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Michael Greenhalgh
MusicWeb International, December 2011

This provides a fascinatingly different Barenboim in Elgar and Brahms than in his earlier recordings. Weilerstein’s cello has more emphasis on the lyrical Elgar, less on the dramatic than Du Pré. Barenboim’s Brahms Symphony 1 is now more classically controlled but its emotional range is well detailed and very satisfying. © MusicWeb International

Bruce Surtees
The WholeNote, November 2011

EUROPA-KONZERT 2010 - ELGAR, E.: Cello Concerto / BRAHMS, J.: Symphony No. 1 (Weilerstein, Barenboim) (NTSC) 2058068
EUROPA-KONZERT 2010 - ELGAR, E.: Cello Concerto / BRAHMS, J.: Symphony No. 1 (Weilerstein, Barenboim) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 2058064

I ordered this disc to hear a new performance of the Elgar. The Brahms enjoys a satisfying, substantial performance but does not quite displace the top few favourites. Recorded live in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford in 2010 it is the performance of the Elgar that sets new standards in every respect.

In the performance captured on this video, [Alisa Weilerstein] plays the concerto with such assurance that it sounds like she owns it. Her musicality, sensitivity and competency as a performer are complemented by a strong, electrifying stage presence. She is at one with her instrument. A paragon. Her rapport with Barenboim and the Berliners is splendid and the performance is nothing short of spectacular, certainly worth many listenings. Unquestionably, a must have. Do it now.

Michael Greenhalgh
MusicWeb International, May 2011

The Prelude to Act 3 of The Mastersingers gets a restrained but sonorous opening. The cellos are joined in seamless progression by the dignified violas, second violins then first violins. This is all solemnly meditative before a dawn glow from the wind instruments. The effect is one of sheer density rather than brightness. Yet what is enchanting is the softest of sensitive entries by the strings again from 3:44 (in the DVD’s continuous timing). Then at 4:46 the video director rightly homes in on the flutes as they confirm a brighter phase. This is made more memorable by the ethereal serenity of the probing first violins in their high register. The brass response to this is suitably fulsome but Barenboim pares down optimistic motif on its appearance on strings and clarinet at 7:21; it is, after all, marked p dolce. Then the lovely oboe take-up appears and also attracts the video director’s focus. This all helps establish a contemplative yet beneficent opening mood.

In the Elgar Cello Concerto the tone is set not by the rhetorical opening solo but by the lyricism of Alisa Weilerstein’s second solo leading into her introduction of the opening theme. This has a sad beauty yet flows ever smoothly like a cloudy morning the features of which gradually clear. The central section (13:09) is more tender and emotive, especially its second theme (13:48) featuring lovely calm interplay between strings and woodwind. The return of the uneasy opening of this section and the soloist’s lead-in to the reappearance of the movement’s first theme is passionate yet more rhetorical than angry. I compared Barenboim’s live performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Jacqueline Du Pré in 1970 (Sony 82876 78737 2). From the opening solos this is more gritty, tense and reflective. The first theme is not as smooth, more wan, but the central section has less by way of contrast. Weilerstein/Barenboim go for an overall smoothness of line. Du Pré/Barenboim point more clearly the distinction in phrasing between first and last appearances of the first theme. You can hear this in particular when the phrasing in six notes gives way to phrasing in four notes then two notes, giving a more halting and harrowing effect.

The introduction to Weilerstein/Barenboim’s second movement scherzo is nifty yet quite warm. It is as if the soloist wants to get away from the nimble semiquavers into something more contemplative. Then, just as whimsically, she returns to athleticism. This is deftly done, all the more so for not parading its virtuosity. Barenboim supplies by turns a suitably feathery or rosy orchestral backcloth. Soloist and conductor reveal the joie de vivre. The ardent second theme (19:41), by not being too soulful, can live peaceably with this. The 1970 Du Pré/Barenboim scherzo is has a more substantial, wrenching introduction, a main body of more nervous energy and a second theme whose declamatory qualities are emphasised by forceful pointing of rhythm and accents. The 2010 team give us some welcome respite.

