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Blu-ray Review

From The New World

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
Live performances from the Herkulessaal of the Munich Residence – December 3 & 4, 2010
Unitel Classica/C Major Blu-ray 713504 95m Widescreen LPCM Stereo Dolby Digital DTS
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Latvian-born Andris Nelsons (b. 1978) is a brilliant conductor who might now be counted among the dozen or so superstar conductors before the public today. He has been named the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, effective with the 2014-15 season and will serve as music director-designate of the ensemble until then. He is currently music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England. Not bad credentials. Nelsons is married to the beautiful and talented Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais, herself a superstar in opera and now a regular at the Met. I would say that Nelsons has it all, but some of his admirers have complained that he is represented by relatively few recordings. Well, he is only thirty-four as I write this, and I'd wager he will certainly fatten the catalog will a spate of acclaimed recordings in the coming years. This Blu-ray disc, drawn from two concerts in December 2010, certainly strong gives testament to his interpretive and technical skills on the podium.

The major work on the program here is Dvorak's 9th Symphony, a favorite with audiences for more than a century now. Here Nelsons draws accurate and very spirited playing from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Tempos are moderate, attacks are crisp and potent, and Dvorak's plentiful lyricism flows ever so naturally and beautifully. Nelsons tends to use little accelerandos and ritards, generally to fine effect. That said, that triumphant third theme in the first movement Allegro section is milked perhaps a bit too much with such tempo manipulations. Still, things go pretty well here and throughout the entire symphony. Nelsons employs the first movement repeat, probably a necessary decision these days. By the way, Nelsons and the Bavarian RSO have a 2013 CD of the Dvořák 9th on the BR Klassik label that is apparently a different performance.

Stravinsky's 1917 Le chant du rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale) is drawn from the composer's opera The Nightingale (1914). This opera was the first major Stravinsky work to appear after The Rite of Spring (1913). Its origins, however, predate even the 1910 Firebird, as the composer had begun work on it in 1908. Still, The Song of the Nightingale exhibits orchestrational and stylistic features found in all three of Stravinsky's early ballets, especially Petrouchka (1911). But Nightingale is quite Russian in sound, like the Firebird, and even more exotic. Yet, much of the music is slow and orchestrationally barren, and while the scoring is colorful, the piece doesn't boldly draw attention to itself like the three ballets. Still, it's a fine work and its many subtleties come across nicely in this highly nuanced, well played performance. This is the one work on the program, by the way, that doesn't fit in with the title of the disc: although Stravinsky lived in the US in the latter years of his career, there is nothing about this piece that is From the New World, but it does at least have a connection to the work by the American John Adams.

Adams' 1996 Slonimsky's Earbox was written as a tribute to Nicolas Slonimsky (1894-1995), a Russian-born American composer who was perhaps better known as a musicologist. I saw him on the Tonight Show when he was ninety-five: he was amazingly spry and hardy, looking at least twenty years younger than his age, and he played the piano quite well and chatted wittily with Johnny Carson. At any rate, the Adams work is inspired by Stravinsky's Song of the Nightingale, particularly in sharing some of the work's modal harmonies. Lasting fifteen minutes it is a light and quite colorful rhythmic piece that should appeal to first-time listeners, not least because of the brilliant performance that Nelsons draws from the orchestra.

The Ives Unanswered Question (1908; rev. 1930-35) opens the concert. (Actually, I've reviewed the works in this concert in the exact opposite order in which they appear – forgive me!) The work is scored for off-stage strings, solo trumpet and woodwind quartet (here flutes are used, though the score allows for an oboe substituted for the third flute and clarinet for the fourth). In this seven-minute work the strings play serenely and slowly throughout, while the trumpet repeatedly poses its five-note "Perennial Question of Existence", to which the woodwind quartet continually attempt to reply. The question is asked seven times and each answer from the flutes becomes more agitated and dissonant – and unsatisfactory. I must confess I have never been convinced of this work's profundity, as apparently so many others are. The piece is more philosophically interesting than it is musically. Sorry, but to me, it is a mediocre composition and, further, I think Charles Ives is vastly overrated. Others will disagree, of course. The performance here by this small assemblage of Bavarian RSO players is as committed and sympathetic as one could want.

The sound reproduction and camera work for all works on this C Major Blu-ray disc is excellent, and while you could find many performances of the Dvořák 9th this good or better (Solti, Kertesz, et. al.) and Stravinsky's Song of the Nightingale (Reiner and Stravinsky himself), these are splendid renditions of all works and certainly attest to the considerable talent of young Andris Nelsons.

Copyright © 2013, Robert Cummings