Reclaiming the Canon for our Greater Good

When I re-joined Classic FM in 2018 and programmed for my first Edition of ‘Cowan’s Classics’ Roy Harris’s 18-minute Third Symphony, a rugged Yosemite Park of a piece, someone wrote in sniffily complaining that, as a general rule, if music is relatively little-known there’s usually a good reason why (not true as it happens). By contrast others celebrated my excursion away from the Station’s staple diet of Albinoni, Vivaldi and a certain lark soaring on high. The guys at the top expected Vaughan Williams’s verdant tone poem to beat all rivals in the annual 300-strong ‘Classic FM Hall of Fame’ but instead of the The Lark Ascending the top seat at the Hall’s table was taken by another slow, quiet, meditative musical essay suitable for the midnight hours, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. I kid you not. But at least it proved that the figures weren’t rigged.

1812 is not ‘great’ Tchaikovsky but it does harbour qualities typical of the composer at his best, gentle folkish melodies, dramatic faster music reminiscent of the late symphonies and the Sleeping Beauty ballet, the latter also suggested by a lilting theme that advances a sense of false security before full orchestra, bells and cannons set up a deafening racket at the end of the piece. But, paradoxically, and in spite of Classic’s target bullseye, the mere mention of the Overture’s name to those hellbent on advancing a ‘wider appreciation of classical music’ will see you branded a Neanderthal. Times have changed drastically even since 2018. Issues such as class, gender, race, ethnicity more generally, diversity, religion, political beliefs and so forth have formed the dog that wags the tail, meaning that rather than programme ‘great’ music and forget about the composers’ origins, class status, political convictions and the rest of it you make sure that there’s a ‘quota’ of this or that category, musical quality being secondary to giving a particular section of the community a fair crack of the airtime whip. 

Part of me goes along with this, and part of me rebels, much as it does to a parallel trend focusing on lesser-known composers whose works are rarely performed but who have their very vocal supporters. 

My main beef here is regarding what’s widely known as ‘The Canon’, at the very least Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann (Robert), Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, Bartók, Sibelius, Stravinsky and many more. Some have referred to the Canon as ‘ossified’ (ie having become rigid or fixed in attitude or position) but my worry is that the ‘too-well-known’ epithet will lead the unwary to divert their attentions away from these titanic figures to lesser masters, simply because fashionable enthusiasms can be seductive.

Don’t get me wrong. All good music deserves to be heard. But the losses incurred by deserting the Canon are monumental. I bow to no one in my enthusiasm for, and support of, modern music, from Adams to Zimmermann via Steve Reich, from Bernstein to Berio. But turn to the feelings of terror engendered by the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth (especially under Wilhelm Furtwängler), or the profundity of the Busch Quartet playing Beethoven’s C sharp minor Quartet, music conceived in the isolation of total deafness. Or you might hear how the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg turns Bach’s St Matthew Passion into virtual music drama, or how Mitsuko Uchida brings a sense of indescribable beauty to the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata K533, or Serge Koussevitsky draws on the tear-welling final climax of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony and you have instances of music and music-making that spell the most profound level of life-enhancement. Yes most of these are old recordings and I’m not for a moment suggesting that they and others like them should be our only access points to the Great Classics from the past.

The word I’m after is ‘balance’. There’s a grave danger, currently abroad, of shunting great concert music onto a distant siding. But the evidence contradicts this unfortunate trend. I’ve experienced countless instances when I’ve changed young lives by either taking them to concerts featuring the sort of music I’m talking about or played remarkable recordings of the same or similar repertoire. And as for wanting more working-class presenters on Radio 3, I despair. Does class really count for so much? Given the current thinking had cockney William Blake been around and approached Radio 3 for a job he may well have found for himself an extra source of income. Until the powers that be started to read ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, then he would probably have been – how should I put it? – ‘let go’!

