THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA
KURT MASUR/ LOUIS LORTIE
By Lawrence Budmen
The Cleveland Orchestra is the sine qua non of American symphonic ensembles. Eschewing the blazing glitter of many other orchestras on the North American continent, the Clevelanders project their own finely honed brand of European classicism, at once astutely gauged and elegant. Kurt Masur remains a commanding senior statesman among the world's top level conductors. While Masur and the Cleveland musicians have not been closely associated as a symphonic duo, the German maestro made his American debut with the Ohio orchestra in 1974.
For the second phase of its annual three week residency in Miami, Florida, USA the Cleveland Orchestra offered an all Beethoven program (heard on March 6, 2009) at the acoustically welcoming Knight Concert Hall (at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts) with Masur on the podium. There was nothing routine or conventional about the performances, no matter how thrice familiar the repertoire.
Masur was the first to record the nine Beethoven symphonies in the revised edition by musicologist Jonathan Del Mar with an orchestra of modern instruments - the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. (Previous recordings featured period instrument bands.) He is a formidable Beethoven interpreter. The best performance of the light hearted 1st Symphony in this writer's five decades of concert going was delivered by Masur and the Boston Symphony at the 2007 Tanglewood summer festival. Long orchestral tenures in Leipzig and Dresden have clearly imbued Masur with an innate feeling for the pulse, orchestral wonders and spiritual transcendence of the master from Bonn's symphonic oeuvre.
The Leonore Overture No.3 was marked by a grandly supple play of dynamics, Masur conjuring up the softest pianissimos and full throated orchestral outbursts, beautifully delineated by the clarity and transparency of the hall's acoustics. Joshua Smith's silvery, agile flute solos and the orchestra's rich lower strings vividly conveyed Beethoven's portrait of victory over tyranny and oppression.
Canadian pianist Louis Lortie has long been renowned for his striking recordings of the music of J.S. Bach. A brilliant keyboard technician and artist of scrupulous musicality, Lortie was no less arresting in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.1 in C Major, Op.15. From the alternately sensitive and intense rendering of the Allegro con brio (first movement) to the soaring lyrical paragraphs of the Largo, Lortie offered playing of uncommon depth and stature. The incisive vivacity of the pianist's version of the final Rondo was the icing on the musical cake, Lortie's light as a feather touch bringing sparkle and joy to every bar. Masur's near perfect accompaniment abounded with vibrant instrumental coloration.
Masur concluded an outstanding evening of music making with a robust traversal of the Symphony No.7 in A Major, Op.92. With the Clevelanders' miraculous strings, winds and horns in full bloom, the conductor masterfully balanced the sun and shadow of the Poco sostenuto introduction, followed by a Vivace of scintillating rhythmic dynamism. The beautiful Allegretto was deeply moving, shaped with long limbed poignancy. A lively Presto (with superb horn playing, heroically accurate in intonation and execution) was followed by an exhilarating Allegro con brio finale. Masur brought relentless energy and imagination to this triumphant celebration of dance-like propulsion. The artistic wisdom of Kurt Masur and dynamic virtuosity of the Cleveland Orchestra proved a classic collaboration!
On April 3 and 4, 2009 the Cleveland Orchestra returns to Miami's Arsht Center with Pinchas Steinberg conducting Barber's School for Scandal Overture and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.4 and Nikolaj Znaider as soloist in Brahms' Violin Concerto. See www.arshtcenter.org for information.