The final account of the recordings made by conductor Kurt Masur collected in a 70-CD box set released by Warner Classics will address his twentieth-century repertoire. There is far less completeness in this portion of the collection than had been encountered in his nineteenth-century recordings. The only commitment to thoroughness can be found in the five piano concertos by Sergei Prokofiev, recordings made with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra featuring piano soloist Michel Béroff.
This provides a somewhat limited perspective on the composer, particularly since the only symphony included in the collection is the Opus 100 (fifth) symphony in B-flat major. This selection was recorded with the New York Philharmonic on an album that also included a not-particularly-satisfying collection of excerpts from the music for the Romeo and Juliet ballet. Somewhat better was the CD with the concert version of the music composed for Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky film and the Opus 20 Scythian suite, originally conceived as a score for “Ala i Lolli,” a ballet commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev who rejected the music.
Mind you, there is a considerable diversity in nationalities among the other twentieth-century selections. Thus, Prokofiev’s symphony is complemented by two symphonies by Dmitri Shostakovich: the Opus 60 “Leningrad” in C major and the Opus 113 “Babi Yar” (setting poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko) in B-flat minor, which is framed by recordings of Yevtushenko reading two of his poems (in Russian). There is also a recording of Gustav Mahler’s ninth symphony in D major, which provides a potentially viable context for the symphonic efforts of both Prokofiev and Shostakovich.
The only other concerto offering is the Opus 47 violin concerto in D minor by Jean Sibelius on an album which is filled out by three shorter compositions. This is a Leipzig CD featuring Thomas Zehetmair as the violin soloist. Nationalism can also be found in the contributions by Leoš Janáček and Zoltán Kodály. Curiously, Béla Bartók is absent from this collection.
Another coupling involves familiar works by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel on a single volume. The one departure from “the usual” is Debussy’s L. 104 “Rapsodie,” scored for alto saxophone and piano and orchestrated by Jean Roger-Ducasse. A more interesting coupling is that of Kurt Weill with Alban Berg. The Weill selection is the score for the ballet “The Seven Deadly Sins” with a libretto by Bertolt Brecht. This is followed by the symphonic movements that Alban Berg extracted from his score for the opera Lulu (which is not quite as systematic in exploring the deadly sins).
The only other vocal offering is the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss. This is a New York Philharmonic recording featuring soprano Deborah Voigt. That performance is preceded by two familiar tone poems, “Don Juan” and “Death and Transfiguration.”
There is also a Philharmonic recording of Benjamin Britten’s Opus 66 War Requiem, featuring vocal soloists Carol Vaness (soprano), Jerry Hadley (tenor), and Thomas Hampson (baritone). Mind you, there will always be those that prefer the recording that Britten himself conducted with tenor Peter Pears and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. While I am definitely hooked on both of those vocalists, I cannot say the same for the soprano that Britten conducted, Galina Vishnevskaya. Apparently, no one took the trouble to coach her on the proper pronunciation of the Latin Requiem texts; and her account of “Liber scriptus” verges on the downright painful. Vaness is much more at home with singing Latin.
Then there is an album that is not, strictly speaking, a Mazur album. It presents pianist Fazil Say playing the music of George Gershwin, providing his own arrangements where necessary. Masur and the Philharmonic appear only for Ferde Grofé’s arrangement of “Rhapsody in Blue” and the set of variations on “I Got Rhythm.”
That leaves only two offerings that can be classified as “bleeding edge” compositions. The older of them is the set of variations on “America” that Charles Ives composed for organ, which was then orchestrated by William Schumann. The more recent is the cello concerto by Alfred Schnittke, featuring cellist Natalia Gutman performing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. This left me wishing that Masur had conducted more Schnittke selections and that there had been a recording of his performance of the music by Sofia Gubaidulina that he led with the San Francisco Symphony.