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DVD Review

Lucerne Festival 2009

Yuja Wang, piano
Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
Recorded live, Concert Hall of the Culture & Convention Centre, Lucerne, August 11-15, 2009
EuroArts DVD 2057968 Widescreen Anamorphic LPCM Stereo Dolby Digital DTS
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There was plenty of electricity in the air during this Lucerne Festival concert. The soloist Yuja Wang turned in a thrilling rendition of the Prokofiev 3rd and Abbado drew a spirited performance of the Mahler 1st. So, I guess I can end this notice right here – huh? Not so fast! Let me just elaborate on a few important issues here.

As I've suggested in previous reviews, DVD productions of operas and ballets have an added dimension: you get to see the affairs, double-crossings and murders plotted out amid beautiful arias, duets and choruses; and you marvel at the waltzes, pas de deuxs, bourrées and other numbers danced by perfect physiques to exquisite music.

In a concert, however, the performers merely play an instrument, usually seated, and the conductor beats time and points fingers. Well, that might be a simplification of things, but I think you get the idea. So, what is crucially necessary to present a good concert on video is to give the viewer the best possible seat(s) in the house. Indeed, but in a concerto the rules must be modified further: in the challenging Prokofiev 3rd, the viewer should see the soloist playing the most interesting and difficult passages in closeup detail, rather than the trumpeters play three notes in a climatic passage near the end of the first movement, or the flutists blending their notes into the sound fabric in a passage just preceding. Indeed, and who wants to see string players play pizzicato notes collectively when the pianist's hands are moving all over the keyboard?

The director, I'm sure, would argue that one should have a panoramic view of the concert, showing a vast array of instrumentalists at work. But in the Prokofiev 3rd (or Rachmaninov 3rd, or any number of other virtuosic concertos), the viewer, not least the fans of the soloist, want to see the athletic fingers on the keyboard, not the percussionist click the castanets against his leg or a flutist or clarinetist play notes largely drowned out by the rest of the orchestra and soloist.

There were so many missed moments in this wonderful performance of Prokofiev's 3rd by Yuja Wang that I wished this DVD were only a CD, so I couldn't be distracted by the frustrating camera work. Not that it was a disaster or anything close to that: this presentation was rather typical of many in its video work – the cameras captured much of the action across the stage, giving you, well, that "panoramic view" of the performance. Mission accomplished, I guess.

But I must register this protest and call for productions to present soloist performances the way EuroArts did in its St. Petersburg Gala Concert, which featured Elisso Virsaladze in the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand, and singers Anna Netrebko, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and other instrumentalists in varied repertory. Here the soloists were given prominence, with the camera rarely straying to show some relatively meaningless detail.

Now, with that off my chest, let me say that this Prokofiev 3rd is, as I have already suggested, a splendid one. Yet, it does not quite displace the most compelling performances of this work by Janis/Kondrashin, Cliburn/Hendl, Gutierrez/Järvi, Argerich/Dutoit and Graffman/Szell. Still, I'd take it over Kapell, Kissin (DG and RCA), Beroff and even the Argerich/Abbado (DG). Wang and Abbado take the ending of the concerto just a bit too fast, for one thing, though mostly everything else is played tastefully. Thus, this performance is probably worth your attention.

The Mahler 1st gets a powerful reading from Abbado, and while I believe this work is somewhat overrated, especially the bombastic finale, it actually comes across quite well here. Leinsdorf, Maazel, Bernstein, Neumann and scores of others have also offered splendid interpretations of this work, but this one will surely satisfy Mahler enthusiasts. The camera work in this instance, I'll happily concede, is fully appropriate, giving the viewer the best seat(s) in the house. The sound reproduction in both works is excellent.

Copyright © 2010, Robert Cummings.