A master Russian pianist rediscovered

Many years ago, I interviewed Mstislav Rostropovich and had the temerity to ask him about some of the lesser-known Russian musicians he would perhaps have known in his (relative) youth, lesser-known to us Brits that is, players such as the pianists Maria Yudina, Heinrich Neuhaus and Vladimir Sofronitsky, the violinists Elizabeth Gilels, Boris Goldstein and Julian Sitkovetsky, the cellists Daniil Shafran and Sviatoslav Knushevitsky and various others. Why did their reputations obstinately remain within Russian borders (the Iron Curtain had recently fallen)? His answer went something like (and this is not verbatim), ‘with the presence [on disc] of David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan, Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels and their like, I suppose these others, good as they are (or were), are less important.’ Interesting, eh? Here was a man, the equivalent of a freedom-loving escapee, who, with good reason, was embraced by the West and seemed uncomfortable about discussing those eminently talented compatriots, either dead or alive, who he had left behind. I suppose I can understand his reasoning. Better join hands with others who along with himself were being celebrated, even lauded to the skies by the Big Publicity Machine in the West. Still, quality playing should never be forgotten, and those lesser known guys have a good deal to teach us. 

Another name I might have mentioned, although I hardly even knew it at the time, is the Russian pianist and teacher Anatoly Vedernikov (1920-1993), a pupil of Neuhaus, who has been previously celebrated on the Denon label with a series of some 26 cds. Scribendum’s 17-cd The Art of Anatoly Vedernikov, SC821, c£56.25 although far from comprehensive will give you some idea of Vedernikov’s highly original style of playing. Typically for this label there are no notes, but there’s plenty of information about the pianist available online, for example at  https://www.bach-cantatas.com/Bio/Vedernikov-Anatoly.htm

This selection has been out for some little while but nonetheless warrants comment. Vedernikov, a friend of Sviatoslav Richter (whose playing rather resembles his own), is above all a probing interpreter and their joint recording of Bartók’s darkly dramatic Sonata for two pianos and percussion, fortunately featured here, is striking in its forceful rhythms, slow tempi and gripping sense of atmosphere. You can also hear the same artists in Bach’s Concerto, BWV 1061, with Rudolf Barshai conducting (the finale is best). Vedernikov was a sort of Celibidache of the piano in his frequent preferences for broad speeds, the coolly sophisticated ‘Forlane’ from Ravel’s La tombeau to Couperin being rather funereal whereas ‘Hommage à Romeau’ from the first book of Debussy’s Images is stately almost to a fault. 

The first three CDs are devoted to Bach, one of the highlights there being a transcription of In dulci jubilo that in Vedernikov’s hands sounds like the distant chiming of bells, every strand gentle yet perfectly clear. Another memorable Bach reading is in the Sixth English Suite (all six are included), in particular the deeply pondered, near-on static ‘Sarabande’ and ‘Double’. Debussy is also accorded three discs, the Préludes especially full of novel tone colouring. There’s plenty of Prokofiev too, including pointed and sometimes acerbic accounts of various miniatures and a 1960 recording of the Fourth (Left Hand) Piano Concerto under Leo Ginzburg, forcefully played and perhaps Vedernikov’s best-known recording in the West. As for Hindemith, Vedernikov performs alongside the exceptional Russian cellist Natalia Gutman in the affecting Second Cello Sonata and is equally memorable in the endlessly varying Four Temperaments for piano and orchestra where the silky-smooth Leningrad Chamber Orchestra sounds as if made up of first-desk players from the Leningrad Philharmonic, so exceptional is the quality of their contribution. The conductor is Lazar Gozman. 

I was fascinated to note that for Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka Vedernikov plays his own novel arrangement, which in the third movement, ‘The Shrovetide Fair’, reaches far beyond the usual ending (as in the so-called Petrushka Suite) and stretches instead to the mysterious, ghostly close of the original ballet (offering us 12:40 worth of music rather than the usual eight or so minutes). So if you’ve learned this music from Pollini (on DG) you’re in for a shock. Scriabin is represented by the Chopinesque Op. 11 Preludes (try No. 10, the C sharp minor, a sort of melodramatic ‘Prelude Pathétique’) and the last two sonatas, the Tenth, with its orgasmic trills and enigmatic ending, coming off especially well.

