In a box simply called Simon Rattle – Berliner Philharmoniker EuroArts assembles four concerts in Blu-ray format. Captured between 2007 and 2009 these live performances document the orchestra and their current principal conductor in different venues as well as repertoire. From the timeless Berliner Philharmonie (New Year's Eve concert 2007) and the horrors of the Kabelwerk Oberspree, a former Power and Cable Factory in Berlin (European concert 2007), to the historic Great Hall of the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory (European concert 2008) and the open-air concert at the Waldbühne (2009) which closes the season each year, the Berliner plays it all. The titles were previously available on separate discs, while the two European Concerts, the May 1st anniversary gigs of the Berlin Philharmonic, also make their appearance on Blu-ray here.
In all cases the high-definition transfers are a real joy to behold. The widescreen video quality is magnificent, even for the problematic open-air concert which was plagued by inclement weather. The sound is no less satisfying. All discs are offered with robust but crystal clear LPCM 2.0 Stereo tracks and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks; the Waldbühne concert comes with LPCM mixes only, yet closely miked there is no way to miss anything – not even the rain during the performance of The Rite. The filming and editing is in all cases unsurprisingly traditional and notwithstanding the occasional misfired camera virtuosity (no, we aren't interested in scrutinizing the girders of the Kabelwerk Oberspree during Brahms), will ensure an enjoyable home video experience.
The performances, however, cannot foster the same overall enthusiasm. This being the Berlin Philharmonic, there isn't anything really bad, yet there isn't anything really essential to discover either. The booklet coming with the box-set refers to the changes, most obviously in sound and repertoire, that the Berlin Philharmonic underwent after Herbert von Karajan's longstanding tenure, starting with the appointment of the late Claudio Abbado in 1989 and continued with the arrival of Simon Rattle in 2002. Changes, unavoidable and necessary of course, but often needlessly placed in a confrontational black and white, opposing Karajan as the epitome of artistic stagnation against his successors as the Berliner's saving grace. Yet precisely a selection of concerts like this questions not only which direction the orchestra has been heading, and what has been gained of real value, it also hints at the limitations of Sir Simon's often admired versatility in choice of repertoire. (In this respect one wonders if these older maestros would ever have released four concerts in which not one single performance was at least something truly exceptional?)
In the liner notes Simon Rattle is quoted as saying that different composers need to be played differently. The first disc of the New Year's Eve Concert from 2007, titled in the booklet as "the revolution in Russian music", ironically seems to suggest the exact opposite. This sounds neither Russian and even less a revolution – not even a German one. It's simply a run-of-the-mill, low-voltage concert with a conductor venturing on unfamiliar ground. The Borodin Symphony is bland and about as Russian as Hasenpfeffer and Pumpernickel, yet it are the Mussorgsky Pictures that suffer most of all from Rattle who apparently was in constant ritenuto mode this evening. The superficial brilliance of the Berliner cannot make up for some undistinguished solo playing from winds and brass and the massive sonority of the ensemble. It's not Mussorgsky, it's not even Ravel – and it's definitely no consolation it sometimes comes close to Brahms.
The Waldbühne "Russian Rhythms" concert is primarily a happy open air bring-classical-music-to-the-masses event that nothing can and will spoil – who wouldn't want to hear the Rite of Spring in a chilly night in the pouring rain? – and has arguably little value except as a souvenir for those present. It opens with three hastily dispatched Tchaikovsky Nutcracker bits, only emphasizing Rattle's complete lack of affinity with this music (why bother with just the three first numbers from the ballet in a concert anyway?) His traversal of The Rite of Spring is on the other hand the perfect illustration of what Richard Taruskin called the "showcase of orchestral prowess" which Stravinsky's most talked-about work has become. The Berlin Philharmonic plays impressively (the woodwinds are favored in the mix, yet not many formations can top such ravishing colors) but virtually all tension, darkness and surprise (except for the occasional Rattle mannerism) has disappeared. That there are still approaches possible that can pack a punch, however, is proven by Salonen, Jansons, Boulez, Dorati, Markevitch and the likes. In between, Yefim Bronfman's performance of Rachmaninoff's Third is more rewarding. It's a polished reading, effortless, well-balanced and well accompanied, without pathos or excess but boasting a warm sonority.
The two European Concerts present Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic of the 21st century in a much more propitious light and are by far the most convincing of this box-set. The 2007 edition took place in a none too attractive old Berlin factory (the acoustics seem to be good) and offers core-German repertory which (although this is no guarantee for success) has been in the orchestra's repertory for a long time. (Interestingly, the orchestra is placed differently in this venue as in the traditional Viennese manner with violins divided and the basses lined at the back.) Rattle's Prelude to Parsifal may be more posh than profound, but the Brahms Double Concerto featuring the ideally attuned Lisa Batiashvili on violin and Truls Mørk on cello is a magnificent performance in every respect. Dedicated to the great Mstislav Rostropovich who had died four days earlier, Rattle's accompaniment is sensitive and finely balanced, securing beautiful playing from both soloists and orchestra. His Brahms Fourth, however, is colorful and contemplative rather than incisive and taut, and appears less than ideally focused in the latter half.
The final disc covers the 2009 edition which took place in Moscow, exactly 40 years after the orchestra's first visit under Herbert von Karajan, in this very same hall of the illustrious Tchaikovsky Conservatory. Times have changed, thankfully, as the liner notes remind us: no more KGB surveillance, no more formally attired musicians (count the multicolored ties) and patrons, but also no more Dmitry Shostakovich moved to tears congratulating the orchestra and its conductor for the overwhelming performance. A fine concert, nonetheless, especially for Vadim Repin's subtly poetic rendition of Max Bruch's 1st Violin Concerto, sympathetically accompanied by Rattle, and a flexible and joyous account of Igor Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements. Rattle's Beethoven Seventh however sounds like a work in progress; rhythmically alert and detailed, here too he brings out the fun, but little else – an efficient, but unsurprising reading. Compared to what Abbado and Karajan in their lifelong quests achieved in this symphony, or in Beethoven in general, with this same orchestra, this is more than a step back. But then again, theirs isn't a tarnished legacy. It's a tough act to follow.
Copyright © 2014, Marc Haegeman