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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.6 in F major, Op.68 ("Pastoral") [41:57]
Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.36 [32:00]k
Orchestre National de France/ Kurt Masur
Luc Héry (violin solo)
Rec. in concert by Radio France on 7th and 14th November 2002 in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris (France). DDD
Naïve V 4971 [73:59]


Kurt Masur has plenty of guts and gusto – he does Beethoven's temperamental memory proud. Indeed, the eminent conductor has a clearly visceral vision of the "Pastoral" symphony (in his words, "a search for Paradise") and as regards Beethoven's musical oeuvre he insists, with patriotic reverence, that "there is always thought…even when the words themselves are absent".

To his credit, Masur practices what he preaches: these live interpretations of Beethoven's 2nd and 6th symphonies are intelligently crafted and satisfy appetites in both Romantic and Classical camps. The provocative mixture of rationality and passion is no doubt enhanced by the chemistry between Teutonic conductor and French orchestra.
Beethoven presented his 6th in December 1808 to the Viennese public as "A symphony entitled ‘Recollections of rural life’" – with the first edition came its designation "Pastoral". In his words, therefore, his work is a personal appreciation of nature and not simply a musical representation of green pastures and grazing sheep. The programmatic concept behind all five movements is made clear by the explanatory titles ("Awakening of joyful feelings on arrival in the country" and "Feelings of happiness and gratitude after the storm" for the first and last movements respectively).

Masur takes the opening movement at a brisk pace yet none of the articulative precision is lost. Religious attention to the minutiae delivers an impressive scope of dynamics, textures and phrasing – energy and commitment from the orchestra sustains their impact throughout. The second movement ("Scene at the Brook") is also fast but breathes expansively for sublime melodies and the songs of the nightingale, quail and cuckoo. The "Pastoral" sketches a generally good humoured trajectory, except for the "Thunderstorm" that threatens the lyrical idyll with colossal thunderclaps and unsettling harmonies.
A brave solo flute paves the way towards the finale that begins with a soft ‘pastoral song’ from the clarinets. Masur’s light touch is Mendelssohnian in its child-like purity and optimism. If any criticism is to be made it is that the recording places slightly too much emphasis on the upper strings and at times the overall sound lacks the anchorage of a strong bass. No such reservation for the 2nd Symphony that is as flawless as live recordings come.

Composed in 1802, Beethoven's 2nd pays homage to Mozart's generation in its use of orchestral forces and formal working. There is no explicit programme behind its conception, though it coincides with a poignant letter from composer to his brothers admitting the growing acceptance of his deafness. Hence a generally positive spirit marred by a few black clouds – as, for example, in the opening movement where ominous chromaticisms cast a grim shadow over the cheerful motor rhythms.
This interpretation is second to none: woodwind and strings offer an impeccable partnership of elegance and warmth. Masur coaxes exquisite composure that renders the Allegro con brio an urgency that does not distort its clarity. The folk-influenced Larghetto is an uncomplicated structure – and critics have argued it is excessively long – but there is not a boring moment in this recording. Every phrase is attended to individually, creating a wealth of characters and timbres – the musicians engage with every detail and the listener feels their sincerity.

Even if the Scherzo is a bit rough around the edges (i.e. not entirely together at the start and for the first few bars of the reprise) the energy and spirit turns it into a success. This excitement carries forth into the Finale and Masur lives up to the climax with a crash on his podium! Close your eyes and picture Beethoven conducting these two symphonies at one of his famous benefit concerts – Masur’s outbursts and collisions are a welcome re-enactment.

Aline Nassif

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