Schumann’s quota includes that Fantasy in C, the high point there being a dignified closing movement whereas Brahms’s Third Sonata benefits from fastidious interpretative judgement and easeful virtuosity, especially in the scherzo and finale. Haydn’s E minor Sonata HOB.XVI:34 enjoys an approach where even within the first couple of minutes Vedernikov runs the gamut from a dramatic staccato to a beguiling lightening of tone and various sparkling grades of dynamic in between, whereas on a Beethoven disc the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata is both sustained and slow, as marked. And there’s a gorgeous Partita Seconda in B flat by Johann Ludwig Krebs, a student of Bach who held his pupil in high esteem. Add music by Chopin, Franck, Galynin, Handel, Mozart, Liszt, Ustvolskaya and Weber and you have the generous basis of a highly stimulating collection, not uniformly perfect perhaps, but refreshing, even invigorating, if savoured patiently rather than gulped down like fast food. The sound, in both mono and stereo, is good, though no sources are given.

75 and still reaching out: the bedazzling art of John Adams

These days 75 is considered ‘no age’ so when the magnificent ‘Collected Works’ of the constantly evolving American composer John Adams, who celebrated his 75th birthday in February of this year, hits the shelves (it’s on Nonesuch 7559793229, 40 cds, c£149.00, and is released on July 1st) you find yourself hungry for what is yet to come, not least the two-act opera Antony and Cleopatra (based on Shakespeare, Plutarch and Virgil), a San Francisco Opera commission which is due to be premiered in September of this year. So how might it differ in style from his last opera Girls of the Golden West (premiered in 2017 and not included in the present collection)? Time, and happily not too much of it, will tell. 

While reluctant to nail Adams’s output to any particular genre, opera or opera-oratorio are undoubtedly near the top of his creative priorities. And there are further, shorter outgrowths from the stage works. Nixon in China, Adams’s first and longest opera, inspired by Richard Nixon‘s 1972 visit to the People’s Republic of China, gave birth to a catchy foxtrot ‘The Chairman Dances’ while music from Adams’s most controversial work The Death of Klinghoffer, which prompted what in my view were unfair accusations of anti-Semitism and of romanticising terrorism, resurfaces in a series of choruses. Interestingly, the opening two choruses on the recording of the parent work – ‘The Chorus of Exiled Palestinians’ and ‘The Chorus of Exiled Jews’ – clock up an identical 8:33. Now you can’t be more even-handed than that.

Then there’s the widely lauded Dr.Atomic, about the Atomic Bomb’s first test and later adapted into an extraordinarily powerful Symphony. This latter work is, for me, at the very crux of Adams’s transformation from a heel-kicking, ‘abacus’ Minimalist (ie Shaker LoopsGrand Pianola Music and Harmonium) to a symphonist who incorporates repetition into his style much as Beethoven did in the first movement of his Pastoral Symphony. Like the ‘new’ and the ‘old’ Penderecki, here we have a composer who, to reflect a Nietzsche aphorism, has the courage to oppose his convictions, rather than slavishly follow them. Other stage works include the Pullitzer Prize-winning The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which focuses on the final few weeks of the life of Jesus, including his Passion, from the point of view of  “the other Mary”, Mary of Bethany her sister Martha, and her brother, Lazarus. Among the most mysterious episodes is from Scene 3, ‘Golgotha’, ‘And they were come to a place called Golgotha’, and the percussive, decidedly Middle Eastern sounding final Earthquake. I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, is cast in the style of a tuneful musical, and recounts how a very different earthquake prompted much soul-searching. The opera-oratorio El niño retells the Christmas story while A Flowering Tree is a two-act opera based on an ancient Indian folk tale, which opens as if it’s escaped from the pages of Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony (Sibelius being a frequent presence in Adams’s work). So you see, Adams’s operas transcend the genre, often painting in tones that are far from operatic, and no composer could have been less operatic than Sibelius.

