The Chopin Piano Concertos
Josef HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony no.44 in E minor, Hob. 1:44 Mourning (1772) [22:32]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano concerto no.2 in F minor, op.21 (1830) [34:29]
Piano concerto no.1 in E minor, op.11 (1830) [43:35]
Valse brillante in A minor, op.34/2 (1831) [6:27]
Daniel Barenboim (piano)
Staatskapelle Berlin/Andris Nelsons
rec. Philharmonie Essen, Ruhr Piano Festival 2010
PCM stereo DD 5.1; picture format 16:9; region code 0; DVD9 NTSC
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 101 577 [110:00]
My colleague Michael Cookson gave an entirely justified warm welcome to Deutsche Grammophon's stand-alone release of the two Chopin concertos, extracted from this 2010 Ruhr Piano Festival concert.
On this newly released DVD, however, the addition of a Haydn Sturm und Drang symphony and a Chopin solo encore restores the original full programme, even though - no doubt for marketing purposes – the release is entitled simply The Chopin Piano Concertos.
I have yet to attend a concert where conductor Andris Nelsons leads the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It’s an orchestra he has headed since 2008. On the evidence we have here – which allows us to share the orchestra’s viewpoint rather than the audience’s - he is an especially animated and lively occupant of the podium, favouring big, sweeping gestures and communicating to great effect with his players via a wonderfully wide and striking range of facial expressions - I counted at least half a dozen varieties of toothy grin, alone!
The performance of the Haydn symphony - the so-called Trauer (“Mourning”) - is beautifully conceived and executed. The Staatskapelle Berlin is expertly balanced and Nelsons's control of dynamics is also finely crafted. What looks on paper to be a somewhat eccentric piece of programming emerges in fact as a triumph, showcasing the orchestra’s delicacy and finesse in a way that the more densely orchestrated Chopin concertos do not, in general, allow.
The spotlight for the rest of the disc falls largely on the soloist Daniel Barenboim, a very regular participant in the Ruhr Piano Festival over the years (see here). While I am not sure that I would echo Michael Cookson in his provocative proposition that "I cannot think of a greater name in the music world today than Daniel Barenboim” (Claudio Abbado?) - and while many today would regard him primarily as a conductor rather than a pianist – it is without doubt a privilege to hear his interpretations of these concertos.
Given that the second concerto was actually written before the so-called first, the order of performance here is easily justified. In both works, Barenboim favours a bold, leonine approach. He can certainly play with appropriate delicacy when required, but his is an incisive rather than an especially poetic approach. The occasional moments of exception to that generalisation – such as the brief, dream-like passage for solo piano towards the end of the first concerto’s slow movement – are the more notable for being so few and far between.
In appraising the quality of the concerto performances, I would merely echo Michael Cookson’s verdict, so let me instead concentrate on what is to be gained by being able to see – as well as to hear – the concert. The Philharmonie Essen is a splendid modern and spacious concert hall, although I was surprised to see how many seats remained vacant for this occasion: we hear that Germany is weathering the European economic crisis quite well, but maybe some potential concert-goers chose to hoard their Euros instead; the people who are in the audience, on the other hand, look rather well-heeled.
Video director Enrique Sánchez Lansch has clearly mastered the score, so he knows exactly where to position his cameramen to best effect, and he and his editor have created a compelling visual record of what the ecstatic audience clearly regarded as a thrilling musical evening. Barenboim is not, in the concertos, a facially expressive musician. He prefers, rather, to adopt a rather intense persona while keeping his head down to the keyboard, so instead we have lots of shots of his fingers - surprisingly short and stubby - in expert action.
The sound on the DVD is clear and true, though - to my ears at least - it seems to favour the piano over the orchestra, especially in the second concerto; were the microphones adjusted during the interval?
As always with this sort of release, I wonder just how often it will actually be watched. If you are like me, you will often have a CD playing in the background while you wander around the house. Watching music on TV needs far more attention, however, and in most cases will also produce inferior quality sound. Thus, while this is certainly a worthwhile record of a fine evening in the concert hall and will no doubt be snapped up by those who were actually in the audience and by Barenboim’s many admirers, others might do better by buying the CD release that was recently so warmly welcomed by Michael Cookson.
Incisive rather than an especially poetic.