Maestro Masur recently rerecorded the Tchaikovsky Second with the Gewandhaus Orchestra for Teldec. I have not yet heard that version, but Lawrence Hansen dismissed it as a "lumbering attempt at Slavic Bruckner" (September/October 1994 American Record Guide). This 1969 recording couldn't be more radically different in its approach. Here Masur bursts out of the starting gate and never once looks back. His tempos are all astoundingly brisk (even faster than Bernstein except in the finale, which sounds faster than Lenny's because it's more cleanly played). In spite of his consistently restless pacing, Masur brings so much character and irrepressible joy to the proceedings that there is never the slightest hint of monotony or routine. Masur also highlights the vocal quality of the thematic material when appropriate, as in his charming reading of II (where the conductor clearly hears pre-echoes of the Marche Slave) and his splendidly relaxed presentation of the subordinate theme in IV. The Dresden orchestra delivers incredibly crisp accents and explosive climaxes, and its conductor treats this work as if it were cut from very nearly the same heroic cloth as the Fourth Symphony. The result is a Little Russian that for once appears to be a worthy predecessor of that epic score. The Dresden Philharmonic gave the first German performance of this symphony as recently as 1948. They clearly enjoy this music and play it with tremendous panache and enthusiasm.
Tempos are more widely varied and the string playing is not nearly as clean in the Prokofieff. Still the energy and verve that made the Tchaikovsky so compelling may also be heard here. Indeed, this is one of the few recordings of the Classical Symphony that can stand comparison with the high-spirited Bernstein or the mercurial Koussevitzky. Masur's vivid dynamic and rhythmic contrasts coupled with his delightfully tongue-in-cheek interpretation (just listen to the sly ending of III) make this an especially enjoyable reading of a very familiar work.
What Berlin's recording lacks in warmth it more than makes up for in immediacy and impact - characteristics which only serve to heighten the impact of Masur's explosive readings. The playing time is chintzy, but don't let that deter you from picking up the next available copy.
Copyright © 1996, Tom Godell