes the palm, performances that combine lightness, eagerness and a certain implied conviviality, atmosphere too (especially in the Scottish Symphony). However, most significant of all is the masterly oratorio Elijah, where Alastair Miles sings the principal role alongside other excellent soloists (Helen Donath being one of them) and the NDR Choir Leipzig with the Israel Philharmonic recorded in Tel Aviv. No need to press the symbolism of this outstanding performance (think, by way of comparison, of Maxim Shostakovich conducting his father’s symphonies with the Prague Symphony Orchestra long after the Russians entered Prague [Supraphon] or Menuhin and Furtwängler collaborating in Beethoven after the War [Warner Classics]) but the musical fruits are nourishing beyond measure. Wherever benevolence lay dormant in music Kurt Masur would locate it which is why his performances and recordings are so unique. Don’t let this set pass you by whatever you do.

One thought on “KURT MASUR and the art of reconciliation

  1. Hi Rob, I’m trying to reach Paul Zec as I’m working on an official Marianne Faithfull Documentary and we’d like to include your Uncle Donald’s interview with her in it (even better if Donald might have made any recordings of the interview as so often journalists do!). It would be wonderful if you might pass on this message and put me in touch, I’ve tried a couple different avenues now so hopefully one will stick – my website is http://www.archiveclearance.com and it has my contact details on it. Hope you don’t mind my leaving this rather random comment! Best, Tess


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