Masur in the Golden Twilight Of His Career: in Zurich With the Tonhalle

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Shostakovich, Beethoven, R. Strauss: Tonhalle Orchestra, Zurich, Kurt Masur (conductor), Helen Huang (piano), Tonhalle Zurich, 2.12.2011 (JR)

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3
R. Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel

Kurt Masur Photo (c) Zurich Tonhalle

Whilst it was heart-warming to see the venerable Kurt Masur still conducting at the ripe age of 84, I could not help but wonder whether there should not be a compulsory retirement age for conductors. Some outstay their welcome. Masur of course chose music he knows like the back of his hand, and conducted all but the Beethoven concerto without a score. Masur looked frail from the start but, amazingly, slightly more invigorated by the end; his favourite music had clearly quickened his heart. He needed no chair to conduct these works. The hall was full, standing room only in the wings, Masur was the obvious draw.

Shostakovich’s 1st symphony was written as his graduation piece at the Leningrad Conservatory in 1925 and already displays many of his hallmark idioms. To that extent it is an interesting early symphony, but naturally it lacks much of the emotional depth and world-weariness of his later works. Masur’s conducting was limited to a few nudges and glances so that the Principal Andreas Janke sometimes felt he had to assist from the front desk with violin and bow. It was a somewhat sad sight and did nothing to aid enjoyment of the work. There was, as a result, a general lack of volume and vigour. The orchestra did the best they could to galvanise themselves. Special mention must go to the fine jaunty clarinet playing of Michael Reid and Martin Fuchs, the Principal oboist.

After the interval, yet another Chinese (Taiwanese) child prodigy turned concert pianist: Huang was born in Japan of Taiwanese parents in 1982. Her family moved to the United States in 1985 and Huang began her piano studies at the age of five, first at the Manhattan School of Music and then at Juilliard, graduating in 2004. Huang made her debut with a major symphony orchestra aged 8, when she performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra. When she was 10, she went on to perform with the New Yorkers under Kurt Masur, with whom she has continued to maintain a close association.

Huang started rather mechanically but as she relaxed into Beethoven’s Third Concerto, the performance became more spontaneous. Whilst possibly lacking some muscularity at times, it had ample dynamism, the performance was riveting and technically faultless and one was always aware of the warm rapport between conductor and pianist. In the cadenza it felt as though the entire audience had stopped breathing, rapt with the delicacy of Huang’s playing and eager not to disturb the atmosphere with the usual bout of early winter bronchial attacks. The orchestra was in better shape than for the Shostakovich and provided elegant accompaniment. Huang led Masur onto the stage at the end and this brought to mind Liu leading blind Timur onto the stage in Turandot.

To end the concert, Masur chose one of his favourite pieces, Till Eulenspiegel. Again, Masur’s frailty and sparse gestures could not quite deliver all the staccatos and legatos but did not fail to bring out the work’s amazing colours of orchestration. The passages of complex counterpoint sounded rather too disjointed, the climaxes slightly underwhelming, the modernity of the work somewhat suppressed. Sabine Poyé Morel’s flute and Mischa Greull’s horn playing were however of the finest quality.

We should treasure these performances by Masur in the golden twilight of his career, even if they cannot be at the levels he used to attain. He gave us his trade mark smile and gentle wave to say “Auf Wiedersehen” at the end but I did wonder when that might be.

John Rhodes