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S & H Concert Review

Mozart & Bruckner, Helen Huang (pf), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Kurt Masur, RFH, 25th September 2002 (AR)


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.

Alex Russell

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