April 22, 2011
By Mark Satola
A dozen years ago, conductor Kurt Masur spoke of essentializing his repertoire to a core of works that he considered masterpieces, which spoke to audiences around the world regardless of language or culture.
Now, at age 83, Masur continues to concentrate on the most seminal compositions from the Western concert tradition, with luminous results.
Thursday night's Cleveland Orchestra concert, with music by Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Brahms, could have been a routine exercise, a meat-potato-veg affair, but Masur transformed it with the wisdom of a lifetime's immersion in the works.
Conducting without a score in Mendelssohn's "Hebrides Overture," Masur set out a contemplative pace that highlighted the music's evocation of a misty Scottish seascape. It also allowed for some lovely shaping of phrases from the strings.
Fire and drive were there when called for, but what remains in memory is the almost Wagnerian soundscape that Masur crafted, full of subtle mystery.
French pianist David Fray made his Severance Hall debut at the concert with Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, which was mostly written before the concerto known as No. 1. But the composer tinkered with it for the better part of a decade before allowing it to appear in print.
Fray, who is 30 years old, is a pianist of serious countenance and intense concentration. He sits low and close to the keyboard and mostly eschews demonstrative gesture. His tone is crystalline and fine, and has a tonal halo around it that reminds one of Robert Casadesus at the height of his powers.
Fray's Beethoven was fleet, witty and conversational. Pianist and orchestra traded bon mots in a spirit of fun, and even when the orchestra fluffed its entry at the end of the first movement's cadenza, it felt more like a Gallic smile and shrug than a serious offense.
Brahms' music could never be described as lovable, but it is always breathtaking for its unexcelled mastery of form, expression and orchestration.
Sir Edward Elgar, himself a brilliant orchestrator and master of form, was moved to confess, "When I look at the Third Symphony of Brahms, I feel like a tinker."
In the wrong hands, Brahms' Symphony No. 4 in E minor can be a dreadful chore, but Masur made of it an odyssey of heroic proportions.
His attention to detail let every felicity of Brahms' orchestration shine, especially in the beautiful and profound second movement, where Masur's relaxed pace allowed for a kaleidoscopic range of shadings and shapings. The violas were especially fine in their singing of the consolatory theme toward the movement's end.
Cleveland audiences can be overly eager to rise to their feet at a concert's end, but Thursday night's ovation was genuine and heartfelt. Masur, called repeatedly to the stage, seemed moved by its fervor -- and, in a simple gesture of appreciation, put his hand to his heart more than once.