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Discovering Masterpieces
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D Op. 77 (1878) [42:00]
Documentary [27:00]
Gil Shaham (violin)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Claudio Abbado.
rec. live, Teatro Massimo, Palermo, 1 May 2002.
Performance directed by Bob Coles;
Documentary directed by Angelika Stiehler.
Picture format: NTSC/Colour/16:9
Sound formats: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1
Languages: English, German, French and Spanish.
Notes in English, German and French.
EUROARTS 2056078 [69:00]  
Experience Classicsonline

Each DVD in EuroArts' “Discovering Masterpieces” series couples a live performance of a key work from the cannon with a short documentary about the piece and its composer.  This format and the glossary of musical terms included at the back of the accompanying booklet indicate that the series is aimed at new initiates, but there is plenty here for collectors to enjoy too.

In fact, even collectors who know Brahms' violin concerto well will enjoy watching this documentary at least once.  The film speaks to the background and inspirations of the piece, covering in brief the friendship between Brahms and the work's dedicatee and first soloist, Joseph Joachim, and Joachim's involvement in the work's genesis and first performance.  It also offers a biographical sketch of Brahms himself, touching on his pivotal encounter with Schumann, the opposition between his musical thinking and that of the Wagner/Liszt camp, and his awareness of the heavy tread of Beethoven always behind him.  This historical and contextual commentary is woven around a movement-by-movement discussion of how Brahms' violin concerto functions as a piece of music, illustrated by excerpts from the live performance with snatches of the score superimposed on the concert footage to highlight the parts.  This discussion never becomes too technical and is not at all condescending.  As well as being guided by Dulcie Smith's narration, the viewer is enlightened by comments from Wolfgang Sandberger, the bespectacled, bow-tied musicologist who runs the Brahms Institute at the Lübeck Academy of Music.  Gil Shaham also gives his personal thoughts on the music and, where words fail him, he puts bow to string to show you what he means. 

It is Shaham putting bow to string that is the main attraction of this DVD.  His performance of the concerto with Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker is wonderful evidence of the joy like-minded collaborators can find and inspire by making music together. 

This live performance from the Teatro Massimo, Palermo is the second recording of the Brahms violin concerto made by these forces.  The first was recorded live in Berlin a couple of years earlier for Deutsche Grammophon (CD 469 529-2) and is without doubt one of the best, if not the best, modern account of the concerto, fully equal in stature to the classic accounts in the catalogue from the likes of Oistrakh (with Klemperer, Szell or Konwitschny), Grumiaux and Heifetz.  There is an urgent exuberance to Shaham’s Berlin performance that is terribly exciting.  This Palermo account makes for an interesting contrast with the earlier one.  Shaham's conception here is broadly the same, but this performance relaxes and smiles more while keeping its dramatic through-line. 

Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker seem to take a cue from the brightly lit gold and crimson décor of the Teatro Massimo, producing a sonority of bright hues.  There are no brown sounds here.  Phrasing and rubato are natural and the performance breathes comfortably. 

Shaham's first entry in the first movement is dramatic but not imperious and he soon weaves lyrical magic, soaring sweetly above the orchestra.  His double stopping is remarkably clean and unencumbered and his dynamic control is admirable – just listen to the pianissimo hush at about 16:15.  He spins the Joachim cadenza freely, lingering with affection and displaying unflashy but glorious technical control. 

Shaham draws a glowing golden tone from his Stradivarius that sits right in the centre of each note in a sweet and long-breathed account of the slow movement,.  The Berlin winds create an atmosphere of glorious repose at its opening.  The camera focuses on the principal oboe as he breathes his beguiling solo, and it is interesting to note from the strain on his face how hard he works to make his instrument sing with no audible effort. 

The finale is joyful, not quite as exultant as in the earlier account, but well proportioned, with perfectly judged dynamic contrasts and clean articulation from soloist and orchestra.  It dances and builds to a rousing conclusion.  The smiles on Abbado's and Shaham’s faces – the latter dripping with sweat – as they enter the home stretch reveal their genuine enjoyment of their collaboration as clearly as the sounds they produce. 

The recorded sound is very clear and realistic, with only the timpani seeming unfocused in the finale.  Bob Coles’ direction serves the music well, picking out individuals and sections of the orchestra where Brahms brings them to the fore, giving us plenty of Shaham and enough of Abbado. 

Those who do not know Brahms’ violin concerto well will find this DVD a cherishable introduction.  Collectors will certainly enjoy it too, but may prefer to acquire this Shaham performance on TDK’s alternative DVD, which presents the 1 May 2002 concert from the Teatro Massimo, Palermo in its totality.

Tim Perry


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