Friday, April 27, 2012


Sad news from Paris this morning that Kurt Masur fell off his podium last night while conducting the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.6. He has been taken to hospital. The concert was being broadcast live, but had to be abandoned. Apparently Sarkozy has sent him good wishes.

At Masur's age (84) few of us are lucky enough still to be able to work at all (the French president, of course, may be out of a job shortly, but that's by the by). Old soldiers never die, but conductors don't even retire. With such a vocation, why would anyone wish to stop? They may be getting younger...but they are also getting older. Besides Masur, Haitink, Davis and Maazel are all in their eighties now, and still going strong.

Nor is it only conductors for whom growing roses doesn't hold much appeal. Menahem Pressler, the irrepressible pianist formerly of the Beaux Arts Trio, seems to have gleaned a whole new lease of life as a soloist since the group folded and he's playing as wonderfully as ever, at 88. Last time I interviewed him he expressed astonishment that anyone should think he would want to give up something he loves so much in favour of playing golf. I'll never forget Horszowski's 99th birthday recital at the Wigmore Hall - except that that much-loved musician was probably 101 at the time, his birth certificate having been tampered with during his child prodigy days. Aldo Ciccolini, at 86, is releasing a new recording of Beethoven concertos. On the violin, Ida Haendel remains an extraordinary force. We do not seem certain how old she actually is. But it's the artistry that counts, not the age.

Occasionally, though - and for that same reason - you come across instances when perhaps clinging to concert life isn't doing the performer any favours. Nathan Milstein's final recital at the Royal Festival Hall (it must have been spring 1984) revealed a giant, but a fading one. And it is already several years since Masur conducted the Brahms 'German Requiem' in St Paul's Cathedral, which could have been a marvellous occasion but for the fact that he seemed shaky at best; one arm appeared to be causing him control problems.

The Italian violinist Gioconda de Vito, by contrast, stopped performing when she was only about 50. She told me, when I interviewed her for her 80th birthday, that she had reached the peak of her career and wanted to stop while she was ahead. She once attended a concert by Alfred Cortot late in the pianist's life, at which point he was long past his best; there, she made a mental note not to let herself reach that stage. And so she did not - even though she could assuredly have played and recorded for many more years.

Every case is different, and in the end it's for the musicians, rather than the audience, to know if or when to call time. Perhaps the wonderful thing is that they so rarely do. They, and we, can't get enough music. And that's how it ought to be. We wish Maestro Masur the fastest possible recovery and many rewarding years of music-making ahead.

As a special Friday Historical for the Immortal Musician, here is de Vito in the Beethoven Romance Op.50, which our friend "Otterhouse" has uploaded from a 78, with enhanced sound.