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Seen and Heard Concert Review



Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms: Helen Huang (piano); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Kurt Masur. QEH, 06.10.2006 (CC)




Kurt Masur is rapidly becoming a grand (and wise) old man of the London orchestral scene. Over the course of a long career (he is approaching 80) he has firmly established his reputation, in the music of Beethoven especially. There has always been a dichotomy, though. In the recording studio, he can play safe (even dull), but live he has been known to provide real excitement (a Fidelio at the RFH some years ago being a case in point).His Mendelssohn Hebrides on this occasion was interesting interpretatively as he emphasised an uneasy undercurrent throughout. Most obviously this came out in a stern refusal to dawdle at all the ‘usual’ places. Orchestral balance was finely judged – just dynamics needed a slight adjustment (the climax threatened to overwhelm in the QEH). On the positive side, there was some meltingly beautiful solo clarinet playing (Nicholas Carpenter); on the negative, a very slack vital violin anacrusis.


Pianist Helen Huang has long been linked to Masur. Her London appearances have been chronicled in various Seen & Heard concert reviews (see AR’s reviews here and here). At first it was easy to agree with AR’s judgment of Huang as rather superficial. Huang’s lightish sound was appealing, and there was no doubt that technically we were in the safest of hands, yet chords were not carefully voiced and both soloist and orchestra lost momentum during the course of the first movement. Spontaneity only arrived with the cadenza (I’d buy Huang’s super-even trills off her any day, by the way).The improvements the cadenza brought (could it have been nerves previously?) extended to the Intermezzo, with good communication in the soloist/orchestra dialogues. Huang clearly understands this music well. Rather strange, I thought, that the famous 3-against-2 passage in the finale was surprisingly lethargic from the LPO. Not too disastrous, in the event. Huang clearly would make a fine chamber player (she listens well) but one thing was clear – this performance was never going to set the World alight.


The Brahms Second Symphony was a long-breathed affair (including the long first movement repeat). The intention of a Brahms basking in warmth was clear from the outset, with burnished cellos and mellow horns. A shame someone in the audience talked over the vital first couple of bars, but such are the perils of live performance. What was most impressive about this expansive first movement was Masur’s long-range thought. The music unfolded with wonderful inevitability – yet there was plenty of drama, too. A special word of appreciation to Principal Horn Richard Bissell for his excellently phrased long solo.


The woodwind delicacy of the second movement was a delight (interestingly, Masur found more drama in this movement than one might expect). This was one ‘Adagio non troppo’ that was an ever-changing landscape, shifting quickly from scene to scene. If one could wish for more lustre on the fist violins in the third movement, the finale blew out any doubts. Very aware of the shadows here, Masur imparted an almost Mahlerian breadth to certain passages, even approaching a sense of timelessness at one point and not letting his orchestra ‘fly’ until right the very end. A memorable interpretation.

Colin Clarke




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)