I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Classic films of Herbert von Karajan’s Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven:
Symphony #5 in C minor, Op. 67
Symphony #9 in D minor “Choral”, Op. 125

Anna Tomowa-Sintow
Agnes Baltsa
René Kollo
José Van Dam
Choir of the Deutschen Oper Berlin
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
EuroArts Blu-ray 2072724 Widescreen Pillarbox (concerts) Fullscreen (bonus) PCM Stereo 119min

Karajan and the Berlin Phiharmonic play Beethoven

Karajan and the Berlin Phiharmonic play Beethoven

EuroArts has paired two remarkable historic films of Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Beethoven on Blu-ray. Both the 1966 Fifth directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot and the 1977 New Year’s Eve Ninth are surely familiar to collectors, yet these fascinating documents receive now a welcome high-definition upgrade. The performances are in a class of their own, with the studio-recorded Fifth gaining immensely from the aesthetic vision of Clouzot and the live Ninth remaining a particularly fine demonstration of the Karajan-Berlin team at the top of their game.

French director Henri-Georges Clouzot produced in 1965-67 with Karajan a series of music documentaries dubbed “The Art of Conducting”. They may initially have been intended to acquaint the general public with some of the mysteries of orchestral direction, yet even with only 5 of the projected 13 films completed, they eventually solidified more than anything the image of Karajan as the all-powerful and infallible maestro. The visual and dramatic qualities of these films (they are indeed more “film” than filmed concert), as exemplified here by Beethoven’s Fifth, become all the more apparent when seen alongside Humphrey Burton’s efficient but conventional direction of the New Year’s Eve concert some ten years later. Don’t be surprised to find musicians changing places in this film (like the flutes are suddenly appearing to the right of the oboes in close-ups, only to be in their regular position during longshots). Shot in a stunning true “film noir” black and white, it’s all part of Clouzot’s imaginative and ultimately musical vision. Even almost 50 years after date, this prime example of “music to watch” has hardly ever been surpassed. A box-set release of the whole series of these groundbreaking films in HD may well be out of reach, so we better treasure what there is. (Dvorak’s Ninth and Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin from this series were released on Blu-ray by the C-Major label, but Verdi’s Requiem and Schumann’s Fourth Symphony are still awaiting their HD upgrade).

In a 20-minutes bonus we see Karajan demonstrating an apprentice conductor how to rehearse the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony, and in conversation about the purpose of the series. Again, the maestro in total control of every detail.

The 1977 New Year’s Eve concert is one of Karajan’s best renderings of Beethoven’s Ninth, characteristically built on rock-solid basses and surging forward and upward with an extraordinary sense of shape. The last movement is particularly exciting, with a fine quartet (a superb José Van Dam) and excellent choral singing. Karajan conducts the singers with open eyes and on several occasions you see him watching them with admiration, carried away by the beauty of the moment. Even he was after all only human. Burton’s direction may be conventional, but at least he knew how to preserve this concert as a true event.

The 1966 Clouzot film looks very well in HD, rich in contrast, sharp and detailed. The damage appearing on the title cards initially lets you fear the worst, but the film itself is in much better shape. The 1977 concert is in color which shows its age more. Especially the images of Karajan – shot in his then preferred manner against a sidelight – appear quite dark and grainy compared to the better lit orchestra members and singers. While EuroArts announces PCM Stereo only the Ninth is in stereo (the previous DVD release of this concert included a 5.1 DTS Master). As it is, the sound is totally agreeable, detailed and with an especially impressive dynamic range for the concert. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/e/eas72724blua.php

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The Berlin Philharmonic launches its own record label

Robert Schumann: Symphony #1 in B Flat Major “Spring”, Op. 38; Symphony #2 in C Major, Op. 61; Symphony #3 in E Flat Major “Rhenish”, Op. 97; Symphony #4 in D minor (first version, 1841)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
Recorded in 2013
Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings 140011 2CDs (125 min) + 1 Blu-ray (175 min)

The Berlin Philharmonic plays Schumann

The Berlin Philharmonic plays Schumann

Last May, following the example of many top orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic launched its own record label, Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings. The twilight of the great recording labels has moved into another phase. The former flagship of Deutsche Grammophon and of EMI is going to market its discs itself. The inaugural release of Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings is a splendidly packaged Robert Schumann Symphonies cycle conducted by Simon Rattle, recorded during concerts throughout 2013. The Berliner wouldn’t be the Berliner if the presentation wasn’t extra special. In the form of a landscape-sized linen-bound book with quality paper decorated with motifs from the posh Berlin porcelain factory, this Schumann box not only contains two CDs, but also a Blu-ray disc offering the concerts in Pure Audio 24-bit/96 kHz (2.0 LPCM Stereo or 5.0 DTS-HD MA) and in High Definition Video (Full HD 16:9/PCM Stereo or 5.0 Surround DTS-HD). Moreover included are a download code for high resolution audio files of the entire album (in 24 bit/up to 192 kHz) and a 7-day ticket for the Digital Concert Hall, Berlin Philharmonic’s video streaming service. This is sheer audiophile heaven.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Simon Rattle – Berliner Philharmoniker

