, November 2009
The performances in this collection were all filmed in concert and each is preceded by a substantial documentary in which an expert provides analysis and historical background on the music. The American musicologist Michael Beckerman offers somewhat livelier commentary on the Dvořák “New World” Symphony than his German colleagues in their discussions of the other works.
The Argerich/Chailly Schumann Concerto is the only performance here that was edited from two concerts. It’s also exceptionally good. The Schumann is one of Argerich’s specialties and in this knowing reading each phrase has the feeling of being a spontaneous emotional statement. Together with Chailly, she brings to life this often-heard masterpiece—there is no greater 19th-century piano concerto—with gentleness and elegance when required, along with the bravura that one expects from her. One small quibble is that, as I hear it, she consistently shortchanges the length of the fourth chord (the half note tied to an eighth) in the first movement’s opening theme. Chailly, a splendid conductor, provides sensitive support and leads a vital orchestral performance.
Claudio Abbado communicates a sense of joy in the Dvořák Symphony and it is given a dramatic and flexible performance by the Berlin Philharmonic in a gala concert given in Palermo’s Teatro Massimo, Europe’s third largest opera house. The Brahms Violin Concerto comes from the same concert and is given a strong, unaffected performance by Gil Shaham, sweat dripping onto his instrument from the start. In the documentary portion, he speaks eloquently about the great meaning that the piece has for him and for violinists in general, but I must confess that I have never been convinced of this Concerto’s “masterpiece” status. It just seems overlong, especially the first movement with its earnest struggles, and I sense the inhibiting presence of Brahms’s model, the Beethoven Violin Concerto, throughout. The most pleasure that I have had from this music happened unexpectedly during the film There Will Be Blood, where the gypsy music of the third movement’s opening blasts on the soundtrack when oil is first struck. I apologize for what is a personal (irrational?) blind spot, but, unfortunately, this very sensitive reading by Shaham and Abbado does not change my mind.
I have no such reservations about the sweet, scintillating Mendelssohn Concerto, a beautifully structured composition from start to finish. This performance by Frank-Michael Erben and Kurt Masur (reviewed in 31:4) is highly competent, and Erben plays with rich, if not terribly varied violin sound, but the music stays slightly earthbound. Erben’s passagework is a bit constrained by the bar lines, Masur’s accompaniment is a little square, and the players of the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester do not appear as engaged here as they do under Chailly. I find no such drawbacks in the recent recording of the piece by Daniel Hope on DGG.
This nicely produced boxed set would be very useful for a music history class studying the Romantic period. The Mendelssohn and Schumann DVDs are also available singly from Medici Arts.