Father and Son Mozart: Kurt and Ken-David Masur conduct the Boston Symphony, with Gerhard Oppitz Playing Mozart’s C Minor Piano Concerto, K. 491

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Gerhard Oppitz Plays Mozart's C Minor Piano Concerto, K. 491, Ken-David Masur Conducting the BSO. Photo Hilary Scott.
Gerhard Oppitz Plays Mozart’s C Minor Piano Concerto, K. 491, Ken-David Masur Conducting the BSO. Photo Hilary Scott.

Sunday, July 22, 2.30 pm

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Kurt Masur and Ken-David Masur, conductors
Gerhard Oppitz, piano

All-Mozart – Program
Eine kleine Nachtmusik (Ken-David)
Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K.491 (Ken-David)
Symphony No. 36 in C, Linz (Kurt)

I have read that Kurt Masur has shared concerts with his estimable son, Ken-David, several times over the past year or so, before his fall from the podium in April caused an interruption in his concert schedule. This concert at Tanglewood is, I believe, the only appearance he will make until his broken shoulder blade heals entirely. Mr. Masur is looking forward to a full recovery, and we can only wish him a rapid and complete one. Meanwhile, Ken-David is in his second summer as a Conducting Fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center. Last summer, he made a strong impression on me with Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3 Overture with the TMC Orchestra in Ozawa Hall. Unfortunately I missed his other concerts then, but this year I have heard more, with some very challenging pieces among them, including Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto and Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques. Everything augurs an important career ahead for Ken-David Masur and a cherishable contribution to our musical lives. Few conductors even of the older generation have had a thorough grounding in the German classics and in the German classical style of orchestral playing. His father Kurt, from whom he learned the art, was considered a rara avis when he first became known in the West, since at the very least he knew the scores inside and out, and his conducting was highly valued at a time when a younger generation of conductors was taking over, who knew Mahler and Ravel better than Beethoven. Kurt Masur’s art has many other virtues as well, above all his deep insight into works like the Missa Solemnis and the Symphonies of Bruckner and Brahms, not to mention Shostakovich and Gershwin. He is one of our great conductors, a worthy successor of Weingartner and Klemperer.

In this concert, his debut with the Boston Symphony, Ken-David conducted another challenging work, Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Its scoring for string orchestra is simple and transparent, and everybody knows it. Mozart left little room for manipulating the music, and if the performance is to stand out in any way, it must be within the bounds of classical decorum—in other words, like a good dress suit, it shouldn’t stand out—but, if the performance is routine, it will bore even an inexperienced listener. It can’t be too heavy or too light… One might assume that the BSO play Eine kleine Nachtmusik at Tanglewood all the time, but in fact it hasn’t been played there since 1984, when Masur père conducted it. Also, one would think it might be swallowed up in the Shed. Using a reduced, but still fairly robust string section (8 first violins, if I remember correctly), Ken-David led a fully satisfying—really delightful—reading of the work—one which, while remaining entirely traditional, made the work sound fresh. Over a solid base line, the BSO strings played with wonderful cohesion of texture and timbre, while all the voices remained clear. The string sound glowed with silvery highlights. The dynamics, especially in the slow movement and in the final rondo, were finely nuanced. The piece carried perfectly in the Shed, and, above all, the players really sang. They played at their very best for the young man and seemed to enjoy it. It was a thoroughly engaging performance, with a perfect balance of charm, high spirits, and solid musical form.

The same singing line and sense of balance prevailed in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Minor, K. 491, in which Ken-David accompanied Gerhard Oppitz, who has been mesmerizing Tanglewood audiences with his traversal of the complete piano works of Brahms.