Opera is fundamentally narrative but for Adams narrative doesn’t start, and certainly doesn’t end, there. Everything he’s written tells some sort of story. The Wound Dresser sets excerpts from Walt Whitman’s emotive and touching recollections of his days as a hospital volunteer during the American Civil War. It’s a wonderful piece. So is Harmonielehre, “ … a statement of belief in the power of tonality at a time when I was uncertain about its future” according to Adams himself, and cast on a symphonic scale. Two versions are included in the set, one with the San Francisco Symphony under Edo de Waart, the other, more recent, and richer in texture, granted, but marginally less delicate in detail, featuring the Berlin Philharmonic under Adams himself. 

Century Rolls, a sort of piano concerto, has Emanuel Ax collaborate with the Cleveland Orchestra with Christoph von Dohnányi on the rostrum for music that either bops or beguiles, echoes of Stravinsky sometimes sounding from the wings. The amazing Chamber Symphony and Son of Chamber Symphony will keep your feet tapping and your mind spinning more or less in counterpoint while the Violin Concerto (Gidon Kremer or Leila Josefowicz) swirls (first movement) or sings (central ‘Chaconne’), invariably with a purpose. The mysterious, almost tactile expanses of Eldorado again play the narrative card, where two contrasting universes run up against each other. And the rest? So much it would take aeons to discuss it all, the Indian asides in The Dharma at Big Sur (Tracy Silverman, electric violin), the combination of dance and danger in the synth extravaganza Hoodoo Zephyr, late Beethoven as revisited in the pages of Roll Over Beethoven, not to mention arrangements of Busoni, Liszt and Ives, and much, much more. Always something new or unexpected, but never obscure or unlistenable. Adams is the perennial child who brings out the children in us, inviting us to play or share but with a difference – we can keep the toys, every one of them. ‘The Complete Works’, all of which is superbly recorded, comes packaged in a sturdy box with a contents book and a book of essays. Of its kind, it’s a classic, to be enjoyed and savoured at various levels. I feel as if I’ve owned and listened to its contents for years and yet, to be truthful, a good deal of the music was new to me. Adams doesn’t so much introduce us to new things as rummage below our consciousness in search of ideas that he can recall on our behalf, dust them off and make them new. But they were always there, hidden. That’s what I call a communicator.

From Lonnie Donegan to Bach via Vivaldi

Panning back nearly seventy years my musical idols were Lonnie Donegan, Elvis, the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. Then I caught the ‘classical’ bug and can vividly remember spending a free school period listening to Handel Concerti grossi, a tiny transistor radio that I had smuggled into the classroom pressed to my ear. I was enthralled by the music’s rhythm and counterpoint (not that I would have known what counterpoint meant in those days). Now, just suppose I had discovered Baroque music that combined rhythm and contrapuntal interest in the way that Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano manage with Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico (The Harmonic Inspiration), Op. 3 which was his first collection of concertos (twelve in all) to appear in print. I had no music teacher to speak of, but with Alessandrini the very act of listening would have opened worlds to me (the set is on naïve OP 7367, 2 cds, c£16:25; release date: 22nd April). 

However panning back more than a couple of centuries, let me ask you this: can any group of kids ever have enjoyed a greater music teacher than did the orphaned and abandoned girls who filled the Pio Ospedale della Pietà in Venice? We’re told that the standard of their performances was exceptionally high and the music that Antonio Vivaldi wrote for them was among the finest of the period. Try the first concerto in D (for four violins), the dancing first Allegro, pirouetting tiptoe and at speed. The second (G Minor) Concerto opens like a march, Alessandrini’s way with it tight and abrasive until the ethereal quiet violins above it lead us to a tautly argued Allegro. Pure delight, the finale donning a Handelian lilt. 

