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Hank Zauderer
My Classical Notes, December 2010

When I was a boy of 14, my family spent one year living in Vienna, Austria. And I’ll always remember being taken by my father at 11 AM on a Sunday morning to a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic. The work on the program that day was “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky. Yes…the music made an enormous impression on me. I remember this event more than 60 years later…

This DVD features two superb Russian works: Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition as orchestrated by Maurice Ravel has been a popular work since its first performance. The Berlin Philharmonic players are especially brilliant in these large-scale works; their wonderful technique, stunning tone and sheer forcefulness have never been more evident than here.

Listen to those deep-sounding brasses, the expressive, lush tones of the strings, and the intimate lyricism of the woodwinds and you will appreciate why this orchestra is considered so special. This is a vivid performance with Sir Simon Rattle conducting. The huge orchestral finale called the Great Gate of Kiev seems to magically conjure this final picture into existence, and it is really thrilling.

Borodin’s Symphony No. 2 is a lyrical masterpiece. For me, it seems to convey the vast cold geography of Russia. There is a Slavic melancholy in much of the symphony. Sir Simon and the orchestra emphasize the sheer beauty and soulfulness of this work.

If you love these two works then you will treasure these performances by one of the world’s finest orchestras. If they are new to you, then this DVD will make a fine introduction.



Lawrence Devoe
Blu-rayDefinition.com, September 2010

The Performance

The stars aligned during this New Year’s Eve 2007 Gala with Sir Simon Rattle at the helm of his orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic. We are treated to a sumptuous feast of mainstream 19th century Russian music with a little surprise for an encore. Alexander Borodin and Modest Mussorgsky were contemporaries, and each had distinctly different musical personalities. Borodin’s best known work, the opera Prince Igor is represented here by its most familiar excerpt, the “Polovetsian Dances.” This sensuous piece begins with Sir Simon’s deft touch and concludes with an all-forces crescendo well done by the Berliners. Rattle and company move on to Borodin’s Second Symphony, a romantic work with overtones of Tchaikovsky. The profusion of gorgeous melodies in the Andante movement tempts conductors to lavish attention and lose the forward pulse of this work–a trap that Rattle nicely avoids.

The second half of the program is dedicated to Mussorgsky, beginning with his evocative overture to the opera Khovanschina. It concludes with the hugely popular “Pictures at an Exhibition.” The Philharmonic is very familiar with this piece having recorded it many times, still Rattle manages a sense of freshness throughout. When the clangorous final “Great Gate of Kiev” section is reached, you realize that you have witnessed a truly great performance. As a surprise encore, Sir Simon throws in the popular dance from Dmitri Shostakovich’s ballet, The Age of Gold. A 20th century piece for sure but its genes are directly traceable to all of the preceding music.

Video Quality

The Berlin Philharmonic Hall, which I have visited, is an ultra-modern 21st century venue that offers great sight-lines. This video shows off the hall to its advantage. It is presented in 1080i format yielding mostly good detail which highlights the rich wood surfaces of the violins and golden sheen of the brass. There is good balance between close-ups and orchestral panoramas, keeping the viewer engaged. Just for fun, watch Simon Rattle’s animated expression during the ballet of the chicks from Mussorgsky’s Pictures. My minor quibble is the presence of a bluish cast over the audience.

Audio Quality

The soundtrack in dts-HD Master Audio (96kHz/24-bit) spreads across the proscenium as it should. There is a lot of low-end information, especially in the Mussorgsky pieces, reasonably well articulated. This hall is very open with considerable echo which the sound engineers have tamed successfully. A cautionary note here since “Pictures” has been an audiophile showpiece since the early days of hi-fidelity. If you are after that kind of audio experience, with the visceral bass drum thwacks and all, no live account will satisfy you, including this one. However, if you want good live recording, this is as good as it gets. The audience is dead quiet until the very end when the orchestral forces and their principal conductor receive a well deserved accolade.

Supplemental Materials

There are no supplemental interviews, just trailers for other videos in this series.