Weilerstein’s slow movement is lyrical, tender and intimate. The phrasing is sensitive, so are the dynamic contrasts. You can hear this in the small swell from 24:13 and then the pianissimo at 24:17, though the pp at 25:40 is undercooked. There’s lots of portamento but it’s smoothly applied and the orchestral strings match it when echoing the soloist. This movement isn’t searing; the appassionato passage (25:00) is no more than firm. This is where Du Pré is more gripping, lacking Weilerstein’s beauty but intensely drawn out; arguably overdone. Again Weilerstein displays a lyrical heart in the expressive introduction of the finale. Its main theme has a resolute crustiness. The second theme (29:43) is treated in more musing, exploratory fashion. The crown of the movement and work is the third theme (34:09), which can be read as a sad summation of life’s loves and passing. Weilerstein/Barenboim play it with feeling and dignity, keeping it flowing until Weilerstein finds her greatest expressiveness for the return of the slow movement theme and a magical shading down to pianissimo (37:42). Du Pré is weightier for the opening crustiness and engages your attention more. Her climax of the third theme is heartrending but her return to the slow movement theme is over-expansive.

Tension is ever-present in Barenboim’s first movement of Brahms’ First Symphony. It underpins a powerful introduction with strings that can sing. He also lays bare an epic quality as can also be heard in the later oboe, flute and cello solos. A relative formality is brought to the first theme but a greater opulence can be found in the second one (45:09). A pity there’s no exposition repeat. It’s also a shame that the lady double-bassoon player isn’t pictured in her crucial solo. Instead at 48:59 at the beginning of the crescendo in the development towards the recapitulation we see the doubling cellos. For the next minute or so that turbulent crescendo is thrillingly realized. In the coda the sighing strings are allowed to be a touch more velvety.

The tension is still there at the beginning of the slow movement with intense, heavy string sound permitting a more striking contrast when oboe and flute offer a balmy escape. Further relief comes in the lovely, seamless singing line of the solos from oboe and clarinet. There remains a steely quality to the strings whose statements of comfort still have a careworn perspective. They become more lilting towards the closing section with its sweet violin solo and smooth doubling horn judiciously balanced before a finely sustained violin solo ending. The third movement intermezzo is wonderfully assured. At its outer edges Barenboim secures a lovely clarity of line: all is smooth, light and comely. The second section (65:45) is more urgent, the trio (66:22) more sombre and portentous before a benevolently pastoral close. On DVD you can see how controlled by Barenboim this is but it sounds quite free.

The finale has a caring, expressive opening followed by neat contrasting of capricious pizzicato and grave arco strings before an edgily passionate horn solo. The big string tune is rich-grained and flowing, yet this is a movement of many contrasts. It’s all nicely detailed by Barenboim with flexibility of tempo and dynamic but never allowed to halt the overall burning progression. Two examples that made Barenboim himself smile in appreciation: the touches of portamento from sunny, Viennese style violins from 83:18 and the Mendelssohnian texture of soft tremolando strings against ascending then descending wind from 84:54.

Here then are interpretations of considerable substance in a Blu-Ray Disc which has superb crispness of picture and clarity of sound.

Peter J. Rabinowitz
Fanfare, May 2011

EMI favored Alisa Weilerstein by including her in its “Debut” series when she was still a teenager; she’s also made some recordings as cellist in the family trio. Even so, this is, in a sense, her breakthrough recording—made during a high-profile concert in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre. The choice of repertoire was risky. Anyone who plays the Elgar, of course, has to take on Jacqueline du Pré’s recording with Barbirolli, which, arguably, has a kind of benchmark status unmatched by that of any other single recording of a canonical work. In this case, however, the challenge was stronger than usual. The concert took place in du Pré’s home town of Oxford, and, of course, Weilerstein was partnered with du Pré’s husband, Daniel Barenboim, who was also on the podium for du Pré’s live Philadelphia recording made toward the end of her performing career and who, I’ve read, hasn’t conducted the work since du Pré’s death more than 20 years ago. The pressure must have been intense—especially since the concert (one in a yearly series in which the orchestra celebrates its founding in a historical European city) was broadcast live around the world. But Weilerstein is a fabulous cellist, and she held her own.

Despite the dazzling quicksilver of the second movement, this is, for the most part, a dark and intense performance, marked more by fervency than by a nostalgic sense of farewell. Thus, for instance, the arrival of the first movement’s second theme doesn’t bring much light with it—and the finale is unusually emphatic, with the tenutos taken extremely seriously. In lesser hands, perhaps, such an approach might seem exaggerated, but Weilerstein’s commitment is so contagious that even listeners seeking something more autumnal are apt to be carried away. Barenboim is with her all the way, and the orchestra—hardly known as world-class Elgarians—brings its coals to Newcastle with aplomb.

The concert begins with a patient and poignant reading of the third-act prelude to Die Meistersinger, notable for the luxury of the orchestral tone, and it closes with a spectacular reading of the Brahms First. You might reasonably expect this orchestra to coast in a work it’s played so often—indeed, toward the beginning, Barenboim simply lets the musicians go their own way, standing motionless as the timpanist sets the scene. But there’s no autopilot here; they play as if every note matters, and matters deeply, and their burnished sound is gorgeous from first to last, both in the climaxes (the ending will knock you out) and in the quieter moments (try, as but two examples, the hush right before the first-movement Allegro begins and the spine-tinglingly expectant horn calls at the finale’s Più Andante). As for the interpretation: There’s perhaps nothing dramatically new here. Barenboim offers a conservative reading in the Furtwängler orbit, a reading marked by rich, blended, and bass-centered sonorities (you won’t find Toscanini’s or Weingartner’s leanness here, much less Scherchen’s jagged edges), a reading that sacrifices rhythmic bite for eloquence of phrasing and harmonic intensity. But his pacing is so consistently inspired, the transitions are so artfully negotiated, and the sense of arrival in the final pages is so convincing, that this old-fashioned performance makes the music sound remarkably fresh.

The sound is excellent, in terms of both timbral honesty and sense of space (although I wonder whether I am the only one who feels disoriented by those moments in concert videos where the aural image and the visual image contradict one another—where, say, we’re viewing from the back of the orchestra while listening from the hall). The video work is first-rate, too, except for a few of the shots from the rear, which produce slightly distorted images. All in all, a major release.

Gramophone, February 2011

This surprisingly intimate recording, made in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre, carries on a 20-year tradition of May Day concerts in Europe’s historic cities. Fine performances and a beautiful location are served well by excellent 1080p video and PCM stereo or 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio sound.

The picture is razor-sharp, while the sound makes just the subtlest use of surround while keeping clear focus on both orchestra and soloist. This is a glorious disc; a perfect antidote to the winter blues.

Jeffrey Kauffman, October 2010

Most of us in the United States don’t really have a lot of experience with the festive, sometimes outright raucous, celebrations surrounding May Day. Indeed "may day" for many Americans serves as a distress call, and that same idea is spilling over into some European countries, where the holiday has been celebrated for centuries in various guises but has become increasingly boisterous and even dangerous in modern times. May Day also served, in 1882, as the birthday for the Berlin Philharmonic, long one of the bastions of high minded traditionalism among the continental orchestral troupes. Since the fall of the Berlin wall, the Philharmonic has made its birthday celebration part of an outreach to various European locations to breed a spirit of brotherhood and commonality among the members of the EU. Cynics might decry this as a thinly veiled attempt to inveigle the audience toward that other traditional May Day call to brotherhood (i.e., Communism). But those with more liberal sensibilities will simply see this new tradition as a chance to share some luscious music played by some of the finest musicians available, all under the recondite baton of Daniel Barenboim. Such is the case with this slightly odd concatenation of three very different pieces, one Wagner, one Elgar and one Brahms, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic in the lovely and intimate setting of Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre on April 30 and May 1, 2010.

Barenboim starts the concert out with the slowly burnished strains of one of Wagner’s more meditative pieces, the Prelude to Act 3 of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Kenneth Chalmers makes the point in his introductory comments in this Blu-ray’s liner notes that this piece is perfectly a propos a May Day concert, as in Wagner’s opera it comes when Meistersinger’s hero, Hans Sachs, is reacting to having witnessed the same sort of Bacchanalian exploits Londoners themselves had probably seen during the sometimes out of control May Day celebrations of 2010 in and around their fair city. This is a gorgeous, slowly building piece that exploits a number of deeply burnished timbres brilliantly, and the Berlin Philharmonic plays it languidly and with considerable lyricism.

