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DVD Review

Russian Rhythms

Yefim Bronfman, piano
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
Medici Arts DVD 2057758 LPCM Stereo Dolby Digital DTS Widescreen Anamorphic
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This concert was recorded live at the Berlin Waldbühne on June 21, 2009. It opens with three rather brief excerpts from Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker. The music is played with all the finesse and lightness necessary to convey its magic and fantasy, but of course, it's the more substantive pair of works that follow which most listeners will be interested in. Yefim Bronfman plays the first movement of the Rachmaninov Third with a dark Russian sense, catching the poetry, Romantic outpourings and virtuosic dynamism with masterly insight. Unfortunately, a crying baby can be heard much of the time in the background (the Waldbühne is an outdoor amphitheater), most noticeably during the cadenza. Why couldn't this kid have saved his wailings for the Stravinsky? – we wouldn't have heard them! Anyway, Bronfman and Rattle remain unshaken by the disturbance and present one of the finest performances of this movement on record.

The rest of the concerto goes nearly as well: the second movement is delivered with the utmost passion and commitment, but in the finale, maybe because the sun begins giving way to dark clouds (and eventually rain) some of the playing becomes a bit uneven: a couple of mistakes by Bronfman are noticeable (not a surprise in this difficult concerto) and some of the wind playing from the orchestra in the middle section sounds almost dutiful. Still, nothing is really wrong and, especially as the ending draws near, the performance cumulatively comes across with great power and sweep. This was truly a stirring Rachmaninov Third. But then so were the recordings by Cliburn, Janis (with Doráti, not Munch), Mogilevsky and Glemser (with Wit, not Maksymiuk).

With raindrops sprinkling the audience and insinuating themselves into the soundscape, the Rite of Spring opens with what seems like the most drawn-out opening notes in memory. But it's all quite effective and atmospheric. When the more violent sections come, the players dig in and deliver the all the rawness and punch needed to convey the music's prehistoric character. With darkness descending and lightning flashing, Spring Rounds begins with an especially ominous sense, and the ensuing Games of the Rival Tribes is deliciously colorful and powerfully rendered here. All in all, this is one of the finest Rites available.

The brief encores, another Tchaikovsky number from the Nutcracker and the Lincke Berliner Luft, are nicely played. The camera work throughout is okay, but I would personally prefer fewer shots of the audience during performance. The sound reproduction is vivid enough, but is a bit lacking compared with some of the better indoor concerts and productions. In sum, despite some minor flaws, this is a highly recommendable DVD.

Copyright © 2010, Robert Cummings