Toru TAKEMITSU (1930-1996)
From me flows what you call time (1990)* [34:22]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 (1937) [51:10]
Raphael Haeger, Simon Rössler, Franz Schindlbeck, Jan Schlichte, Wieland Welzel (percussion)*
Berliner Philharmoniker/Yutaka Sado
rec. live, 20 May 2011, Philharmonie, Berlin
Bonus: interview with the conductor [16:00]
Director: Michael Beyer
Picture: 16:9/1080i Full HD
Sound: PCM stereo, dts-HD Master Audio 5.1
Region: all (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, Japanese (bonus)
EUROARTS BLU-RAY 2058744 [91:00 + 16:00]
The sobering sticker on both the Blu-ray and DVD indicates that by purchasing these discs you are supporting victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. So in this spirit of global solidarity it’s appropriate to preface the Shostakovich with a piece by Toru Takemitsu, a composer whose music fuses east and west so successfully. On the podium is Kyoto-born Yutaka Sado, who’s new to me, so I was disappointed to find no biography – however brief – in the booklet. That said, a quick Google reveals he is a protégé of Seiji Ozawa, and that this concert marked his Berlin debut.
For this review I’ve watched both the Blu-ray and the DVD, as I was keen to see how they compare in terms of picture and sonics. I’ve certainly extolled the virtues of the newer format, the high-definition sound of which is generally superior to that of the older one; I’m hedging my bets here, as I’ve discovered some DVDs are quite good in technical terms, and that a worrying number of Blu-rays are rather mediocre. And given that the latter sells at a premium over the equivalent DVD – typically 20% – that just isn’t good enough. Naturally the music is the priority here, but at least I can now compare two identical performances and determine, in this case at least, whether Blu-ray really is worth the extra outlay.
From me flows what you call time, based on a poem by the Japanese poet Makota Doka, has a strong visual element that really comes to life on video; the five percussionists, who make their way on to the stage as the piece begins, are dressed in red (fire), blue (water), green (wind), yellow (earth) and white (sky), the long ribbons to the left and right of the orchestra representing the colours of the Tibetan flag. These vibrant, eye-catching tones are complemented most beautifully by the ear-catching ones produced by this exotic array of instruments.
Anyone remotely familiar with this composer’s œuvre will recognise those rhythmic cells and subtly alternating sonorities, the work beginning with a solo flute melody of Debussian languor and loveliness. The dialogues between soloists – which seem like improvisation at times – are fascinating to watch, their sometimes unearthly timbres well caught by the engineers. It certainly doesn’t feel like a half-hour piece, such is the level of invention and interest, and I was surprised at how intensely moving it all is. Deeply satisfying, this is a perfect introduction to Takemitsu’s engrossing sound world.
I’d recommend a break at this point, as the profound sense of communion is apt to linger for quite some time. And one has to remember the tragic context in which this performance was given. The context of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony – ‘an artist’s reply to just criticism’ – is well documented, as is the debate about what the composer actually ‘says’ here. Watching the DVD of Leonard Bernstein’s performance with the LSO in 1966 – review – leaves one in little doubt about the latter; indeed, Lenny gives a blistering account of the finale that’s almost without peer. I say ‘almost’ because there are a number of fine performances on CD, although Bernstein leads the field on DVD. On Blu-ray there’s a version I’ve yet to see, from Michael Tilson Thomas and his San Francisco band. And that’s pretty much it.
Seconds into the Moderato and it seems this is to be a cool, rather urbane reading, in which Sado tends to ‘parenthesise’ musical phrases – a habit I’ve noticed with Ozawa – whereas Bernstein and others achieve a compelling seamlessness throughout. There’s little of the tic under the skin that one often hears at this stage, and I began to wonder if this would be yet another run-through of an oft-played symphony. Then, without warning, that swaggering march tune arrives and the mask of urbanity slips. Goodness, the Berliners really let rip here, the brass especially taunting. Even more telling is the return of that rocking tune, as spectral as I’ve ever heard it, summoning the legion of ghosts that haunt these symphonies.
At the start of the second movement Sado’s exaggerated phrasing signals a bit of japery. More than most, Shostakovich must have known when it was politic to play the Fool; and what a motley display this is, that bucolic fiddle tune – so Mahlerian – deliciously done, those parting timp shots the musical equivalent of an exeunt omnes. After that public display comes a very private one, the Largo a searching soliloquy that peaks in anguished string writing of extraordinary reach and power. The Berliners are sans pareil here, the xylophone sounding even more like a string being tuned to breaking point. The air of resignation at the close is unmistakable, that rapt quietude all the more poignant in the light of what’s to come.
Few convey the lacerating, Lear-like rage of the Allegro better than Bernstein, whose evocation of a metaphorical ‘blasted heath’ is as unremitting as it is harrowing. Sado doesn’t maintain tension quite so well, but the elemental fury of that great climax is beyond doubt. Aided by fearless dynamics and playing of superhuman strength, this finale has seldom sounded so gutting and, paradoxically, so glorious. Little wonder that our perspiring maestro looks utterly exhausted at the close.
In the 16-minute ‘bonus’ Sado talks about his work with the Berliners and offers some background on the pieces played. Interestingly, he refers to Bernstein as ‘my teacher’ and speaks highly of Lenny’s famous New York recording of the Shostakovich Fifth; indeed, there are aspects of Sado’s reading that recall the trim Bernstein of the 1960s rather than the self-indulgent later years, as typified by that tubby Tokyo performance for CBS. I was pleased to hear Sado characterise the second movement as ‘clown-like’, a quality expressed to great effect in this performance. Otherwise, this is a fairly standard ‘extra’, without revelations or penetrating insights.
And how does the DVD compare with the Blu-ray? There are some cosmetic differences – for instance, the menu on the Blu-ray is more elegant – but otherwise there’s not much in it. True, the DVD picture is a little soft and ‘flat’, lacking the finely etched visuals that resolve each string and give the brass an added gleam. The same analogy applies to the audio; it’s impressive, but the extra weight and three-dimensionality of Blu-ray – especially in the finale to the Shostakovich – really does bring one a step closer to the live event. So, if you have a well set up Blu-ray system I’d say the premium over DVD is definitely worth it.
This is a most rewarding disc, and while Sado yields to Bernstein in the symphony it’s a very close race. But really it’s the Takemitsu that makes this issue so memorable; not only is it a work of unusual depth and distinction, it’s also a feast for even the most jaded palates.
This is a most rewarding disc and the Takemitsu is a feast for even the most jaded palates.