Born in Japan in 1982 of Chinese parents, and raised in America, former
child prodigy Helen Huang has played with most of the world’s major
orchestras and conductors. Her performance of Mozart’s 23rd Piano Concerto
was a model of computerised perfection - Lara Croft plays Mozac
- and that was her problem. The effect was slick and soulless.
All the notes were there but where was she? She had obviously practised
the piece to perfection but lacked any sense of personal interpretation.
She could have been playing a pianola - insert your coin, push the lever
and away the little lady goes, every note a coconut. Her rendition of
the Adagio was perfect: eerily perfect. The last movement, Allegro
assai, was merely the pianola with the accelerator hard down. Masur,
however, seemed to be having a high old time, conjuring deliciously
fruity woodwind playing from the London Philharmonic, which only served
to emphasise the rather computerised sounds from the piano. The problem
for me is that Ms. Huang is too perfect - I want risk, danger, the element
of surprise, anything to distinguish her from the rest of her generation
of mechanically perfect prodigies.
There is a fashion nowadays with concert promoters to team up a Mozart
concerto with a Bruckner or Mahler symphony but for me (and many others)
this simply doesn’t work. Does one really need an hors d’oeuvre before
such a heavy main course?
Since the death of Günter Wand, I regard Kurt Masur as arguably
today’s leading interpreter of Bruckner, and this performance of Bruckner’s
7th Symphony confirmed my opinion. Masur produced a sublime performance
from the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I agree with Marc Bridle’s observation
that of all British orchestras the LPO has the most authentic Central
European sound, and is thus best suited to perform Bruckner. This was
amply illustrated by the deep, dark sound of the three Wagner tubas,
the rasping horns and grainy strings.
Masur conducted without a baton, using his expressive hands and body
movements to mould and coax his players. His gestures were reminiscent
of Furtwängler’s - agitated, erratic, irregular, seemingly uncoordinated,
but at all times communicating exactly what he wanted to the orchestra,
who responded with ecstatic playing.
This was evident from the opening, shimmering tremolando strings
of the first movement, where Masur achieved an evanescent, hazy sound
world recalling Bruckner’s claim that this first theme came to him in
a dream. Masur established a steady underlying pulse from the outset,
establishing a flexible but flowing line, avoiding the mannerisms of
the ‘stop-and-start’ school of conducting. By understanding the metre
and architectural structure of this symphony Masur seemed to remove
the divisions between the four movements, treating the work as an organic
whole. He knows well the art of building the tension to a climax, and
I have never heard such an intense and nerve-wracking build up to the
coda, in an incandescent final blaze of brass.
The Adagio never dragged, but thrust inexorably forward. Some
exquisite string playing emphasised the tender, elegiac element, whilst
completely avoiding any tendency towards smaltz. Again Masur judged
the climax to perfection, omitting the contentious cymbal and triangle.
Under Masur, one felt that the omissions worked well as the brass were
more than enough. The movement ended with mellow Wagner tubas and a
poignant flute solo.
The Scherzo sounded like Brucker’s homage to Wagner’s Ride
of the Valkyries. Masur invested this movement with a frightening
impact, with the brass section in particular delivering powerful and
penetrating blocks of sound. The result was a terrifying but exhilarating
white-knuckle ride. The Finale began with some wonderfully pointed
and detailed woodwind playing, often skimped by lesser conductors. Yet
again Masur was a master of gradually increasing the tension of this
manic movement, ending in a cacophony of frenetic sound.
This was by far the finest account of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony I have
heard in concert. Maestro Masur received a well deserved ovation, as
did the triumphant LPO. The concert was recorded for future transmission
on BBC Radio 3 on December 3rd as part of a special celebration of Kurt
Masur’s 75th birthday: tune in.