EuroArts plunges in the rich Berlin Philharmonic concert archives with this first release of three European Concerts (1992, 1994 and 1998) on Blu-ray. Each year since 1991, on May 1st, the Berliners perform in a different, often prestigious European venue, to celebrate the foundation of the orchestra (1882). The concerts are broadcast live and feature distinguished conductors and soloists.
Music-wise all concerts considered here are highly enjoyable. The Berlin Philharmonic is on superb form throughout and while the oldest gig conducted by Daniel Barenboim offers a rather stiff Hungarian March from Berlioz's Damnation de Faust, it also has a finely constructed account of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, as well as solidly played Wagner excerpts and Plácido Domingo in three short arias from Verdi, Berlioz and Wagner. It almost transcends the lugubrious background of the Escorial monastery basilica and director Brian Large's rambling camera effects. The 1994 concert shot at the former Meiningen Court Theatre in Thuringia, central Germany, features a first-rate performance of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto with Barenboim at the piano and Claudio Abbado on the rostrum. Barenboim is particularly delightful to watch, often looking like he wanted to take over and conduct from the keyboard himself. Abbado brings a fine but unsurprising reading of Brahms's Second Symphony – lyrical, with lean textures, and dynamic, if without much real drama. The most recent installment, filmed at the visually splendid Vasa Museum in Stockholm and also conducted by Abbado, is probably best of all, showing exciting performances of Wagner's Flying Dutchman and Tchaikovsky's The Tempest, and a delicate Debussy with beautiful contributions from the Swedish choirs. Even the Quattro Pezzi Sacri from Verdi which aren't without their longueurs, sound with the superb choirs highly attractive.
All three editions were previously released on DVD (Arthaus), so unless you are new to them, for collectors it will matter foremost whether the transfer to high-definition offers that more video and audio quality to warrant yet another purchase. If anything, a release like this demonstrates how quickly the tag "historic performance" needs to be applied to concert footage. The difference in video and audio quality between 1992 and 1998 is already pretty striking.
The three concerts were upgraded to 1080i HD. Moreover, the original 4:3 aspect ratio of the '92 and '94 editions was reframed to 16:9 for widescreen TV. Whether this is the right decision is an endless discussion among home video enthusiasts, but what matters more here is that while the reframing didn't lead to any apparent loss of image information, the video quality of these HD upgrades still remains uneven. True, some of the locations where the concerts were filmed live are pretty challenging – as at the Escorial church with its sunlit windows – but the fact remains that none of the titles reviewed here will blow you away by their image quality. Only the most recent Stockholm concert comes closest to a genuine HD experience. The older editions suffer from blurry long-shots, unnatural colors ('92) and chromatic distortion on the edges ('94). They definitely look better than in their DVD incarnation (or as the older ones among us might remember, better than the VHS cassettes to tape the broadcasts), but the oldest footage shows its limitations big time and no miraculous transformation through the HD upgrade is to be expected.
The Blu-rays also feature a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix and a PCM stereo mix. Again, the 1998 concert is the most agreeable, offering well-detailed and warm sound. The 1992 edition, on the other hand, suffers from the excessively reverberant church acoustics (just watch Daniel Barenboim's funny reaction at the end of the Meistersinger Prelude, which must have resonated as far as Toledo), further enhanced by the surround mix, while the 1994 Meiningen concert perversely has much better defined sonics in simple PCM stereo than in the more detailed but booming, bass-heavy DTS-HD master.
It would have been easy to include subtitles for the sung fragments (as no libretti are provided either). And where are the documentaries that were offered as a bonus with the DVD releases? Their omission isn't a great tragedy but with the extra space of the Blu-ray they could easily have been kept. (The 86 min. running time of the '94 concert is in this respect very short measure.)
For a project of this importance it's bizarre that not more care was devoted to the liner notes accompanying the discs. The original English texts (by one Nata Metskhrovrishvili) not only read like poor translations (which apparently they aren't), they are merely hagiographic about the artists and not really informative. How can you overlook to mention regarding the Meiningen venue for example that Johannes Brahms, whom this concert is about, regularly came to the theatre and even personally conducted the premiere of his Fourth Symphony there?
This seems to be the beginning of a new series on HD, and purely for their musical value the European Concerts which are now well into their second decade, are worth owning in the best possible format. Let's hope that EuroArts will continue this exciting project, yet also by using the Blu-ray format in the most advantageous way.
Copyright © 2013, Marc Haegeman