The German conductor died today at the age of eighty-eight.
His finest moment at the New York Philharmonic was, by general consensus, his performance of Brahms's German Requiem in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. I wrote this in The New Yorker:
During the Second World War, Wallace Stevens asked, quoting Shakespeare, "How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?" How, in other words, can artists respond to news that exceeds their most extravagant nightmares? Stevens answered that poets "help us to live our lives," and the best they have to give is a certain quality of nobility, which he defined as "a violence from within that protects us from a violence without." That phrase captures the phenomenal power of the Philharmonic's German Requiem, which also involved Thomas Hampson, Heidi Grant Murphy, the New York Choral Artists, and the American Boychoir, all under the direction of Kurt Masur. This was no refuge of melancholy, no place of sorrow and self-pity. You were aware at all times of the life force in the music—its steady drones and syncopated pulses, its bursts of anger, its consoling warmth.
Brahms's Requiem is German in the same sense that Luther's Bible is German: it was intended not for the élite but for the masses, and it was dedicated chiefly to the living. In the opening movement, "Blessed are they that mourn," there was a sense that the chorus was singing as much for itself as for the audience. Hampson sang magnificently, with a welcome lack of pretense. Masur, who is beginning his final season with the orchestra, chose tempos so unerringly natural that he almost removed himself from the picture. Before the performance started, he stood with the immobility of an honor guard, declining to acknowledge the audience. He was, in that moment, absolutely noble.