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Blu-ray Review

BBC Proms

The UNESCO Concert for Peace

World Orchestra for Peace/Valery Gergiev
Recorded live at the BBC Proms - Royal Albert Hall, London, July 20, 2014
Bonus Feature - Documentary: From War to Peace
Unitel Classica/C Major Blu-ray 730204 2:31:00+37:00 LPCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio
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Also available on DVD 730108: Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic - CD Universe - JPC

In the live concert these performances were taken from, the Panufnik Three Paths to Peace came first, not the Strauss Symphonic Fantasia from Die Frau ohne Schatten, which is presented first on this Blu-ray. I'm not sure that changing the order affects anything significantly, but I suppose Panufnik's work about peace was placed first at the concert because it was, after all, being performed at this special UNESCO Concert for Peace and played by the World Orchestra for Peace, a group whose mission is to promote peace through music. Moreover, it was the European premiere of the Panufnik work, which was first performed in 2008 in Jerusalem by this orchestra.

In any event, Gergiev draws a fine performance from the orchestra in this rather exotic piece, which features Jewish, Christian (Catholic and Anglican) and Islamic music in conveying the story of Abraham and Isaac. The work, drawn from Panufnik's Violin Concerto Abraham, has no sung text and is cast in five sections: The Calling, The Journey, The Sacrifice, The Angel Appears and Three Paths to Love. Lasting about twelve minutes, Three Paths features attractive ideas both thematically and rhythmically, and ultimately must be assessed as reasonably well crafted. That said, it's not outstanding or particularly memorable, despite some fairly catchy moments. Moreover, the cynic in me wonders that perhaps the composer is overly optimistic in light of the past and current problems among the three religions mentioned above and the constant upheaval and violence in the Middle East and elsewhere. Further, even if the religions of the world united for peace, would secular politicians follow their lead? Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong, non-believers all, accounted for the slaughter of over 100 million people in the 20th century, and dictators and bullies are still in power today. But then one can argue that we should all still strive for peace and hold out for hope in spite of whatever setbacks we encounter. Incidentally, at the end of the performance Roxanna Panufnik comes out on stage to be greeted by quite enthusiastic applause.

The Richard Strauss Symphonic Fantasia from Die Frau ohne Schatten isn't particularly outstanding either, though the composer's many admirers will probably disagree. The performance again is good and quite committed. But the meat of this concert comes with the Mahler Sixth. Gergiev and this same orchestra performed the Mahler Fourth and Fifth at the Proms back in August, 2010 and I reviewed both performances here (Unitel Classica DVD 702608), finding them mostly quite good. Here, Gergiev takes the opening march theme rather briskly, like Paavo Järvi in his recent recording (Unitel Classica Blu-ray 729404). But for the most part Gergiev's tempos in the opening movement are fairly judicious and his phrasing in general is quite good. He captures the joy and beauty of the Alma theme and draws very accurate and committed playing from the orchestra.

Gergiev takes the next three movements somewhat briskly, though there is nothing egregious in the tempos. He reverses the order of the second and third movements, and although his tempo in the Andante moderato is faster than usual, the sense of sadness and passion register strongly. The Scherzo has plenty of drive and mischief in its often playful manner, and the finale is powerfully convincing: this may be Gergiev's best movement, as all sorts of detail emerges and the sense of tragedy is gripping. The hammer blows are interesting to see here: the hammer is large and kicks up a cloud of dust (or white powder) each time, creating a strange effect visually that must have been intended. I should mention in summation that the World Orchestra for Peace plays splendidly throughout.

Speaking of the orchestra, this disc features a thirty-seven minute documentary – From War to Peace – about its founding, its multi-national membership and its goals. The camera work and picture clarity for the concert are excellent, as is the sound reproduction. While there are many excellent Mahler Sixths on video, including the aforementioned Järvi and the recent one by Chailly (Accentus Blu-ray 10268), this one by Gergiev is quite fine and although the disc mates may not be top drawer works, C Major offers nearly two-hour's worth of music and a quite interesting documentary. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings