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Robert Maxham
Fanfare, September 2011

I didn’t review the DVD version of Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic’s 2002 European Concert from the Teatro Massimo in Palermo (Fanfare 28:6), but acquired the DVD soon after it became available. I’ve recently watched it on a DVD player and then on a Blu-ray player, both of which upvert it to “near HD quality”; it seemed that level of resolution could hardly be improved. But the Blu-ray version released this year (2011) provides an even crisper visual image, as well as a great deal of both resolution and body in the orchestral sound (the menu offers PCM stereo and DTS-HD 5.1 audio). Like so many other Blu-ray discs I’ve watched, this one offers fewer extra features than the corresponding DVD (wasn’t that a selling-point for Blu-ray—the extra capacity would provide room for many fascinating interactive special features?). In this case, the documentary, though it’s mentioned in the accompanying booklet, has been omitted. But the sound’s the thing, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont offers flashing woodwind highlights near the end of the peroration.

Gil Shaham serves as a strong, confident soloist in Johannes Brahms’s Violin Concerto. The Blu-ray version unfortunately allows the viewer to watch in improved clarity the beads of perspiration form on Shaham’s temples and splash onto his violin. If this sounds only slightly unsettling, just you wait, ’enry ’iggins. My budding luthier son described this as a horror movie for violin people, and my wife asked me how a violinist could clean a violin subjected to this treatment. (It’s clear that this isn’t the first time such a thing has happened: The violin’s tailpiece has lost most of its finish.) Shaham scowls a lot, as though he’s trying to figure each passage out (although it’s obvious that he already has, and distant shots capture his magisterial stance); Abbado looks beatific throughout, somewhat like a humanized Pope Pius XII. Shaham effectively contrasts light and dark, with fast continuous vibrato (sometimes very narrow) in delicate passages and wide but a bit slower vibrato producing an impression of warmth on the lower strings. Although microphones aren’t visually obvious throughout, Shaham appears forward in the recorded sound. The second movement offers a deeply affecting climax: Shaham possesses the imposing reserves of tonal strength this strenuous part requires as well as a technical security that allows the finale’s double-stops to ring confidently.

In the first movement of Antonín Dvoƙák’s Ninth Symphony, Abbado allows the introduction’s timbres to remain unmixed. The camerawork, here as elsewhere when no soloist provides a visual focus, never grows fatiguingly busy, although some viewers who anticipate many repeated run-throughs might prefer fewer close-ups, no matter how well selected or appropriate, preferring to train their own attention where they wish. If there’s a nostalgic mist left at the opening, the brightness of the movement proper seems to dispel it. Highlights of the second movement include, perhaps predictably, the sensitive but unaffected English horn solo and the strings’ hushed continuation. Pizzicatos in the basses tend to be lost here and elsewhere, despite the sound’s general clarity. The third movement seems more forward-driving than playful or piquant (perhaps a refreshing change for many listeners), but genial enough in the middle section. The finale begins without a pause, full of sound and fury in its thundering climactic passages. In what appears to be a rare tribute, the wind players refuse their solo bows, and a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Overture to I vespri siciliani, unforced in its lyricism, appears to be an encore.

If the program could be recommended in DVD format, it becomes mandatory in its Blu-ray incarnation. And violinists who can live through the sweat and tears (no blood) should treasure Shaham’s performance.

Dave Billinge
MusicWeb International, June 2011

This is a recording of the Berlin Philharmonic’s European Concert 2002 which, on this occasion, took place in Palermo. Once again the menu system is overdubbed with an extract from the concert which plays annoyingly and repetitively as you select the sound-tracks and any subtitles you require. To compound this regular misjudgement the opening credits of the film use the standard European Concert musical logo, an extract from Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony, which is not even in the concert. Please EuroArts, stop doing all these things. Concerts do not need introductions with musical background, they are the music. If you must have sound to accompany this stuff, make it audience noise, at least that is appropriate. Moans over.

The DTS-HD Master track of this film is very fine with a realistic, seamless arc of orchestral sound from left to right and the audience mostly behind one’s virtual front-row seat. We probably have a better view and better sound than some of those in the side boxes of this lovely theatre. It is interesting to note the success of engineers in producing excellent sound from these live TV recordings when quite a number of their studio-bound colleagues fail to do so with only sound and no pictures to consider. Do our television engineers use simpler microphone set-ups perhaps? Whatever they are doing I urge them to continue because it works very well. Top marks! The pictures too are beautifully clean and enable one to enjoy the concert and the Teatro Massimo in which it takes place. The close-ups are appropriate to the performance, though I am not sure why the camera dwells so much on the ceiling, but little disturbs one’s enjoyment.

Beethoven’s Egmont Overture is given a good performance but comes over with less dramatic impact than say, George Szell’s famous old LP of the complete incidental music. However, it is a first class warm-up for what is to come. Gil Shaham looks delighted to be in such august company, albeit on a hot occasion which causes him to run an alarming sweat threatening to wash the varnish from his violin. His and Abbado’s view of the concerto is of great lyrical beauty. The solo qualities of the Berlin wind-players shine here, particularly the oboe, showing that chamber music quality of which they are rightly proud. Shaham does not hold back from the powerful episodes in Brahms’ masterwork and provides all the contrasts needed to hold the attention for over 40 minutes.

Were it not for what follows I would be saying it was worth the price of the disc to hear the concerto alone but what follows is the New World Symphony of one’s dreams. It has been my role to review a few other recordings of Dvorak’s great symphony recently and I have often referred back to early classic performances from the 1960s and 1970s to show how it should be done. With this Palermo performance on the shelf the benchmark has changed. This must be as great a performance as has ever been given. The Berlin players are famous for the way their individual qualities shine without unbalancing the whole and for listening so carefully to each other. They are explicitly urged to play out as soloists and here we have part of the reason for Abbado’s beatific smile as he directs a perfectly judged path through a symphony whose popularity sometimes obscures its profundity. This is a great romantic masterpiece in a minor key don’t forget, and this is as moving a rendering as I can remember. The beauty of the exquisitely detailed slow movement and parts of the finale notwithstanding, Abbado allows the great dramatic and tragic moments all the power one could wish. The Scherzo has enormous vitality and is so full of insights that one feels as if the score has been cleaned up like an old painting with brighter colours and extra levels of detail revealed. The finale sounds like one. It seems to resolve the tensions that have arisen in early movements as a true symphonic drama should. This recording must be heard.

There is an encore in the shape of Verdi’s Sicilian Vespers Overture. The bass drum tolls like a bell through the slow introduction and in the urgent playing of the faster sections the Berlin players show no signs that this is the end of a long evening. No wonder the Palermo audience, in a standing ovation, shower them with flowers. How touching it is to see Abbado come on at the very end after the orchestra has left to stand alone on the stage in front of a cheering crowd. What a great conductor.

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12:59:56 AM, 5 September 2015
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