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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Beethoven, Symphonies 6 and 7 LPO/Kurt Masur. RFH, Wednesday, January 19th, 2005 (CC)

This concert of Beethoven’s Sixth and Seventh symphonies formed part of Kurt Masur’s ongoing Beethoven cycle (the first in the UK to use Breitkopf & Härtel’s new edition). On the evidence of this instalment, this cycle is a major event. Already thoughts are going towards the concerts of the year 2005 and this is only my second reviewed concert so far.


Masur has grounded himself in these works. His first traversal of the complete cycle (coupled with the complete Overtures on Philips) was actually my first Beethoven on LP and he was subsequently to re-record them. The orchestral forces used was of the old school - eight double-basses, a string section that filled the stage and four horns (valved) in each symphony (usually alternating pairs). But if that is to imply a certain heaviness, nothing could be further form the truth. Neither could Masur be accused of favouring natural lushness - the rawness of some of the (hunting) horn writing saw to that.


‘Pastoral’’s opening movement had an open-air feel to it, yet one was simultaneously aware of the weight in the lower strings. The most remarkable technical achievement here was the sheer sense of ensemble, though. The LPO’s strings played magnificently together, a reflection of the evident care that had gone into these performances. Oboes piped as to the manner born; Masur pointed up a reference to the ‘rain’ of the storm to come, an allusion that had not registered on this reviewer before.

An easy four-to-a-bar pulse ensured the ‘Scene by the brook’ flowed while wind (so important in this movement) were a consistent delight, although I found the principal flute rather breathy throughout. Typical of Masur’s magic with this music was the silky-smooth violin legato, a legato that did not however seem at all unstylish. The closing aviary was pure delight.

Gritty accents characterised the third movement, and there was a perhaps surprising allusion (one that had not struck this reviewer before anyway – the sudden interruptive two-note trumpet phrase, here seeming remarkably close to the dramatically crucial, action-halting trumpet fanfares in Act II of Fidelio).

Masur just avoided an interpretative sag in the final movement, giving us instead myriad insights. Just one stuck out, but something that would normally be so mundane. A simple bassoon doubling of cellos and bases, except here it was much more than just a doubling. The bassoon’s timbre added a whole different slant, a whole different meaning, to the phrase. Remarkable.


And the Seventh was hardly less so. Some may take issue, particularly in this symphony, with Masur’s conventional string placement. There is so much antiphonal violin writing that surely dividing the firsts and seconds across the conductor is logical? That aside, this was some of the most memorable Beethoven I have heard. The familiar introduction even emerged in a new light, the short, stabbing tutti chords functioning as a punctuating element to an underlying, attempted lyricism. Masur brought a wonderful sense of space to this ‘Poco sostenuto’. A fast vivace (exciting, blaring horns) continued the feeling of a massive utterance being underway, so that the feeling of ‘arrival’ at the recap was visceral. All four horns brought superb bravura to the end, a feeling of relief arrived at after the disturbing, obsessive, grinding basses.

Again, the second movement ‘moved along’, but with no feeling of loss of expressive affect. The cello counter-melody was smooth and gorgeous, but this was never Beethoven purely of the moment. Masur moulded the structure magnificently, hardly slowing at all for the climactic statement of the main motif.

Punchy accents, lively wind (especially the oboe) and bucolic note-swells marked the third (although was the second horn ‘pedal’ over-exaggerated?) And how often does one hear real pianissimi of this ilk?


Masur is often accused of a certain dullness, especially on record. Not a trace of that in the finale, though. The LPO gave their all (string semiquaver definition was jaw-dropping). True, using all four horns on the blaring bits was on the effect-making side, but over and above that was Masur’s masterly rhythmic grip. There was nothing shallow here, the excitement being generated internally from inside the score rather than externally pasted on. Basses glowered ominously as Masur’s interpretation reached white heat. So, a concert of the year so early on? Watch this space.


Colin Clarke


Recommended recording:

Beethoven, Symphony No. 7
: Walter, Columbia SO. Sony Classics SMK64463





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