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
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
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
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.