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Concert in honour of Pope Benedict XVI
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (c. 1525-1594)
Motet ‘Tu es Petrus’ (c. 1570) [7:14]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (1824) [70:58]
Krassimira Stoyanova (soprano); Lioba Braun (mezzo); Michael Schade (tenor); Michael Volle (baritone)
Symphonieorchester und Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
Video director: Brian Large
Picture: 16:9/NTSC/Region 0
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1/DTS/PCM stereo
Menu and subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese
Extras: Address by Pope Benedict XVI; documentary Divine Spark for the Pope, dir.
Barbara Schepanek and Ralph Gladitz
rec. 27 October 2007, Paolo VI Audience Hall, Vatican. No texts provided
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101457 [146:00]
Experience Classicsonline

Bavarian-born Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, is known to be fond of classical music and this orchestra, so it seems fitting this event was organised for him. He specifically requested Palestrina’s six-part motet ‘Tu es Petrus’, which obviously has resonances for both the Pope and the Catholic Church. The main item, though, is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its impassioned choral finale.

The enclosed booklet and the bonus documentary go into some detail about the preparations and rehearsals. Suffice to say it was a daunting logistical exercise to get these forces and more than 6,000 listeners into the Vatican’s Aulo Paolo VI. As the photograph shows it’s a modern hall, steeply raked, with the Pope seated halfway up the broad central staircase. But as this isn’t a concert hall conductor Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio engineers had several problems to overcome before the performance – more of that later.

The DVD opens with an obligatory shot of the dome of St Peter’s, followed by the entrance of St Peter’s descendant the Pontiff himself. There is a German commentary here, presumably intended for the original broadcast; the various speeches and the Papal address are individually cued and come later in the programme.

I expect this performance will appeal to two different audiences, those who want to hear the music and those who want to experience – or relive – the event itself. Of course there will be those who want both, and it’s left to veteran video director Brian Large to make the most of the occasion. He is one of the very best in his field – if not the best – and his name appears alongside some of the finest filmed concerts and operas available.

There isn’t a lot of scope for creative camerawork here – no ornate ceilings, frescoes, gargoyles or colonnades – so during the Palestrina we have plenty of pans and tracking shots, all of which tend to come back to the elderly man in white who is very much the focus of the whole event.

Jansons directs a beautiful performance of the motet. The Bavarian chorus sing with warmth, weight and precision, the voices superbly blended. It probably won’t appeal to authenticists but it’s still a very moving performance.

I can’t recall hearing Jansons conduct Beethoven so I was intrigued to hear what he makes of this mighty work. Last year I watched a DVD of him rehearsing Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin with his old band, the Oslo Philharmonic (review), and found him to be affable but very determined. Arguably he ‘micromanages’ his orchestra too much and the end result is usually brilliant, if not always memorable.

The mysterious opening of the Allegro – echoed in Mahler’s Second – is usually a reliable guide to the performance ahead. Here it’s atmospherically done, a big-boned reading in the ‘olden style’. That said it isn’t lugubrious or foursquare, the rhythms nicely articulated and momentum sustained. I was pleasantly surprised by the level of instrumental detail – that skipping motif on the double basses is a case in point – and the timps are satisfyingly crisp in the tuttis. Occasionally the music flags a little, but Jansons pulls it back together quickly enough.

The second movement is a bit more problematic. Now that we have become more attuned to period performances this traditional approach is apt to sound a little stodgy. There is some thrust here but the orchestra struggles to forge ahead. It’s difficult to tell whether the acoustic is partly to blame but in any event this movement is just too sluggish to be convincing.

And that’s not all. Jansons is inclined to separate musical phrases with a slight but irritating pause. It’s unnecessarily theatrical and impedes progress. Of the ‘old-style’ readings on CD Karl Böhm’s final Ninth with the Wiener Philharmoniker has a real sense of cohesion, as well as a natural ebb and flow. Jansons also fiddles with dynamics; when the ’Ode to Joy’ motif first appears he pulls back rather suddenly. It’s another one of those mannerisms that spoils this movement for me.

The Adagio suffers from the same kind of mannered phrasing, so much so that the music comes across as a series of swoops and swoons. Given Beethoven’s long-breathed phrases this is not the way to go. And although the balance is generally realistic the plangent woodwind tunes are often overwhelmed by the lower strings. Regrettably it’s all rather soporific.

Launching into the final movement I had hoped Jansons would get the Bavarian strings to bow with real bite. In fact they sound curiously diffuse, the timps suddenly migrating to the front of the soundstage. And when that theme returns on the strings it sounds more like a dirge than a rallying cry. Where is the barely suppressed passion, the growing sense of anticipation?

Perhaps the soloists can set this performance alight with Schiller’s radiant, uplifting text. They are a fine quartet, only baritone Michael Volle – listed in the booklet as a bass – is a little unsteady at the outset. And there’s an awkward ‘gear change’ for Krassimira Stoyanova just before the finale. In the event it’s the chorus that saves the day. Goodness, they really are feuertrunken, blazing their way through to the end.

Over the applause – and a rare close-up of the Papal features creasing in a faint smile – the German announcer assures us this performance is ‘in a class of its own’. Oh, if only. As I discovered in the accompanying documentary the acoustic was an issue from the start, but even that can’t disguise Jansons’ strange phrasing and irritating mannerisms. One of the most uninspired – and uninspiring – Ninths I’ve heard in a long time.

The 45-minute documentary Divine Spark for the Pope goes behind the scenes, with recording technicians laying two-and-a-half miles of cables and setting up 40 microphones in the auditorium. We also meet the Bavarian pilgrims on a 15-hour train journey to Rome, complete with travelling priest and confessional. Then there’s the arrival of conductor and orchestra, not to mention all the last-minute problems and delays.

As I suspected the acoustics were a problem and Jansons – the narrator calls him ‘a perfectionist’ – spent time trying to find the optimal spot for the Papal seat. He wasn’t best pleased with the space and once rehearsals were under way he decided to move the horns and woodwinds around to improve the balance. For some reason this documentary doesn’t offer a PCM stereo option – I couldn’t select it – so it’s difficult to compare the rehearsal excerpts with the performance itself.

The finished product is taken from a full dress rehearsal – attended by the Pope’s brother Georg Ratzinger – and the concert itself, both filmed on the same day. The orchestra and chorus were late arriving in Rome and I suspect they would have benefited from more rehearsal time. Certainly the normally elfin conductor looked rather drawn throughout, so perhaps it was a more stressful experience than usual.

Happily the sound and picture quality are up to current standards and the menu is easy to navigate. As a record of a major Vatican event this DVD has its appeal but as a musical one I’m afraid it’s a non-starter.

Dan Morgan


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