sat 20/07/2024

Kurt Masur (1927-2015) | reviews, news & interviews

Kurt Masur (1927-2015)

Kurt Masur (1927-2015)

Remembering an old-style master conductor in words and pictures

Masur conducting joint London and Paris forces on his 80th birthday© Chris Christodoulou

This is difficult. An official obituary, such as the one I’ve just finished for The Guardian, has no problem in pointing out the achievements of Kurt Masur’s distinguished career. Whatever his party-line status in Honecker’s East Germany, which he used to get the Leipzig Gewandhaus rebuilt to his own satisfaction, Masur did play a crucial role as one of five spokesmen preventing a Tiananmen Square-style massacre before the Berlin Wall fell.

In 2001 he responded swiftly with his New York Philharmonic to give a memorial performance of Brahms’s A German Requiem, motivated players to give free chamber concerts around Ground Zero and inaugurated an Annual Free Memorial Day Concert.

Yet for many musicians and listeners, myself included, Masur, who has died aged 88, commanded respect rather than love. For all he said about the conductor being there as equal with the players, many members of the London Phiharmonic Orchestra still felt his style was autocratic, more connected to the old style rather than the new. He broadened his repertoire with age, commissioning new works in both New York and London from the likes of Thomas Ades and Sofia Gubaidulina. Yet his limited support for American music proved one of the sticking points in his battle with the NYPO board which led to an untimely departure as principal conductor in 2002.

Masur Shostakovich recordingMaybe there are audience members in New York who remember more from his 11 years there with greater affection there than I do from the London era (2000-7). To be honest, I avoided the reliable but uninspired LPO/Masur concerts where possible. Too many odd or mannered tempo choices for a conductor you'd expect to offer the Kapellmeister's natural sense of movement (think Wolfgang Sawallisch, for instance). But one occasion took me by surprise. Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony never figured among the greater of the composer’s 15 until I heard Masur conduct it. That performance blazed with an intensity as well as a focus I’d not thought possible. The line of fire and beauty held right through to an astonishingly powerful peroration. So yes, Masur did have powerful things to say about collective mourning and indignation, and on that evening it all came together.

In closing, it seems appropriate to choose a film of Masur conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in a 1988 performance of the ultimate hymn to humanity, the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Before or after, make sure you turn the "page" to see master Proms photographer Chris Christodoulou's sequence of images of Masur in rehearsal.

Overleaf: browse a gallery of images of Masur taken by Chris Christodoulou at a rehearsal for a 2007 80th birthday BBC Prom

All photographs © Chris Christodoulou. Click on the thumbnails to enlarge


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