Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg: Prelude to Act 3 (1868) [8:17]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Cello Concerto in E minor, op. 85 (1919) [31:04]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876) [47:27]
Alisa Weilerstein (cello)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Daniel Barenboim
rec. live, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 30 April-1 May 2010, DDD
Video director: Rhodri Huw
Sound PCM 2.0 DTS Master Audio Surround Sound
TV format 1080i Full HD 16:9. Region Code All (worldwide)
EUROARTS BLU-RAY 2058064 [89:00]

The Prelude to Act 3 of The Mastersingers gets a restrained but sonorous opening. The cellos are joined in seamless progression by the dignified violas, second violins then first violins. This is all solemnly meditative before a dawn glow from the wind instruments. The effect is one of sheer density rather than brightness. Yet what is enchanting is the softest of sensitive entries by the strings again from 3:44 (in the DVD’s continuous timing). Then at 4:46 the video director rightly homes in on the flutes as they confirm a brighter phase. This is made more memorable by the ethereal serenity of the probing first violins in their high register. The brass response to this is suitably fulsome but Barenboim pares down optimistic motif on its appearance on strings and clarinet at 7:21; it is, after all, marked p dolce. Then the lovely oboe take-up appears and also attracts the video director’s focus. This all helps establish a contemplative yet beneficent opening mood.

In the Elgar Cello Concerto the tone is set not by the rhetorical opening solo but by the lyricism of Alisa Weilerstein’s second solo leading into her introduction of the opening theme. This has a sad beauty yet flows ever smoothly like a cloudy morning the features of which gradually clear. The central section (13:09) is more tender and emotive, especially its second theme (13:48) featuring lovely calm interplay between strings and woodwind. The return of the uneasy opening of this section and the soloist’s lead-in to the reappearance of the movement’s first theme is passionate yet more rhetorical than angry. I compared Barenboim’s live performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Jacqueline Du Pré in 1970 (Sony 82876 78737 2). From the opening solos this is more gritty, tense and reflective. The first theme is not as smooth, more wan, but the central section has less by way of contrast. Weilerstein/Barenboim go for an overall smoothness of line. Du Pré/Barenboim point more clearly the distinction in phrasing between first and last appearances of the first theme. You can hear this in particular when the phrasing in six notes gives way to phrasing in four notes then two notes, giving a more halting and harrowing effect.

The introduction to Weilerstein/Barenboim’s second movement scherzo is nifty yet quite warm. It is as if the soloist wants to get away from the nimble semiquavers into something more contemplative. Then, just as whimsically, she returns to athleticism. This is deftly done, all the more so for not parading its virtuosity. Barenboim supplies by turns a suitably feathery or rosy orchestral backcloth. Soloist and conductor reveal the joie de vivre. The ardent second theme (19:41), by not being too soulful, can live peaceably with this. The 1970 Du Pré/Barenboim scherzo is has a more substantial, wrenching introduction, a main body of more nervous energy and a second theme whose declamatory qualities are emphasised by forceful pointing of rhythm and accents. The 2010 team give us some welcome respite.

Weilerstein’s slow movement is lyrical, tender and intimate. The phrasing is sensitive, so are the dynamic contrasts. You can hear this in the small swell from 24:13 and then the pianissimo at 24:17, though the pp at 25:40 is undercooked. There’s lots of portamento but it’s smoothly applied and the orchestral strings match it when echoing the soloist. This movement isn’t searing; the appassionato passage (25:00) is no more than firm. This is where Du Pré is more gripping, lacking Weilerstein’s beauty but intensely drawn out; arguably overdone. Again Weilerstein displays a lyrical heart in the expressive introduction of the finale. Its main theme has a resolute crustiness. The second theme (29:43) is treated in more musing, exploratory fashion. The crown of the movement and work is the third theme (34:09), which can be read as a sad summation of life’s loves and passing. Weilerstein/Barenboim play it with feeling and dignity, keeping it flowing until Weilerstein finds her greatest expressiveness for the return of the slow movement theme and a magical shading down to pianissimo (37:42). Du Pré is weightier for the opening crustiness and engages your attention more. Her climax of the third theme is heartrending but her return to the slow movement theme is over-expansive.

Tension is ever-present in Barenboim’s first movement of Brahms’ First Symphony. It underpins a powerful introduction with strings that can sing. He also lays bare an epic quality as can also be heard in the later oboe, flute and cello solos. A relative formality is brought to the first theme but a greater opulence can be found in the second one (45:09). A pity there’s no exposition repeat. It’s also a shame that the lady double-bassoon player isn’t pictured in her crucial solo. Instead at 48:59 at the beginning of the crescendo in the development towards the recapitulation we see the doubling cellos. For the next minute or so that turbulent crescendo is thrillingly realized. In the coda the sighing strings are allowed to be a touch more velvety.

The tension is still there at the beginning of the slow movement with intense, heavy string sound permitting a more striking contrast when oboe and flute offer a balmy escape. Further relief comes in the lovely, seamless singing line of the solos from oboe and clarinet. There remains a steely quality to the strings whose statements of comfort still have a careworn perspective. They become more lilting towards the closing section with its sweet violin solo and smooth doubling horn judiciously balanced before a finely sustained violin solo ending. The third movement intermezzo is wonderfully assured. At its outer edges Barenboim secures a lovely clarity of line: all is smooth, light and comely. The second section (65:45) is more urgent, the trio (66:22) more sombre and portentous before a benevolently pastoral close. On DVD you can see how controlled by Barenboim this is but it sounds quite free.

The finale has a caring, expressive opening followed by neat contrasting of capricious pizzicato and grave arco strings before an edgily passionate horn solo. The big string tune is rich-grained and flowing, yet this is a movement of many contrasts. It’s all nicely detailed by Barenboim with flexibility of tempo and dynamic but never allowed to halt the overall burning progression. Two examples that made Barenboim himself smile in appreciation: the touches of portamento from sunny, Viennese style violins from 83:18 and the Mendelssohnian texture of soft tremolando strings against ascending then descending wind from 84:54.

Here then are interpretations of considerable substance in a Blu-Ray Disc which has superb crispness of picture and clarity of sound.

Michael Greenhalgh

Interpretations of considerable substance complemented by crispness of picture and clarity of sound.