New Year’s Eve Concert 2007
Alexander Borodin: Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor; Symphony #2 in B minor
Modest Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina – Prelude, Dawn over the Moscow River; Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Maurice Ravel)
Dmitri Shostakovich: The Golden Age (Dance)

Russian Rhythms, Waldbühne 2009
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (Three fragments from Act 1, Pas de deux – Grand adage)
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto #3 in D minor, Op. 30 1
Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

European Concert 2007
Richard Wagner: Prelude to Parsifal
Johannes Brahms: Concerto for Violin & Cello in A minor, Op. 102, Symphony #4 in E minor, Op. 98

European Concert 2008
Igor Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
Max Bruch: Concerto for Violin #1 in G minor, Op. 26
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony #7 in A Major, Op. 92

Yefim Bronfman, piano
Lisa Batiashvili, violin
Truls Mørk, cello
Vadim Repin, violin
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
EuroArts Blu-ray 2059734 4Discs LPCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic

In a box simply called Simon Rattle – Berliner Philharmoniker EuroArts assembles four concerts in Blu-ray format. Captured between 2007 and 2009 these live performances document the orchestra and their current principal conductor in different venues as well as repertoire. From the timeless Berliner Philharmonie (New Year’s Eve concert 2007) and the horrors of the Kabelwerk Oberspree, a former Power and Cable Factory in Berlin (European concert 2007), to the historic Great Hall of the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory (European concert 2008) and the open-air concert at the Waldbühne (2009) which closes the season each year – the Berliner plays it all. The titles were previously available on separate discs, while the two European Concerts, the May 1st anniversary gigs of the Berlin Philharmonic, also make their appearance on Blu-ray here.

In all cases the high-definition transfers are a real joy to behold. The widescreen video quality is magnificent, even for the problematic open-air concert which was plagued by inclement weather. The sound is no less satisfying. All discs are offered with robust but crystal clear LPCM 2.0 Stereo tracks and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks; the Waldbühne concert comes with LPCM mixes only, yet closely miked there is no way to miss anything – not even the rain during the performance of The Rite. The filming and editing is in all cases unsurprisingly traditional and notwithstanding the occasional misfired camera virtuosity (no, we aren’t interested in scrutinizing the girders of the Kabelwerk Oberspree during Brahms), will ensure an enjoyable home video experience.

The performances, however, cannot foster the same overall enthusiasm. This being the Berlin Philharmonic, there isn’t anything really bad, yet there isn’t anything really essential to discover either. The booklet coming with the box-set refers to the changes, most obviously in sound and repertoire, that the Berlin Philharmonic underwent after Herbert von Karajan’s longstanding tenure, starting with the appointment of the late Claudio Abbado in 1989 and continued with the arrival of Simon Rattle in 2002. Changes, unavoidable and necessary of course, but often needlessly placed in a confrontational black and white, opposing Karajan as the epitome of artistic stagnation against his successors as the Berliner’s saving grace. Yet precisely a selection of concerts like this questions not only which direction the orchestra has been heading, and what has been gained of real value, it also hints at the limitations of Sir Simon’s often admired versatility in choice of repertoire. (In this respect one wonders if these older maestros would ever have released four concerts in which not one single performance was at least something truly exceptional?)

In the liner notes Simon Rattle is quoted as saying that different composers need to be played differently. The first disc of the New Year’s Eve Concert from 2007, titled in the booklet as “the revolution in Russian music”, ironically seems to suggest the exact opposite. This sounds neither Russian and even less a revolution – not even a German one. It’s simply a run-of-the-mill, low-voltage concert with a conductor venturing on unfamiliar ground. The Borodin Symphony is bland and about as Russian as Hasenpfeffer and Pumpernickel, yet it are the Mussorgsky Pictures that suffer most of all from Rattle who apparently was in constant ritenuto mode this evening. The superficial brilliance of the Berliner cannot make up for some undistinguished solo playing from winds and brass and the massive sonority of the ensemble. It’s not Mussorgsky, it’s not even Ravel – and it’s definitely no consolation it sometimes comes close to Brahms.

