, August 2011
For those who do much or most of their listening with the score in hand, a DVD is not much use. Because you have to watch a DVD as well as to listen, taking it down off the shelves and putting it on is more of an occasion than listening to a CD is. It feels more like going to a concert to me, and indeed, filmed concerts, like this one, do tend to work well.
Living a long way from any of the major musical centres, I haven’t had the privilege of seeing any of the artists on this DVD in the flesh—though Hilary Hahn did come to Toulouse some time ago. Watching it is therefore a major compensation. The fact that it took place in Tokyo is of added interest, as I’ve never been to Japan either.
To get the details out of the way first, the sound and picture quality are outstanding, though people tell me that new formats are, and will be, even better. The concert is sensitively yet simply filmed: I don’t think there is a single moment when I wish the camera was looking at something else. The concert is filmed in order, the only slightly disquieting aspect being that the applause at the end of one piece is merged into that preceding the next one, giving a slightly breathless feel to proceedings. There are no “extras”, apart from four trailers for other issues featuring the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, but the disc is accompanied by a booklet containing a typically level-headed and informative essay by Keith Anderson.
The concert opens with a lively and exciting account of Weber’s Oberon Overture. Jansons turns out to be a most interesting conductor to watch, conducting from memory here, and without a baton. His hands are very expressive, and he really is with the orchestra, looking at them the whole time, with very clear gestures and no fancy histrionics. “Bravos” erupt from the audience even at the end of this opening piece.
Hilary Hahn, twenty-one at the time of the concert, delivers one of the finest performances I have heard of Shostakovich’s glorious first concerto. She and her remarkable accompanists deliver the first movement in, as it were, a single breath, hushed pianissimo passages particularly striking. She is clearly leading the proceedings in the fast, second movement, constantly pushing forwards. Then there is the Passacaglia, where the second statement of the theme brings marvellous, perfectly balanced sound from the woodwind, so rich and nourished, yet so terribly sad. The woodwind principals’ duets with the soloist in this movement are particularly moving. Hahn begins the cadenza as if improvising, musing on the material, communing with the composer and the instrument, and we are observers, almost intruders. Jansons and members of the orchestra are sometimes in shot, and their rapt stillness is touching to witness. There are plenty of fireworks in the finale, and one is in awe to think that so much force and energy can be created by someone so insubstantial and undemonstrative. The audience erupts at the end, to which she gives a demure smile, a little shy, as she also does after the Bach encore, played with spellbinding accuracy and brilliance.
The Dvořák symphony is beautifully done. Conducting again from memory—he had the score to hand in the Shostakovich—Jansons delivers a thoroughly engaging and idiomatic performance. He caresses the second group of subjects in the first movement, and helps the wonderful Berlin strings produce a sound at the beginning of the slow movement that must be described as gorgeous. The Scherzo is delicious, Jansons very successful at bringing out the Bohemian atmosphere without a hint of parody, and the finale is totally successful, exciting, heart-warming music that makes you glad to be alive, especially in a performance like this. A Dvořák Slavonic Dance is given as an encore, played, as is the whole programme, with astonishing aplomb and brilliance by this magnificent orchestra. After this, the players decline the conductor’s invitation to stand, preferring to applaud him themselves instead.
So whenever I watch this DVD it will probably be straight through, as if I were at the concert. The performances of the two major works are as fine as any I have heard…