Europa Konzert from Madrid, 2011
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
(1883) [7:09]
Joaquín RODRIGO (1901-1999)
Concierto de Aranjuez
(1939) [27:28]
Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1907) [60:39]
Cañizares (guitar)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
rec. live, 1 May 2011, Teatro Real, Madrid
EUROARTS DVD 2058398 [97:00 + 8:00]  

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s Europa Konzert takes place on 1 May each year, and commemorates the founding of the orchestra in 1882. The concert is broadcast on television, and is held in prestigious locations in different centres of culture. The Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford was the setting for 2010, and here, from the sumptuous Teatro Real in Madrid, comes the 2011 edition.
The film allows us little time to become accustomed to the surroundings. The leader is already in place and Simon Rattle arrives promptly to begin the concert with Chabrier’s delicious orchestral rhapsody, España. This is a fairly straightforward performance, with a bit of rubato on the attractive rising string melody the only real concession to “interpretation”. Rattle tells us in the eight-minute bonus interview - of which more later - that the orchestra “absolutely loves playing” this work. I suppose we have to believe him, but they look a bit poker-faced here, and, to my ears at least, the performance lacks the sparkle and fun that is to be found in many another one, and that in spite of what strikes me as a rather cheap surge in the very last seconds. We would hardly associate this work with the Berlin Phil, and it is followed by another, equally unlikely, contender. The soloist in Rodrigo’s celebrated concerto is the flamenco guitarist, Cañizares. He is certainly a cool customer, eschewing the habitual footstool and playing, instead, with his legs crossed. He plays from memory, and, for most of the concerto, with his eyes closed - though it is an intriguing exercise to monitor those moments when he opens them to look at the conductor. He is a remarkably undemonstrative figure on stage, and his elegant reading of the concerto reflects this. His playing certainly does not lack brilliance when needed, but clean and precise are words that come repeatedly to mind when listening to this performance. There are a few extra slides and some left hand vibrato and note bending, and though some of these effects are surprising they are immensely subtle and totally convincing, and are the only real signs of the guitarist’s flamenco background. The famous slow movement is particularly successful, with a beautifully played cor anglais solo, though the actual sound of the instrument is hardly authentic. This is a most satisfying reading of a much-loved work, a model of quiet virtuosity.
Rattle conducts the Rachmaninov from memory. This is hardly a standard Berlin work either, but the orchestra comes into its own here. The authority and unanimity of the playing is quite stunning. Rattle’s reading is very successful overall, with a natural feel for the music’s pulse. The first movement is very expressive but in no way indulgent. The big, singing, second subject, for example, is subjected to only marginal slowing, and this feels very natural in context; Rattle gives it more space when it returns later. Rachmaninov marks the whole of the exposition to be repeated, and though this makes for a long first movement I find it a pity that Rattle chooses not to respect it. He does, however, whip up a fearsome storm in the development section. The scherzo is characterised by superb unanimity of attack and glorious singing tone in the lyrical passages. The famous clarinet melody at the opening of the slow movement is most beautifully, if rather coolly, played. I don’t find Rattle any more convincing than the majority of conductors with the repeated scales that make up much of the development section of the finale, but the passage leading to the big, climactic return of the second theme - when we feel the end is approaching - is sensationally well managed, with a remarkably subtle control of rhythm and tempo. Once again we are treated to a kick on the accelerator in the final seconds, and I feel the same about it as I did in the Chabrier, though other listeners surely won’t. Overall, this is a most successful live performance that will also easily stand repeated hearing.
The concert is well enough filmed, though I find the camerawork fussy, with too many rapid changes. I think I would have edited out the audience member leafing through the programme during the slow movement of the Rachmaninov, though I would surely have left in the surprising sight of what seems to be my GP moonlighting in the double basses. The booklet contains a nice essay in three languages by Caroline Waight, and the DVD, in addition to four trailers for other concerts, also features the singularly bland and uninformative interview with the conductor mentioned above.
William Hedley 

A fine concert from Madrid, with superb playing from soloist and orchestra. 

Masterwork Index: Concierto de Aranjuez