The last DVD I reviewed
was also from Arthaus, an unusual combination of Mahler’s 2nd
Symphony in concert plus a visual ‘realisation’ of the score.
It’s certainly a novel idea, although I’m not quite sure who
it’s aimed at; seasoned Mahlerians would probably just want
the symphony served straight but I suppose there might be some
to whom the visuals will appeal. Quite honestly I can’t imagine
the ‘realisation’ could sustain more than a single viewing but
then the concert – with Semyon Bychkov and his Köln band – isn’t
particularly inspiring either.
Innovative as always
Arthaus have now embarked on a new series, ‘Kent Nagano Conducts
Great Masterpieces’. Not the catchiest of titles but the works
include mainstream classics, such as Bruckner’s 8th,
Mozart’s Jupiter and Beethoven’s Eroica. As part
of their ‘modern visual perspective’ Arthaus have added animated
sequences to the rehearsal and documentary footage. Again I’m
not sure of the rationale behind these ‘extras’ other than as
an attempt to draw in a new television-oriented audience. Perhaps
the booklet reference to ‘star conductor’ Nagano says it all.
Strauss’s trek up a mountain and down again, must be one of
his most splendid works, a wide-screen ramble strewn with exotic
instruments, including thunderclaps and a wind machine. It’s
the kind of extravagant project that only Strauss could bring
off with any success, although I wonder if he ever regretted
writing tosh like the Symphonia Domestica - probably
The orchestra arrayed
on the stage at the Philharmonie is quite a sight, some 130
musicians in all. ‘Night’ is wonderfully sonorous and weighty,
although the extreme close-ups of brass bells and violin bows
– achieved with remote-controlled cameras –take some getting
used to. As the music builds to ‘Sunrise’ these macro views
give way to an extended shot of Nagano’s hands goading the orchestra
into that glorious blaze of sound.
notwithstanding, this is shaping up to be a memorable performance,
with resplendent brass and a real sense of drama. The overhead
cameras tracking above the orchestra certainly provide an unusual
view of the musicians and add an appropriate sense of omniscience
to the proceedings. The distant brass in ‘The Ascent’ are thrillingly
caught, the sound - in PCM mode at least - wonderfully burnished.
It’s all very impressive and a vast improvement on the sonics
of Bychkov’s Mahler 2.
‘Entering the forest’
brings more conventional views of the orchestra but thankfully
the shots are carefully chosen so you can actually hear
the instrument(s) you see. So often in filmed concerts we are
treated to vaguely comical shots of cellists sawing away, apparently
in silence, which is so distracting. It’s not only the choice
of shot that must be commended here but also the cutting, which
makes for wonderfully fluid – and fluent – visuals.
Musically this performance
just gets better and better, with some superb attack in those
great string tunes and glittering torrents of sound in ‘By the
waterfall’. This rare combination of good sound and visuals
really is a treat and makes the whole experience much more engrossing.
And just listen to those scurrying pizzicato strings in the
meadows and the atmospheric horns of the Alpine pasture, not
to mention those noble, echt-Straussian tunes that bind
it all together.
When we do see the
conductor there is no Karajan-like narcissism, just a clearly
visible beat and an economy of gesture that’s a pleasure to
watch. It seems quite extraordinary that Nagano abandoned this
work for 15 years because he was dissatisfied with his performance
of it. This is clearly a man very much in control of the music,
coaxing committed and visceral playing from his band.
The rough rasp of
tubas comes across very well as our intrepid walker plunges
into the undergrowth, flailing among the thickets before emerging
on to the glacier with a superb thunder of timps. The ‘Precarious
moments’ are nicely articulated, with a rising sense of anticipation
in those trumpet figures and flare of trombones. Of course ‘The
summit’ marks the literal and philosophical peak of this work,
so it’s not surprising that Nagano looks like he’s had an arduous
climb. There is some lovely clarinet playing just before that
great outburst. And what a stupendous view from the top; indeed,
I cannot remember a performance – live or otherwise – that offer
such a satisfying combination of orchestral blend, weight and
clarity at this crucial point.
It’s may be downhill
from here but Strauss keeps up the invention and impetus all
the way. In terms of string tone the band yields nothing to
its rivals in the Berlin Philharmoniker, such is the power and
precision of their playing. In ‘Vision’ we cut to soft-focus
shots of the Philharmonie lights, as if our walker is in a momentary
daze. And as the sun dims the lights appear again as stars in
the night sky. This may seem contrived but it’s a visual conceit
that actually works rather well.
After all this elation
and the thrilling impact of the organ the reflective ‘Elegy’
comes as a welcome relief. Those rumbling tubas are never far
away, but Nagano keeps them in check with an admonishing finger.
Once again I was struck by the excellent balance, the clarinet
and organ both clearly audible without resorting to artificial
highlighting. Ditto the clarinet and timps in ‘Calm before the
storm’. But just when you think it’s all over Nagano hurls the
orchestra into a fearsome storm. I simply cannot recall it sounding
The nay-sayers will
probably blench at this point but I defy anyone not to be swept
up in the tumult. And how could one not respond to that thrilling
tune as the sun sets, underpinned by the organ? Not since the
early digital CD from Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
has this sounded more overwhelming. We get a brief glimpse of
a bust of Strauss, who would surely have approved of this mighty
reading, but he keeps some of his most serene music for the
end. ‘Night’ has seldom fallen so quietly or darkness seemed
so peaceful A deeply moving end to an extraordinary concert
–and judging by the cheers and applause the audience thought
The rest of the
disc is taken up with nearly an hour of ‘extras’, including
a promotional trailer for the other discs in the series, a piece
on Strauss’s music for the waterfall and an extended rehearsal
segment. In the latter Nagano talks briefly about the score’s
philosophical subtext and there are several clips of him rehearsing
individual sections of the orchestra. To be honest there is
very little of real interest here and any insights are soon
forgotten in a welter of excerpts from the performance itself.
You either like
these add-ons or you don’t, and I have to say I rarely find
them illuminating. There is little here that a quick Google
or a look at Wikipedia can’t provide - if you’re a newbie, that
is - and nothing at all if you already know the piece. It’s
all very slickly produced, with sophisticated graphics and animated
clips, but really it’s the music that counts – and that’s where
this package really scores.
this may be but I doubt it’s likely to get a more persuasive
performance or recording than this. As someone who is less than
enthusiastic about filmed concerts this is far and away the
most enjoyable one I have ever watched. The sound is excellent
and the picture pin sharp on both a PC and via an upscaling
DVD player. The notes are adequate and the disc is generously
for all Straussians.