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A Maestro Returns With a Brahms Double Concerto and a Surprise Soloist

Alisa Weilerstein
The New York Times

By Steve Smith

Kurt Masur Leads New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall

The first hearty ovation at the New York Philharmonic’s concert at Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday evening came early, before a note was played. The program was to begin a complete survey of Brahms’s symphonies and concertos, not in itself a headline-grabbing development. But the real event was the return of Kurt Masur, the orchestra’s conductor emeritus.

Concerns about Mr. Masur’s health have circulated since April, when he incurred injuries after falling off a podium in Paris. He withdrew from nearly all of his engagements through September to recover, though he shared a Tanglewood Festival concert in July with his son, the conductor Ken-David Masur. And the elder Mr. Masur has since revealed on his Web site that he has been suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

Warm applause greeted his arrival onstage with the two soloists to be featured in Brahms’s Double Concerto: the Philharmonic concertmaster Glenn Dicterow and the cellist Alisa Weilerstein. When Mr. Masur took his position in front of the orchestra, applause surged again: louder, longer and meant specifically for him. Tall and imposing, despite evidence of unsteadiness, Mr. Masur worked without a podium, at times lightly grasping a rail behind him.

That the Double Concerto got off to a bumpy start was unsurprising, perhaps, given that Ms. Weilerstein was stepping in at the last minute to replace Carter Brey, the Philharmonic’s principal cellist, who was reported to be ill. (Ms. Weilerstein, a spokeswoman said, had rushed down from Montreal in time for an orchestra rehearsal.)

From the start, the ensemble blazed gloriously. Ms. Weilerstein’s entry reflected her characteristic Romantic intensity: head bent low over her instrument or tossed back in seeming rapture, she lingered over phrases, personalizing them with ardor and soulfulness. Mr. Dicterow, though more businesslike in his demeanor, matched her temperament with bravado and sweetness.

Midway through the first movement, one of Ms. Weilerstein’s strings slipped off its tuning peg, bringing the music to a halt. She recovered quickly, and the movement continued. The soloists meshed beautifully in a prayerful Andante; in the boisterous finale Mr. Dicterow’s almost capricious swagger provided vivid contrast to Ms. Weilerstein’s dreaminess. Mr. Masur was an alert accompanist throughout; still, the music felt fitful at times.

No such caveat applied in Brahms’s Second Symphony. Mr. Masur favored a broad pace, but the playing flowed smoothly, with a luminosity and authority that attested to both Mr. Masur’s deep command of this repertory and his continuing affinity with this orchestra.