The Definitive Word

Overall:

There is currently no BD live concert competition. Even if there were, this disc would still be at the top of the list. Of interest, a mid-80’s studio performance on DVD with the same orchestra, conducted by its long-time director Herbert von Karajan, is still available While most of the orchestral players are different, that overall performance is easily outclassed by the present EuroArts offering.



Jeffrey Kauffman
Blu-ray.com, August 2010

Not to state the numerically obvious, but before there were Les Six, there were The Five. Of course the French group from the early 20th century, which included such iconoclasts as Auric, Honegger, Poulenc and especially Milhaud, had been anointed with their soubriquet by French critic Henri Collet, who specifically based his coinage on the quintet of Russian composers who had formed a new national school of music some 75 years earlier. It’s fascinating to compare the lives of at least some of these Five, most of whom worked at composition as at most an avocation while they simultaneously pursued more traditional careers, with, for example, Tchaikovsky, who was, after all, composing full time at more or less the same time and becoming probably the best known Russian composer of his generation. Tchaikovsky, with his rigorous training and cosmopolitan temperament, didn’t know quite what to think of these more supposedly rustic folk, who basically crafted their music on inspiration alone, not worrying about the fineries of structure or orchestration. How much the more amazing, then, that The Five hosted the sumptuous musical languages of two of the most important and influential composers of the 19th century, inside or outside of Russia, Alexander Borodin and Modest Mussorgsky. How much more amazing as well that these two crafted incredibly complex and inerrantly luscious pieces that offered gorgeous melody coupled with sometimes astounding orchestral technique. The old adage about art being 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration, may well be true, but sometimes that supposedly slight injection from the Muses is enough to overcome the trials and tribulations of not knowing exactly how to convey an artistic idea in a coherent and cohesive way. Sir Simon Rattle focuses on Borodin and Mussorgsky, as well as perhaps anachronistically Shostakovich, in this thrilling concert by the Berlin Philharmonic recorded on New Year’s Eve 2007.

Borodin is one of the most fascinating members of The Five, a man who made a comfortable living for himself as a chemist and only “dabbled” in music as a passing fancy. The world could use a lot more of this kind of “dabbling.” Graced with a seemingly facile ability to draw down one impeccable melody after another from the heavens, Borodin’s music is achingly lyrical and always surging with emotion, sometimes tender, sometimes fierce. Even people who don’t particularly care for classical music have perhaps been unwittingly exposed to Borodin’s ravishing music, albeit in somewhat bowdlerized and transmogrified versions, as the Broadway team of Wright and Forrest utilized Borodin’s compositions as the musical bases for their songs in the 1950s musical hit Kismet. Therefore, the strains of “Stranger in Paradise” suddenly emanate from Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances like an old friend you remember from a context you can’t quite put your finger on. This dance suite culled from his Prince Igor opera is one of his most rhythmically astute pieces, with frequent changes in tempi and temperament, and Rattle marshals his forces with considerable aplomb here, though there are a couple of instrumental bobbles (not “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” if I may interpolate a truly awful pun) in the quicksilver chromatic motif which makes up a recurring commentary.

Rattle next gives a reasonably stirring account of one of Borodin’s large scale works, his impressive Second Symphony in B minor. This is a brooding and sometimes discordant work which does reveal its compositional seams at times (perhaps the result of it having been written over a relatively long span of several years), needing a firm hand to smooth over abrupt transitions of musical material and mood. Rattle and the Berliners do exceedingly well here, though I personally would have liked a bit faster tempo on the opening movement, which is, after all, marked “Allegro—Animato assai.” Not quite “assai” enough in my opinion, but otherwise glitteringly sonic and assured. Interestingly, Borodin “exchanges” the second and third movements’ typical formulation, giving us a “Scherzo Prestissimo” in the second slot and and “Andante” in the third. Rightly called kaleidoscopic, the second movement cascades through a series of thrilling orchestral colors, all of which the Berlin Philharmonic executes flawlessly. The third movement, a langorous callback to the Slavic minstrel tradition, allows the Philharmonic’s vaunted string section to shine gloriously. Borodin manages to introduce a number of innovations in his finale, including an unusual form and some unexpected colors, like a whole tone scale. Rattle commands his forces ably here, evincing a lot of passion and purity.

