Ives The Unanswered Question. Shostakovich Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 60'Leningrad'. NYPO/Kurt Masur. Barbican, 10 June , 2000 (CC)
We are now entering into Masur's valedictory phase with the NYPO: his contract ends in 2002 (at which point he will become Musical Director of the Orchestre National de France). In addition, in the 2001/2 season he becomes the Principal Conductor of the LPO. Masur has been Principal Conductor of the New York Philharmonic for nearly a decade, and their close rapport was in evidence from the very first chord.
The Ivesian Question which remains Unanswered is left to the listener's own interpretation, but placing it next to a 'War' symphony seems to give it a valid query in the context of this concert - 'Why is such suffering necessary?' The string opening was tremendously still, hushed but sonorous, the offstage trumpet bleak in its questioning and the wind progressively heated in their replies. Only the final string chord was flawed in its imperfectly graded diminuendo.
The genesis of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony (of 1941) is still controversial, but centres around the 900-day siege of Leningrad by the German army. The symphony contains a wide gamut of emotions, complete with matching dynamic range (the latter fully realised by the NYPO, although it is a quirk of the Barbican's acoustic that a colleague of mine tells me that the pianissimi did not carry effectively to the balcony). Masur elicited a full, rich and powerful sound from his orchestra - the opening string statement was forceful, impressive but never strained. Brass, antiphonally placed around the percussion, leapt forth with tremendous power at nodal points: the largest climax of the first movement, masterfully prepared, was devastating and well-nigh deafening in its effect.
Masur's delineation of lines and fine response to Shostakovich's individual orchestral colours meant that the attention never wavered throughout - one was constantly reminded of this composer's unfailing ear for effective doublings. String articulation in the second movement was crystal clear, but at no point was virtuosity the main point. The temptation to list individual members and sections of the orchestra for exquisite characterisation throughout the performance is difficult to resist. If a couple of examples cry out for attention, they are the extended bassoon solo of the first movement and the warm, lyrical violas of the Adagio.
The final movement, marked 'Victory', was all one could wish for. The build-up to the final peroration was expertly controlled, the difficult path to this particular victory acutely felt. A packed audience rightly responded enthusiastically to the experience.
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