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New Year's Gala 1997 - A Tribute to Carmen
Works by Bizet, Rachmaninov, Sarasate, Ravel, de Falla & Brahms
Berliner Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado
Arthaus Musik (Region 0), No: 100 026 (85 minutes)
about £19



It is often the case that Gala concerts can end up being rather dull affairs. Not so this remarkable DVD of a famous 1997 New Year's Eve concert. The fizz of the evening is palpable from the orchestra's blazing opening prelude to Bizet's Carmen and continues right through to the closing piece, Brahms' Hungarian Dance No 5. Not one performance disappoints.

The star of the evening is Gil Shaham who gives a blistering performance of Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy. The very opening produces an opulence of tone that is as heady as a balmy Spanish evening. But it is the final movement from the Act II Chanson Boheme that amazes the most. The cross hand bowing is phenomenal, the notes thrown off in a whirlwind. The whole performance comes in at well under 11 minutes and you can visibly see him goading the Berlin Philharmonic to reach its own limits of virtuosity. It is stunning, and well worth the cost of this DVD alone.

The suite from Carmen boasts luxury casting. Anne Sophie Von Otter would not be my ideal Carmen, but she is downright sensuous in her Habanera. Bryn Terfel is a magnificent Escamillo, Roberto Alagna perhaps too sweet-toned for the role of Don Jose, although his Flower Song is beauty personified. Ravel's Rhapsodie Espagnol is superbly conducted by Abbado. The lazy woodwind lines Ravel deliberately evokes in both the Malaguena and the Habanera are here sleazier than normal - but priceless because of it. The Feria is just heavenly - glittering woodwind and velvety strings and at a pace to match.

Mikhael Pletnev is the soloist in a powerful (almost overwhelming) performance of Rachmaninov's Variations on a Theme of Paganini. The famous eighteenth variation is beautifully poetic, and the glissandi in the final variation sees him leap from his stool to span the keyboard. This piece is so over played it is a delight to hear and see a performance that is so vital and full of spontaneity.

The playing of the Berlin Phil throughout this concert is superlative. The flutes, lead by Emmanuel Pahud, are glorious (I have never heard the solo flute line so clearly played in the Rachmaninov as it is here), the strings lustrous. Abbado himself (conducting the entire concert from memory) is in world-beating form. This was clearly a happy concert for him (he smiles more in this single concert than most conductors do in a lifetime).

If you buy only one DVD this year make it this one. One can quite easily enjoy getting drunk afterwards.

Marc Bridle


Marc Bridle

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