Next up there’s a fairly extrovert G major Concerto which leads us to the set’s great – and significant – novelty, the first of six works that Bach based on music from this very collection, Bach being a fan of Vivaldi, inspired no doubt by Prince Johann Ernst, a lover of Italian keyboard music in general. Bach’s reworkings (for solo or multiple instruments) enrich the music’s already colourful textures, as well as keying in added contrapuntal elements, most famously to the 10th Concerto, originally for four violins but with Bach switching to the more percussive sound of four harpsichords. The finale in particular has a celebratory feel to it whereas the Largo from Concerto No. 11 (an organ work in Bach’s arrangement) does credit to both composers: Baroque instrumental music doesn’t come lovelier than this. But what am I saying? The Largo from Concerto No. 5 in A is another remarkable movement, where violinist Andrea Rognoni weaves a bright, sinuous line above a delicately pointed accompaniment. Rognoni also offers us the familiar solo violin concerto (No. 6 in the series), a performance notable as much for its agility as for its gentle propulsiveness and for a Largo swathed in mystery. But perhaps the grandest work in the opus is the 9th Concerto, grander even with Bach (Alessandrini’s approach on solo harpsichord recalls, at least in part, the regal manners of the ‘Priestess of Bach’ Wanda Landowska).

Above all I would recommend this superb set to listeners who think of Vivaldi as pushing the same gondola out time and again, each concerto sounding much like the last.  Not true. The playing is all one could wish for and so is the recorded sound. If you’d like to sample, it’s up for one and all on Spotify.

MAHLER CLEARED OF COBWEBS

I seem to recall that it was the composer and broadcaster Harold Truscott who back in the late 1960s gave a BBC ‘Interpretations on Record’ lecture on Mahler’s Ninth Symphony centring on a live recording by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer’s disciple Bruno Walter which was made in 1938 shortly before the Anschluss (annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany). To my teenage ears it was a revelation, so profoundly unlike Walter’s affectionate but woefully undercharged post-war stereo recording. These scratchy old 78s approximated war footage with no holds barred, the music anticipating the terror, violence and cruelty that raped Europe some thirty years after the Symphony was written. Walter had it in a nutshell, or so it seemed, even though some of the playing was decidedly rough-edged. So, when some five or six years later I saw a set for sale as advertised in the classified pages of The Gramophone it was only natural that I should traipse, via public transport, with my then newlywed wife Georgie to some scenically pretty but geographically godforsaken place miles from anywhere to pick up two heavy packages of shellac discs. As it happened back in those days there had never been a British LP transfer of the recording and the one from The States was next to impossible to locate. So it was well worth it. I’m eternally grateful dear Golden Wedding star Georgie, even though I now have the recording on CD. But is the performance unique? Until a day or so ago I would have said ‘yes’. But a superbly recorded new cycle of the ‘complete’ symphonies (minus a ‘performing version’ of the Tenth) by the Stuttgart Philharmonic and Dortmund Philharmonic under Gabriel Feltz (Dreyer Gaido 21140, 10 cds, plus four multi-channel SACDs, c£65 – release date: 29th Apr 2022) has something of the same demonic quality that Walter had before the War. Feltz (General Music Director of the Dortmund Opera and Chief Conductor of the Dortmund Philharmonic Orchestra) is something of a dab hand at Fin de siècle music and his 9th is boldly outspoken. Aside from one halting peculiarity towards the close of the madcap Rondo-Burleske (12:14 in, then again at 12:25) it bears its heart much as Walter’s did, especially in the raging climaxes of the first movement.

