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Blu-ray Review

Europa Konzert 2003

Maria Joao Pires, piano*
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
Recorded live at Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jerónimos Monastery), Lisbon, Portugal - May 1, 2003
Bonus track: A Portrait of Lisbon
EuroArts Blu-ray 2053074 102m + 19m (bonus) PCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio
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When I first saw EuroArts' announcement concerning release of this Blu-ray disc, I pondered that its contents seemed overly familiar. Watching a trailer of it then sparked that same feeling of déjà vu: I wondered if I had already reviewed the concert before from a previous issue – after all, it dates back to 2003. But a check into my files (and recording library) showed I hadn't. Well, a visit to a favorite website of mine, YouTube, jogged my memory and solved the mystery: the entire concert has been available there for some years now from several different sources, each of the four works appearing in separate uploads. Well, the upshot of all this is, if you think you might be interested in this release, you can check out its contents at the YouTube site, albeit in sound and picture quality not nearly as good as what is offered on this Blu-ray disc.

Pierre Boulez has always struck me as a fairly straightforward, emotionally cool interpreter. In a way, his Ravel Tombeau de Couperin comes across with that same sense, yet the performance is not without a fair measure of warmth and feeling. The opening Prelude is playful and joyous in its brisk pacing, while the ensuing Forlane has an infectious carefree quality, again with a very lively tempo. Oboe, flute and other wind instruments turn in especially fine work here. The Menuet is sunny and charming, and maybe it's the oboist more than Boulez who imparts a sense of warmth to the lyrical flow in this lovely panel. Rigaudon is chipper and playful and crisply played by the Berlin players. All in all, this is an utterly excellent account of this Ravel concert staple.

The Mozart Piano Concerto #20 comes next, and it's a splendid performance. Boulez has hardly been associated with Mozart in his career, but he does quite well here, making you wonder that maybe he should have concentrated a little less on the 20th-century avant-garde. But that's water under the bridge, and anyway this is more Maria Joấo Pires' show than Boulez', and she offers a vital, thoroughly convincing account of what is, to me, one of the greatest concertos in the standard repertory. Pires plays with a wide range of dynamics, always seeming to know when to soften and when to add muscle. Her tempos tend slightly toward the lively side and she consistently injects an edge, a sense of vitality and purpose to the music. Her performance of the cadenza (Beethoven's) is brilliant in its intensity and subtlety. Her phrasing of the lovely second movement main theme suggests a mixture of the playful and carefree. Yet, there is also a sense of forward motion, as the pianist apparently knows well that too slow a tempo can make the music sound leaden. Pires deftly captures the ambivalence of the finale, both the harried angst of the main theme as well as the wit and charm of the delightful alternate theme. She may well be a tad fast in this theme, but she still makes it sound wonderfully magical. Serkin (with Abaddo on DG) and Richter (with Wislocki also on DG) have offered splendid accounts of this concerto, though I would say that Pires is at or near their level.

Boulez delivers a vital and appropriately cool account of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. The opening panel moves deftly from the dark mystery of the opening to the vitality and muscularity of the Allegro vivace theme and onto the subdued folkishness of the interior oboe theme. Both the oafish humor and sleek elegance of the second movement come through brilliantly here, owing in great part to the virtuosity of the Berlin players. Even with his relatively swift tempos Boulez manages to capture the darkness and mystery of the ensuing movement, and the Shostakovich parody in the fourth movement is deliciously colorful and biting. The finale is energetic and driven in the Presto sections, and quite sensitively phrased elsewhere. In the first appearance of the big trumpet theme, the trumpets sound slightly overpowered by the rest of the orchestra. But that may well be the only significant flaw in this otherwise splendid account. Stokowski, Previn and a host of others have made splendid recordings of this work, but I'll assert that this Boulez effort is competitive with them and likely the best performance on video.

The Debussy Fêtes was the encore piece for this concert. Boulez is really in his element here, it seems: the performance brims with life, with color, and with an all-conquering sense. A fine encore to crown a magnificent concert! Bravo!

In all works the Berlin Philharmonic performs masterfully and the camera work and picture clarity are first rate. The Church of Santa Maria, within which the concert was recorded, is architecturally stunning and utterly beautiful, but with its many huge pillars and reverberant acoustics, not the ideal place to hold concerts. Fortunately, the pillars don't get in the way of the cameras here (though many in the audience had very poor vantage points to view the concert), and the sound reproduction is very clear and natural despite the excessive reverberation of the church. The bonus documentary, A Portrait of Lisbon, offers information on Lisbon and its arts activities. The verdict here is quite positive – if the repertory appeals to you, this concert presentation won't disappoint. Recommended.

Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings