The attention attracted by Kurt Masur's tenure as Music Director
of the New York Philharmonic may seem excessive in retrospect,
at least to those who weren't in New York at the time. This
French program, which I missed in its full-priced Teldec issue,
reminds us what the fuss was about.
Masur's tightening of discipline after his arrival in 1991 proved
tonic for an ensemble accustomed to the sometimes casual manner
of their previous director, Zubin Mehta. His absorption of the
Central European tradition and his healthy musicality elicited
committed playing. Under Masur's guidance, the brass retained
full-throated balance and impact, and the polished woodwinds
acquired a greater elegance. The massed string tone remained
a bit diffuse, but the swarthy tone of the Mehta years was replaced
by trim, better-controlled playing that filled out the textures
with rhythmic point.
This Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
shows these improvements, despite being overly spacious. The
opening flute solo is far too languid - the slow tempo renders
the obligatory breath in the second bar more rather than less
conspicuous - and the oboe solo at 4:13 is similarly becalmed.
That said, the performance is sensitive and well-organized;
the tapered, vibrant strings are a pleasure; and the solo winds,
given time to luxuriate, are extraordinarily beautiful.
La mer, similarly, is handsomely played - note the rich
divided cellos at 4:40 of the first movement - but more Germanic
than Gallic in spirit. Only in the finale - where Masur, like
many non-French interpreters, adopts an overly expansive approach
to the second theme - does the rhetoric seem a bit much. Even
the tutti statement at 5:44, though tonally resplendent,
The saxophone rhapsody is a curious score. It's designated "for
orchestra and saxophone," rather than the reverse. This suggests
a tone-poem with obbligato rather than a full-fledged
concertante piece, with the composer exploiting the "exotic"
and caressing aspects of the sax, rather than its jazzy implications.
The opening section wouldn't be out of place in Ravel's Shéhérazade,
with the sort of mercurial woodwind playing that the Faune
could have used. Then, at 7:36, the music turns unexpectedly
"modern," juxtaposing striding, aggressive chords against contrasting
lyrical phrases. It's a good performance, with a bit of rhetorical
distension in the home stretch. Soloist Kenneth Radnofsky's
playing is refined, but the timbre retains enough pungency that
the saxophone doesn't just sound like a bigger clarinet.
Boléro, sometimes described as a fifteen-minute
exercise in orchestral color, seems an unlikely choice for performers
not noted as colorists. The flute and clarinet solos at the
start - both, admittedly, in a nondescript range - lack distinction,
and Masur perhaps understates the episode for horn and two piccolos
at 6:52, missing the organ-like bite of Ormandy (RCA). On the
plus side, the solo horn is round and, where needed, cheeky;
the saxophonist, presumably Radnofsky again, is assertive and
just reedy enough; and the violins are shapely when they finally
have at the theme. Rhythmic control, so important in this score,
La valse has long been a Philharmonic specialty: Bernstein,
Boulez, and even Mehta left their own stamp on it in various
Columbia (now Sony) recordings. Masur rises to the discographic
challenge, in a reading that underlines the undulating waltz
rhythms and invests the climaxes with a persuasive surge. The
rhythms in tutti are weightier and more marked than most;
moving high string chords are appealingly translucent.
With first-rate sound - better than one expected, given all
the whining about the Fisher Hall acoustics - this will please
New Yorkers and fellow-travellers who, like me, collected the
recordings of the Masur era. Even with the excellent La valse,
it's not quite a basic library acquisition. If you want the
rhapsody, which isn't aired much, I'd suggest John Harle's EMI
account, with the Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields providing
colorful support - unless a CD's worth of saxophone concertos
sounds too much for you.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach,
Masterwork Index: La