Music and Vision homepage

DVD Spotlight

Intensity and Concentration

Kurt Masur conducts
Richard Strauss -
reviewed by

'... beautifully and confidently performed ...'

Richard Strauss Concert. Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur. © 2009 Digital Classics

Future generations will surely be happy to have such DVDs as this one available, allowing folks to see and hear the great artists and orchestras of the late twentieth century. Granted, filming has advanced even since 1992, when this concert was filmed, but even so, it's a fine testimonial to the rapport Kurt Masur had established with his long-time Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, not to mention his emotional ties to the music.

I was thrilled to see and hear Julia Varady for perhaps the very first time! I cannot recall ever having heard of her prior to this release, which is astonishing, as I've not been living in a cave. But apparently she did not spend much of her career in the US, which may at least partially explain this phenomenon. Her voice is one of substance and beauty, seamless throughout, and definitely suited to Strauss. During her career, she performed a wide variety of repertoire: from Mozart to Wagner, with stops for Rossini, Puccini and Verdi! Not to mention a lot of R Strauss, as well as some J Strauss! Versatile, indeed.

The twenty three string players of the Gewandhaus who performed the Metamorphosen were committed and intent on the music, which is an extraordinary composition. Autumnal in nature, it is sometimes dense, but always lush. As the melodic line moved through the various instruments, the camera followed, allowing the watcher to absorb the intensity and concentration of the players. Whatever Strauss' motivation for the piece, it is a somber tribute to memory -- of what was, or what might have been, or what might even be yet to come.

It is obvious that Mr Masur feels a deep connection to this piece. Look at the emotion written so clearly on his face, just at the end of the piece.

Watch and listen -- Strauss: Metamorphosen
(chapter 1, 23:46-24:30) © 1992 Alter Oper Frankfurt

It was neat to see him go around the circle of musicians and shake hands with each of them. Mr Masur was in Cleveland last spring to conduct the Cleveland Orchestra. His hair is now white, and if he no longer runs to the podium, he is still vital and as involved in the music as he was the first time I saw him here, in the very early 1980s.

Julia Varady, Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Julia Varady, Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

The Vier letzte Lieder were certainly filled with emotion, although neither Ms Varady or Mr Masur are given to large gestures. No, they just stand there and do their thing, letting the music tell the story. In Ms Varady's case, it was a beautifully limpid and apparently effortless rendition of Frühling ('Spring'), followed by a September that was full of longing for the summer just past. There's a beautiful horn solo near the end. In Beim Schlafengehen ('Going to Sleep'), one wonders if the sleep is not meant to be permanent, so accepting is the poet of his own mortality. The voice gives way to another gorgeous horn solo, which in turn gives way to a solo violin, quoting Strauss' own earlier Death and Transfiguration. It's a segment of pure magic in this rendition.

Watch and listen -- Strauss: Four Last Songs
(chapter 4, 36:17-37:08) © 1992 Alter Oper Frankfurt

Im Abendrot ('Evening') is even more accepting of what is to come, and here Ms Varady allows her voice to become somewhat stark as it melds into a longer, orchestral quote from the composer's earlier tone poem.

Watch and listen -- Im Abendrot (Four Last Songs)
(chapter 5, 45:09-47:23) © 1992 Alter Oper Frankfurt

Yet, even so, each note is perfectly placed. It's an awesome performance, overall.

I was somewhat troubled by the lack of notes of any kind in this package. Also, I'm not sure if it was my player or me, or if the sound really was inconsistent here and there. On occasion, it seemed rather thin for Strauss, but for the most part, it was lush and full.

The bonus track is the marvelous musical telling of the legend of Till Eulenspiegel. Strauss was just thirty when he composed this -- his Opus 28. The very first of the treacherous horn calls appears at 1:25 in a very individualistic (elastic) rendition, with the second following promptly. Both were beautifully and confidently performed, as were the later versions at 6:55 or so, and the entire section at 10:25 to 11:10. This latter was a vivid example of insouciant horn playing at it's finest!

Watch and listen -- Till Eulenspiegel
(bonus, 9:17-11:17) © 1992 Alter Oper Frankfurt

One of the neat things about video versions of concerts is the occasional closeup of a not-so-familiar instrument, such as the ratchet requested by the composer. This well-worn version is spot-lighted at 4:10, and again a few minutes later. Till can't resist tweaking the citizenry a bit, by invading the town festivities (9:15) and so brings his demise ever closer. By 12:40, the trombones are signalling this unhappy event, which takes place some twenty seconds later.

The solo winds were excellent throughout. Unfortunately, I have no names to provide. You'll just have to listen for yourself, but especially noteworthy were the flutes and clarinets, plus the trumpets (cornets?) and trombones. This is not to slight the marvelous string players by picking out the winds. The concertmaster's solos were beautifully poignant and/or witty as indicated by the composer.

Kurt Masur
Kurt Masur

Mr Masur conducted from memory, and the cameras observe him closely, with a touching closeup of his hands near the very end at about 15:50. (He doesn't use a baton.) The visuals throughout are well done.

Copyright © 22 October 2009 Kelly Ferjutz,
Cleveland USA









 << Music & Vision home      Classical DVD reviews       Madame Butterfly >>