After having presented something iconically German, Barenboim and his orchestra delve into the British repertoire with a lovely and nuanced reading of Edward Elgar’s magnificent Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85. While this piece is often associated with Oxford’s own paradigmatic cellist, Jacqueline du Pré, here we’re given a solid and really astoundingly musical interpretation by the young American Alisa Weilerstein. This formidable woman, still in her early 20s, started playing her instrument when she was a mere four years old, and she made her professional debut at the tender age of 13 with the Cleveland Orchestra. (It should be noted her father is the first chair violinist of the Cleveland Quartet). Here Weilerstein brings a surprising maturity to her interpretation, offering some incredible vibrato and portamenti, especially in the first movement which is completely dominated by the soloist. Weilerstein’s gentle pizzicatti introduce the brief, oddly sad Scherzo, and then she commands the dialogue again with the uninterrupted solo line of the third movement. Elgar uses a "callback" technique in his Rondo finale, with little snippets or allusions to previously heard themes. The orchestra and Weilerstein trade phrases in this movement almost like jazz players, and it makes for a delightful finish to one of the most formidable pieces for cello.

Barenboim is both astoundingly invigorating and also almost comically non-intrusive in his reading of the Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, which, like the other pieces in this concert, he conducts without a score. This piece gets off to a bracing start with its redolent tympani and massive crescendi. At times Barenboim seems to just step back, letting his baton drop for a moment, as if he knows his players have done this a million times and don’t really need him waving his arms in front of them. And the Berlin Philharmonic plays this gorgeous piece, often (though in my not so humble opinion, inaccurately) called Beethoven’s Tenth. The bookending first and fourth movements are especially impressive here, with fluid changes in tempi and dynamics. Solo players, especially the clarinet, offer some beautiful lyrical passages in the interior movements, and over all this is an extremely athletic, though very balanced, reading of this momentous work of symphonic art.

It’s to Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic’s joint credit that a concert featuring three at least relatively disparate pieces coheres so successfully as a cogent concert experience. That said, it’s the central Elgar performance with the really exciting presence of Alisa Weilerstein which will probably be the real calling card to a lot of classical music junkies for this title, and they most definitely will not be disappointed.

Video Quality

As odd as it may sound, the best part of watching this concert may be the chance to see Christopher Wren’s gorgeous Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, a quaint and close quartered structure which has the audience virtually in the Philharmonic’s lap. Delivered via an AVC codec, in 1080i and 1.78:1, this concert looks beautifully bright and wonderfully crisp, especially for an interlaced source video. This was evidently a daytime concert, and the spring light fills the hall with a lovely sunny ambience that casts the players and the Sheldonian itself in a lustrous saffron hue. Detail is quite good throughout the concert, and colors are exceptionally robust, highlighted by Weilerstein’s astoundingly red gown.

Audio Quality

I seldom if ever have major problems with the lossless stereo fold downs provided on most of the classical musical titles distributed by Naxos, EuroArts being among them, but I recommend highly you stick with the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix rather than LPCM 2.0 mix on this disc. The 5.1 mix is so much more spacious than the stereo mix, and it provides such exquisite separation between the sections of the orchestra, and most especially between Weilerstein and the orchestra, that I heartily suggest you not even bother with the stereo version. This track sports brilliant fidelity, with an amazing dynamic range which comes to the fore most especially in the Brahms, which provides some thundering tutti that will shake your rafters. The Sheldonian has beautiful acoustics, if with somewhat less hall reverb than larger continental venues provide, and that ambience is captured perfectly on this DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 track.

Special Features and Extras

Only trailers (which I never count) are included on the Blu-ray. The insert booklet has introductory comments as well as brief essays on the Elgar and the Brahms. Wagner gets left out, strangely.

Overall Score and Recommendation

You may not exactly be willing to run out and dance around the maypole and/or join the Wobblies, but this May Day concert is a quietly festive undertaking that is sure to provide aural delights galore. Weilerstein is amazing and the Berlin Philharmonic sounds gorgeous under the solid direction of Barenboim. Recommended.

Nicholas Sheffo
Fulvue Drive-in, October 2010

Europakonzert 2010 is the highlight of the new batch, as Daniel Barenboim is back conducting the Berliner Philharmonkier on works by Wagner, Elgar and Brahms, but the best part of this is guest Cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who is possibly one of the most talented, passionate and amazing musicians playing this classic instrument today. This is a powerful 89 minutes and she is the highlight, though Barenboim is playing up to his usually high standards.

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