Herr Oppitz’s playing is notably lacking in one quality: ego—which means he fully understands the values at stake in the C Minor Concerto as much as in Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Here the writing for both the orchestra and the piano is extremely spare. The keyboard works Mozart wrote for himself to play were published from bare scores which lacked the phrasing and dynamic indications he would have provided for his pupils and for strangers. In this concerto, especially in the slow movement, he even omitted some of the inner voices and harmonic accompaniments one might expect in the piano part, and some pianists have thought it appropriate to flesh the score out discreetly. When one hears this, if it’s not impeccably executed, one wonders if the pianists have some horror vacui in the face of the wide open spaces of Mozart’s simple textures. Needless to say Mr. Oppitz resisted this temptation and played it straight. Beginning in the first movement and throughout, Oppitz showed a view of the role of the solo piano rather similar to what period instrument specialists achieve with a fortepiano. He wove his playing in and out of the overall texture of winds and strings, receding into the whole with arpeggi and scalar figurations, and emerging with melodic lines and their ornaments. He enhanced the blend further with a generous application of the pedal. Ken-David Masur was entirely in sympathy with him, leading the BSO players through the score with contained emphasis and a simple lyricism suited to the melancholy spirit of the music. Neither he nor the soloist were inclined to inflate the work into a grand tragic gesture or the like. He played the cadenza of Mozart’s most gifted pupil, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, which extended Mozart’s style out into the Romantic era without compromising its original character. The slow movement was broad and meditative, with exquisitely turned phrasing, and the final movement supported the sad resignation of the theme with a classical stoicism, which moved intuitively into the more energetic variations. Mr. Oppitz’ taste and restraint should not belie the predilection for heroic grandeur he showed in his Brahms, and the dotted “military”variation showed it. At the end he seemed delighted with Ken-David’s sensitive and flexible, but solid accompaniment.

Heading for the podium after the intermission, Kurt Masur looked frail and Ken-David offered him the little assistance he needed. He wore a loose purple shirt or smock to conceal was seemed to be a shoulder brace. As he conducted, his movements were minimal, but the music was strong and full of vigor. In fact he used his eyes more than his arms or hands, but the orchestra know him well, and they were clearly eager to give him their best, playing with a subtly darker, thicker sound than for Ken-David, appropriate to the grand scale of the “Linz” Symphony, and Mr. Masur’s idea of the symphony is truly grand.

Tempi were broad, both in the slow introduction to the first movement and in the main body of it, but the pulse was active, and the music never dragged. Masur made the transition and the change of meter and tempo exceptionally clear, even emphatic. He used the repeats, which play their own indispensable role in giving a Mozart symphony its due weight and proportion. I won’t go so far as to say that the symphonies seem like Potemkin villages without repeats, but perhaps a Palladian villa without a vestibule. Phrasing was both eloquent and poised, especially beautiful in the slow movement, which was broad and contemplative. For the minuet, Masur chose a tempo that was somewhere in the middle, so that the violins could sing out over active and energetically defined dance rhythms. Masur’s balance of song, dance, and architectural weight was all for the better, and his adoption of the repeats added to the movement’s expanse and grandeur. The “Linz” is a supreme expression of the courtliness of Rococo dance music, but it is a monumental work as well, looking forward to its strange new brother in C Major, the “Jupiter,” and Kurt Masur was never one to overlook that

One doesn’t often hear this German style of Mozart playing any more. Mr. Masur has often been compared to the young Otto Klemperer, and Klemperer’s recordings of Mozart’s symphonies were among the most prized in their time, and they still have many admirers today. This is quite distinct from the Viennese tradition, which influenced James Levine’s Mozart. Ken-David Masur’s approach shows its origins in the lessons he learned from his father, but his personality is already distinct and independent, as one can hear in his subtly more tuneful, long lines and more luxurious string sound—even in the same concert. However his musical sensibility develops in his future travels, it is clear that his heritage is still alive and well and will be for some time to come.

Kurt Masur and Ken- David Masur at Tanglewood in 2011. Photo Michael J. Lutch.
Kurt Masur and Ken- David Masur at Tanglewood in 2011. Photo Michael J. Lutch.
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