Naxos of America is distributing DVDs made by Arthaus Musik. Many titles already have been released, and they encompass orchestral and choral concerts, opera, and ballet. These two discs, which are high-class productions in every way, were recorded in concert while the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was in Köln back in 1997. They offer all the advantages of the DVD format, including CD-quality audio (PCM and Dolby stereo); steady, high-resolution video; and instant access to any movement of any piece on the disc.
The 75-minute playing time of the Mahler disc includes both applause and pre-/post-performance credits. The symphony itself requires almost 70 minutes – still on the slow side for a Mahler Fifth. Nevertheless, this is a middle of the road interpretation, and that's not a bad thing. Barenboim leads the orchestra on a journey that is bittersweet, but essentially healthy; the neuroticism favored by many prominent conductors is rejected here. There is little suspense about whether the symphony will end with human triumph or not. From the third movement on, the goal is in sight. Having said that, I also have to say that I enjoyed the third movement's love of life, tenser passages notwithstanding, and the Adagietto's tenderness, in which morbidity plays little part. Barenboim is good about balancing the orchestral sound so that Mahler's textures, while they may be heavy, are never thick. Although this is a live recording, the only obvious mishaps – and they are tiny – are a few imperfect notes from the woodwinds and the brass, and a ragged tutti or two.
The camera is trained on the conductor about half of the time, and on members of the orchestra the rest of the time. Probably because of camera placement, some players never appear in close-up, or perhaps the decision was made to focus on first-chair players. The principal trumpet gets the most attention apart from the conductor, as it only right. At the end of the concert, Barenboim draws a white rose from his beautiful bouquet and presents it to him! The images are beautifully clear, and in the end, this performance is as pleasant to watch as it is to hear.
The second disc presents more popular fare. Vengerov's Sibelius was controversial when it was released on a Teldec CD, and it is no less hair- and eyebrow-raising here. He is tense, edgy, and very exciting. This is a style that few of his contemporaries share, although one doesn't have to look too far back (Spivakovsky, Gitlis) to find other violinists who made a similarly extreme statement in this concerto. As if to show that he can relax and play classically, Vengerov's first encore is a beautifully poised and singing account of the Sarabande from Bach's second Partita. He then dashes off the extravagant Ysaÿe Ballade with incredible control and tone, and nearly brings down the house. This DVD reveals Vengerov's uncommon way of holding the violin, and his visage while playing: eyes closed, and a profile that would not seem foreign on Easter Island!
Barenboim, of course, was a piano virtuoso long before he became a conductor, and he plays Nights in the Garden of Spain with sensuous brilliance, but perhaps with more hardness than allure. Domingo does conduct elsewhere from time to time, and whether his stint on the podium here is just a novelty is for you to decide. He keeps the performance on track, although he steals frequent nervous glances at the score, and seems content to let Barenboim do the driving. "Driving" is just what Barenboim does in the three encores. Again, this is percussive, macho playing, but Barenboim's basic affection for the music shines through his facial expressions.
The soloists command most of the camera's attention in the Sibelius and in Nights, and Barenboim takes center stage elsewhere.
Copyright © 2000, Raymond Tuttle