A lesser known piece, Mussorgsky’s charming Khovanshchina: Introduction acts as a brief interlude before the other big piece of the evening takes off, Mussorgsky’s much loved Pictures at an Exhibition. This overwhelming, and overwhelmingly gorgeous, suite, which has been adapted into rock, jazz and other idioms perhaps more than any other repertory piece from the 19th century, is a compendium of brilliant piano compositional technique married to a variety of forms. Rattle here uses the Ravel orchestration, which culls an amazing variety of colors from the orchestra and allows several soloists with the Philharmonic to strut their stuff. Rattle provides a rousing interpretation of this great piece, generating an incredible momentum through the ten “pictures,” with some lovely pauses for breath at the repeated “Promenades”.

I think it’s worth noting in passing the incredible influence both Borodin and Mussorgsky must have had on Stravinsky, especially with his boundary shattering work in Le Sacre and The Firebird. Listen carefully in both the Polovtsian Dances and Pictures at an Exhibition, and you will hear nascent themes and ideas which Stravinsky enlarged and built upon in both of his behemoths. Of course the orchestration line is quite clearly there already, as another member of the The Five, Rimsky-Korsakov (largely self taught in the art of orchestration, as were most the quintet), became a mentor to Stravinsky.

The one seemingly odd choice in the evening’s concert, Shostakovich’s bracingly discordant Ballet Suite from The Golden Age, actually wraps up the night in a festive, if just slightly bizarre, manner, bringing the more outré elements of the Russian penchant for color and odd melody to the fore. It’s not exactly “Auld Lang Syne,” but that of course is not necessarily a bad thing.

This EuroArts release utilizes the relatively ancient MPEG-2 compression codec to deliver an actually surprisingly sharp and detailed image, albeit in 1080i (and an aspect ratio of 1.78:1). This television presentation opts for a rather large number of close-ups, and these reveal and really staggering amount of detail at times. Look, for example, at the bodies of the string instruments, and you will be able to see each band of wood which was assembled and then lacquered. Light glances off of a flute with piercing acuity (and in fact there are a couple of moments of refraction throughout this concert). The interlaced video does present a few passing issues, mostly with the hanging microphone cords, which dissolve into aliasing a couple of times. Otherwise, this is a very pleasingly sharp, colorful, presentation which is well directed and provides a lot of visual variety to keep the eye, as well as the ear, entertained.

I typically don’t opt for this choice, but for some reason I found this Blu-ray’s lossless stereo mix, in LPCM 2.0, a bit more robust than the just slightly diffuse surround mix, in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Don’t get me wrong, these two lossless offerings are both practically perfect in every way, with sterling fidelity and a lot of “oomph” on the low end especially, but (probably due to nothing more than personal taste), I preferred the narrower soundfield of the stereo mix this time out. Whatever your personal preference may be, you’re in for a sonic treat with these incredibly colorful scores. The Five of course relished in “Orientalism,” filling their scores with clanging glockenspiels, and massed woodwinds, punctuated with outbursts from the brass, and it’s all caught here with brilliant clarity. Dynamic range is exceptional, and interior lines are always easily discernable. Both of these lossless offerings show off not only the brilliant playing of the Berlin Philharmonic, but the aural potential for Blu-ray in and of itself.

No supplements are offered on the disc. The insert booklet has a good essay on The Five.

Russia and Germany make for fine musical allies on this New Year’s Eve Gala. Rattle conducts with ferocity and tenderness, and the playing is about 99.9% superb. With a neatly sharp image and a really outstanding set of lossless audio tracks, you can have your own celebration, no matter what day it is, with this highly recommended Blu-ray.



Nicholas Sheffo
Fulvue Drive-in, August 2010

The DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) lossless 5.1 mix is fine and has an impressive soundfield, plus a fine booklet on the show is included inside the Blu-ray case.






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