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James H. North
Fanfare, September 2011

This DVD is one of a series (“Introducing …”) in which musicologists and their ilk discuss the work and its composer while samples of the music play in the background. A complete performance, sans talk, follows. Trailers for three others appear on this disc: Claudio Abbado conducting Beethoven’s Fifth and Mahler’s Fifth symphonies, and Pierre Boulez leading Bruckner’s Eighth. There is also a trailer for an outdoors pops night under Jansons; I’m delighted to see the staid Berliners relaxing! This performance took place in the Hagia Eirene, on the grounds of the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul’s oldest (sixth century) church—the name means “Holy Peace,” not St. Irene, as it is often mistranslated. It is used today primarily as a concert venue, as it is supposed to have extraordinary acoustics, which are not apparent on this generally fine-sounding DVD (in PCM stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS 5.1). The interior is plain, unadorned stone, lacking either the Baroque flourishes of Catholic churches or the finely detailed patterns found in mosques, which frees the director and his cameras from chasing cherubim around the walls. We watch the orchestra, from individual close-ups to distant scans, and the conductor, who gets about one-third of the action. The video quality, in a 16:9 format, is excellent, as the orchestra is well lit within a dark ambiance. The documentary takes 27 minutes, the performance 24.

In the documentary, pianist and musicologist Robert Levin sits before a piano and turns often to the keyboard to illustrate his points. He speaks English; subtitles are available in German, French, and Spanish. The orchestral performance is going on as background music, sometimes bursting forth at appropriate moments. Quite often, Levin’s piano and Jansons’s orchestra segue into each other, which I find annoying and distracting. In a neat touch, brief, well-chosen sections of the score (just the woodwind lines, or the strings, four bars at a time) appear on the screen, large enough so that we can easily follow. Levin’s central point is that Haydn, from early school days to his time in London, was a jokester, wanting to lead his audience along and then jump in an unexpected direction. “Don’t ever play poker with me!” cries Levin as Haydn. Although this line of thought may well have originated with the “surprise” in the Andante, Levin insists that it happens throughout the symphony, and throughout Haydn’s entire oeuvre as well. Levin often plays what should have happened at certain points along the way, and then contrasts that with what Haydn did instead. It is all amusing, interesting, and educational, although it concentrates on only one facet of the symphony.

The performance is old-fashioned, symphony orchestra style, with no hint of period awareness, except that the strings are at about half size; I counted three double basses, but there might have been one or two more lurking in the corner. No problem; the “London” symphonies work perfectly with every conceivable ensemble—beyond Salomons’s chamber reductions. Jansons’s tempos can be a bit fast (the Adagio cantablie introduction), but he asks for nothing unusual: no swoops, ritards, portamentos, or exaggerations of any kind. The playing is supremely elegant and solid, the Philharmonic at its best. A one-word description might be: genial. Everything is heard, although a few details are submerged in the general boisterousness, for which I blame the venue. DTS 5.1 is gloriously full and alive; Dolby 5.1 is a bit thinner, allowing more details to emerge. If this sort of documentary/performance appeals to you, you can’t go wrong with this DVD.

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3:34:08 PM, 4 October 2015
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