I’ll quote timing points here because if in doubt you don’t need to take my words for it: the set is up online for all to sample via Spotify. For example, regarding the Fifth, a performance that again connects with Mahler’s fervid muse, the soft cellos at 4:30 into the vehement second movement peer so far inwards they virtually vanish and yet their surrounding context is utter frenzy. The bass drum makes an especially impressive showing, more so than on many rival recordings. This is Mahler reaching sky-high before collapsing in a state of exhaustion, the music fragmenting like torn scraps tossed by the wind. Feltz keeps the Scherzo lively and affectionate whereas the songlike aspect of the Adagietto occupies the brighter side of solemnity, a reading full of warmth and on the evidence of the playing, sincerity. The Resurrection (Second) Symphony’s funereal 23-minute first movement alternates hope and horror, the latter especially at 11:43 when the angry opening idea returns capped by a deafening tam-tam. The beauty of Feltz’s approach to the Symphony’s second half is in his impeccable sense of timing, each pause perfectly judged, the balance too (note the ethereal-sounding off-stage brass), suspense being very much of the essence, the beautiful ‘Urlicht’ (Primal Light) movement given a magical rendition by mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner. Feltz paces the finales of both choral symphonies with a knowing hand.

Feltz’s Eighth opens rather in the manner of Dimitri Mitropoulos’s fitfully inspired 1960 live Salzburg Festival recording with the Vienna Philharmonic except that it’s far less heavy-handed and infinitely better recorded. Best though to sample the finale (from track 16), which sails on high thanks to soprano Emily Newton: the closing pages will draw you to your feet, much as they did the loudly appreciative audience (all performances are tailed by applause but there’s time for you to make an exit f you so wish). As to the stream-of-consciousness Seventh or “Song of the Night” (I always think of it as Mahler’s ‘Hippy symphony’!), try the reptilian scherzo where Feltz vies with Rafael Kubelík for a vivid evocation of ‘things that go bump in the night’.  

There are some oddities. In the first movement of Third Symphony (‘Summer Marches In’) lower strings take to marching at a moderate pace at 20:07 but when yelping winds join the fray (20:31) Feltz doubles the pace and increases it even more once the timps get going. Thrilling no doubt about that but it’ll take some getting used to. And in the First Symphony, there’s more speeding around the coda of the first movement (join around, 14:05). It works especially well where the timps playfully attempt to push the woodwinds back, though in the end both reach the finishing line simultaneously.  And there’s Feltz’s quite exceptional reading of the Fourth Symphony. The opening jogtrots along happily until around 8:45, as the tension mounts, the tempo increases with it, more so than I’ve heard on other versions. But the gem here is the heavenly slow movement, this time with indicated accelerations, maybe children rushing to (metaphorically) catch the setting sun, a place where innocence becomes an initiation into some holy truth.  Everything here comes together: heady excitement, rapturous soft playing (from 21:12) and a thunderous fortissimo episode just before the movement’s close.

Thunder of a quite different order troubles the finale of the Sixth Symphony, primarily in climactic hammer blows but even more so for the Symphony’s final full chord which Feltz lands with an incendiary wallop. Here moderate tempos are grimly appropriate; the first movement includes its all-important repeat and the pounding scherzo follows it (rather than the slow movement, an option that some follow). The performance of finale, a real scorcher, will take some matching. Incidentally is it just me or are there a couple of West Side Story premonitions here (specifically 18:12 into the first movement [leading into ‘Tonight’?] then 10:07 into the slow movement). Do let me know if you agree.

The set comes packaged with a sizeable book complete with music examples, commentaries on the music and biographies. I shan’t pretend that everything is perfect – few live recordings ever are – but if you suspect that you’ve already heard one Mahler cycle too many, Feltz’s isn’t one of them. Listen, love and learn afresh.

