Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61 [46:51]
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 [24:18]
Salvatore Accardo (violin)
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Kurt Masur
rec. Paul-Gerhardt Kirche, Leipzig, Germany, June 1977
Reviewed in stereo and surround
Booklet notes in English and German
PENTATONE PTC5186237 SACD [71:22]
In recent times Kurt Masur, possibly more than any other conductor, personified the central European tradition. Masur, who died in 2015, built a reputation on solid if not inspirational interpretations of the works of Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Mahler and Bruckner. His forays into 20th century repertoire rarely went beyond Strauss and Prokofiev. As Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra from 1970 to 1996, Masur gave the orchestra a “lush, string-saturated, dark brown sound”, to quote from his obituary in the New York Times. His latter years were spent at the helm of the New York Philharmonic, which he transformed “from a sullen, lacklustre ensemble into one of luminous renown”, but without personally setting the world alight. If anything, Masur’s greatest achievements were in the field of diplomacy during the breakdown of communist rule in East Germany, when he became a unifying point for all sides, potentially averting violence. He was subsequently considered for nomination as the pre-unification country’s first president, but with an offer also on the table from New York, he opted for music.
My personal regard for Kurt Masur has always been one of respect rather than admiration. Flipping through my collection, all I have that he conducts, without the drawcard of a Jessye Norman or Anne-Sophie Mutter, are CDs of Beethoven overtures (Philips) and Liszt tone poems (EMI), and those were out of a bargain bin. The Beethoven overtures and symphonies were recorded by Masur with the Leipzig orchestra in the Lukaskirche, Dresden, in the early 1970s, under an apparent arrangement between Philips and VEB Deutshe Schallplatten (Eterna). All, it appears, were recorded quadraphonically, as they have now appeared on Pentatone as multichannel hybrid SACDs. The Beethoven and Bruch violin concertos were recorded somewhat later, in 1977, under the same arrangement it seems, the only notable difference being a change of venue to the Paul-Gerhardt Kirche, Leipzig. Another location perhaps, but the sonic, and interpretive, signatures are still there; dark, dense and resonant sound – weightily impressive, if that appeals - together with Masur’s “strong motivation and lack of mannerism”, as the Penguin Guide then characterised it. Certainly nothing HIP there, and even the less HIP-inclined may now find Masur’s approach ponderous, prosaic and unimaginative. Likewise myself, and perhaps why I have been so little drawn to his work.
So what might leaven this resolute mould of the central European tradition? Why, a little southern sunshine, of course, in the form of Salvatore Accardo, an artist not only of impeccable technique and insight, but flair, passion and luminous tone. It wasn’t all a smashing success, though - the Beethoven concerto, originally issued in 1977/78, doesn’t seem to have resurfaced often, its most recent outing in a set of Accardo’s recordings on Decca (5006218). The Penguin Guide’s summation was “a wholly dedicated and faithful account of the concerto, lacking only the last once of Innigkeit”, but not among the best, either of Beethoven concerto or Accardo recordings. I second that, with further reservations. Accardo’s first movement cadenza, unattributed in the liner notes, seems a little home-spun and starts to wear thin after its nearly four minutes. He is also miked very closely in the resonant surroundings, which not only separates him physically and acoustically from the orchestra, but musically as well. He sounds rather flightier than the stolid support he receives from Masur and the Leipzigers. When initially released on LP, the shrillness of Accardo’s tone drew adverse comment; now, I’m pleased to report, it’s more of a heightened brilliance which, albeit not entirely natural, adds at times a welcome bite to and relief from the over-stuffed orchestral backdrop.
The Bruch concerto has been more of a permanent fixture in the catalogue, as a companion to the complete Bruch works for violin and orchestra recorded by Accardo and Masur, the three concertos with the Scottish Fantasy currently on a Philips Duo (4621672). While the sonic balance is consistent with the Beethoven, Accardo sounds musically better integrated with his accompanists, in a reading of measured passion and tonal opulence. Again, the original shrillness is now just an additional gleam. My impression of the Bruch concerto has long been that given performers of sufficient quality, it essentially plays itself, and there’s no exception here, with the added bonuses of Accardo’s lustre, and the sonorous splendour of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.
In the final analysis it should perhaps be asked whether the Beethoven concerto in particular was worth resurrecting for this reissue, given that its only additional virtues are surround sound (if you are suitably equipped) and, conceivably, a fresher transfer from the original mastertapes. My answer is a qualified ‘yes’, as the Accardo/Masur account can now be heard at its very best, but in the almost certain knowledge that its modest ranking among Beethoven concerto recordings will not change. The Bruch performance is a somewhat different matter, having already established itself a permanent place in the catalogue, and now having it sounding better than ever is welcome indeed.