The Waldbühne “Russian Rhythms” concert is primarily a happy open air bring-classical-music-to-the-masses event that nothing can and will spoil – who wouldn’t want to hear the Rite of Spring in a chilly night in the pouring rain? – and has arguably little value except as a souvenir for those present. It opens with three hastily dispatched Tchaikovsky Nutcracker bits, only emphasizing Rattle’s complete lack of affinity with this music (why bother with just the three first numbers from the ballet in a concert anyway?) His traversal of The Rite of Spring is on the other hand the perfect illustration of what Richard Taruskin called the “showcase of orchestral prowess” which Stravinsky’s most talked-about work has become. The Berlin Philharmonic plays impressively (the woodwinds are favored in the mix, yet not many formations can top such ravishing colors) but virtually all tension, darkness and surprise (except for the occasional Rattle mannerism) has disappeared. That there are still approaches possible that can pack a punch, however, is proven by Salonen, Jansons, Boulez, Dorati, Markevitch and the likes. In between, Yefim Bronfman’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third is more rewarding. It’s a polished reading, effortless, well-balanced and well accompanied, without pathos or excess but boasting a warm sonority.

The two European Concerts present Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic of the 21st century in a much more propitious light and are by far the most convincing of this box-set. The 2007 edition took place in a none too attractive old Berlin factory (the acoustics seem to be good) and offers core-German repertory which (although this is no guarantee for success) has been in the orchestra’s repertory for a long time. (Interestingly, the orchestra is placed differently in this venue as in the traditional Viennese manner with violins divided and the basses lined at the back.) Rattle’s Prelude to Parsifal may be more posh than profound, but the Brahms Double Concerto featuring the ideally attuned Lisa Batiashvili on violin and Truls Mørk on cello is a magnificent performance in every respect. Dedicated to the great Mstislav Rostropovich who had died four days earlier, Rattle’s accompaniment is sensitive and finely balanced, securing beautiful playing from both soloists and orchestra. His Brahms Fourth, however, is colorful and contemplative rather than incisive and taut, and appears less than ideally focused in the latter half.

The final disc covers the 2009 edition which took place in Moscow, exactly 40 years after the orchestra’s first visit under Herbert von Karajan, in this very same hall of the illustrious Tchaikovsky Conservatory. Times have changed, thankfully, as the liner notes remind us: no more KGB surveillance, no more formally attired musicians (count the multicolored ties) and patrons, but also no more Dmitry Shostakovich moved to tears congratulating the orchestra and its conductor for the overwhelming performance. A fine concert, nonetheless, especially for Vadim Repin’s subtly poetic rendition of Max Bruch’s 1st Violin Concerto, sympathetically accompanied by Rattle, and a flexible and joyous account of Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. Rattle’s Beethoven Seventh however sounds like a work in progress; rhythmically alert and detailed, here too he brings out the fun, but little else – an efficient, but unsurprising reading. Compared to what Abbado and Karajan in their lifelong quests achieved in this symphony, or in Beethoven in general, with this same orchestra, this is more than a step back. But then again, theirs isn’t a tarnished legacy. It’s a tough act to follow.

Copyright © 2014, Marc Haegeman
First published on Classical Net.


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Some Legends Never Die

Henri Vieuxtemps: Violin Concerto #4 in D minor, Op. 31 *
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony, Op. 58

* Hilary Hahn, violin
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Tugan Sokhiev
Berlin Philharmonie 31 May 2014

Hilary Hahn © Peter Miller/ DG

Hilary Hahn (© Peter Miller/ DG)

There is no doubt about it, catching the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in their iconic Philharmonie in their hometown, remains something of an event. Forget all the HD big screen broadcasts. Cliché but true: nothing beats the live experience. With a program described as “Two Symphonies, one with a soloist, one with a hero”, the Berlin Philharmonic under guest conductor Tugan Sokhiev and joined by violinist Hilary Hahn, offered a remarkable evening of undiluted romanticism. Neither Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony nor Vieuxtemps’ 4th Violin Concerto are works one would readily associate with the Berliners, but then again, lest we should forget, the orchestra has long since left the path of security and predictability when it comes to repertory choice. It’s with an unusual setup like this that an orchestra can demonstrate its versatility and strength. And that’s exactly what happened here.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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On unfamiliar ground

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
EMI 631621-2 DDD 2CDs Deluxe Edition

The Nutcracker

Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker by Simon Ratlle

It’s rare that a conductor admits in the liner notes to his new disc that he hasn’t always been much of a fan of the composer he is playing. But then again anyone familiar with the career of Sir Simon Rattle may have noticed he has so far been avoiding the music of Tchaikovsky like some rare disease. The release of a complete Nutcracker with the Berlin Philharmonic, moreover to mark Rattle’s 30th anniversary as recording artist with EMI, therefore has our undivided attention.
Read the full review on Classical Net