Brilliant piano duo from across the pond

In years gone by the record catalogues haven’t exactly wanted for first-rate husband-and-wife piano-duo teams. Think of Lyubov Bruk and Mark Taimanov, Vitya Vronsky and Victor Babin, Robert and Gaby Casadesus, Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow, Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick and Pierre Luboshutz (1890-1971) and Genia Nemenoff (1905-1989), who first met at the Paris Conservatoire where Luboshutz was conducting a masterclass for a small group of professionals (Nemenoff amongst them). Ward Marston’s stimulating 4-cd collection of Luboshutz and Nemenoff recordings (54010-2, 4 cds, $54, available from www.marstonrecords.com) is valuable for a number of reasons, primarily how it demonstrates a duo partnership that was neither a battle of pianistic wills nor a study in mutual musical subservience but rather two minds truly working as one, a single virtuoso with two pianos, four hands. To hear their live account of Mozart’s great E flat Concerto under Boston Symphony maestro Serge Koussevitzky (1938), especially those myriad playful impulses in the first movement, is to witness the tightest possible dialogue. Real fun, too. Their 1941 Victor recording of Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre approaches Leopold Stokowski (in Philadelphia) for Gothic scaremongering whereas Harl McDonald’s Concerto for two pianos (with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the composer, broadcast April 1944) closes with a heavily percussive though tuneful finale. Also included Debussy’s exotic Lindaraja, Reger’s consistently imposing Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue and various other works, a number of them imaginative transcriptions. Sound sources are shellac, broadcast and vinyl (mono and stereo), the transfers impeccable, the annotations revealing. If you’re a piano buff, go for it.

KURT MASUR and the art of reconciliation

MASUR THE MAN

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.’

MASUR THE MUSICIAN AND A MAGNIFICENT BOXED SET FROM WARNER CLASSICS

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.

URGENT MESSAGE: UKRAINIANS AND RUSSIANS MAKING MUSIC

It’s maybe worth taking note of various great Ukrainian musicians and quoting some of the equally great Russians they collaborated with, or studied: Sergei Prokofiev (Sviatoslav Richter); David Oistrakh (Kyrill Kondrashin; Rudolf Barshai): Nathan Milstein (Horowitz, Glazunov); Leonid Kogan (Rostropovich; Gilels); Valentina Lisitsa (due to record Rachmaninov’s complete piano works. She has already recorded the complete Tchaikovsky solo piano pieces); Shura Cherkassky (Yuri Temirkanov) and so forth. I doubt that any of these musicians, when collaborating, would have given the least thought to their place of birth, or the origins of their musical collaborators. The music and only the music is what bound them. In that they were as close as it was possible to get.

I myself had Ukrainian grandparents on my mother’s side. But there’s a catch. The very word Ukrainian didn’t enter my life prior to the fall of Communism. Until then, I’d always (proudly) considered myself part-Russian (the Odesa-born violinist David Oistrakh was a member of my maternal grandmother’s family). That’s certainly how I thought when I visited Moscow and St. Petersburg 30 or so years ago. Now I find myself erecting mental/emotional barriers where previously there weren’t any – all because of one sick man. I have to stop myself doing that.

By and large the Russian people have nothing to do with this. They are pawns in a ghastly, murderous game. The Ukrainians are behaving impeccably, led by a true hero. There was a heart-breaking shot on TV this morning of an 8/9-years old kid stomping along the road crying his eyes out.  It broke my heart. I could imagine my granddaughter in the same position (God forbid), reacting in much the same way. Even Valery Gergiev, foolish as he appears to have been, made some wonderful music at home and abroad – Bruckner, Mahler, Wagner, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and so much more. Are we now to turn our backs on his considerable musical achievements because of his silence re Putin? Has it occurred to anyone that he knows things that we don’t, that he can’t openly disclose (maybe regarding Putin’s sate of health, for example)? He can easily see how much support Zelenskyy is receiving and is possibly grateful. The air will have to clear and all the gun/bomb-smoke with it before we can make accurate judgements about who says or thinks what, who is silent, and who isn’t. Gergiev could still be found wanting big-time, that’s for sure … but wait and see. In the meantime, let’s be nourished by all the amazing Ukrainian/Russian musicians. 

KAREL ANCERL ‘live’ on Supraphon

Please join me Rob Cowan with Presto Classical’s Paul Thomas and Supraphon’s classical music chief producer Matouš Vlčinský discussing a truly remarkable new 15-cd set devoted to that art of a major Czech conductor from the 20th century. The music you’ll hear is very varied and often thrilling. Here’s the link:

https://www.prestomusic.com/classical/articles/4561–presto-music-classical-podcast-episode-28-karel-an-erl-live-with-rob-cowan-and-matous-vl-insky