Europa Konzert from Lisbon, 2003
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Le Tombeau de Couperin (1919) [18:00]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K.466 (1785) [31:00]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra (1945) [37:15]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Fętes (from 3 Nocturnes) (1899) [7:32]
Maria Joăo Pires (piano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
rec. live, 1 May 2003, Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon
EUROARTS DVD 2020218 [100:00 + 19:00]

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s Europa Concert 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 throughout Europe. The Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford was the setting for the 2010 concert, and I reviewed recently the 2011 edition from the Teatro Real in Madrid. Here, in 2003, we find ourselves in the sixteenth-century Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon. It is a awesome building, but its massive pillars will surely obscure the view for much of the audience, and there’s plenty of reverberation too, so maybe not the ideal venue for a symphony concert.
A photograph in the booklet shows Maria Joăo Pires and Pierre Boulez receiving the applause after the Mozart. The moment has been well chosen, as the conductor is actually smiling, and at virtually no point in the concert do we see this. At seventy-seven, he is clearly in good form and seems largely to have abandoned his “chopping” technique for something rather more fluid and elegant. No more expressive, however, as beating time still seems to be mostly what he does in concert. And one is surprised by how attached he is to the score, even, in the Ravel, turning back a page at one point when a passage is repeated. In spite of this remarkable passivity in front of the orchestra, the Ravel is very fine; cool, as it should be, but with true feeling and emotion just beneath the surface. We might speculate as to why Ravel chose to orchestrate only four of the six pieces – the final toccata is so purely pianistic that it is difficult to imagine it in orchestral guise, but Ravel was capable of anything – and many prefer the original version. But the orchestral version, given here with a reduced number of strings, works beautifully on its own terms, giving lots of opportunity for the first oboe to shine, which he does here, earning himself a justified solo bow.
When Simon Rattle took the Berlin Phil to Madrid, Chabrier’s Espańa and Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez were on the programme. Here, in Lisbon, the Portuguese element turns out to be the wonderful pianist Maria Joăo Pires. She demonstrates impeccable classical restraint in the Mozart concerto, though not without power and drama. The orchestra accompanies her perfectly well, but Boulez is hardly in his element. The opening syncopated quavers seem stiff and four-square, and there are many points in the work where he could open out and let the music breathe, but doesn’t. Pires’ fingerwork is agile and accurate, and she plays with refreshingly little show or ostentation. Listen to the way she leads the music back to the main theme of the slow movement, a model of poise and elegant music making. If the storm that precedes this passage seems a bit tame, and if humour – essential after so much turbulence – is in short supply in the final coda, the accompanists are mostly to blame. It’s a lovely performance overall, but just a little straitlaced.
Boulez could probably write out Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra from memory. In Lisbon the opening doesn’t have much mystery or promise, and much of the first movement seems rather ordinary, though it’s not easy to explain quite why. When we arrive at the whirlwind that opens the finale one is struck by how much more successful is Fritz Reiner, on his historic RCA recording, at transforming shameless Bartókian note spinning into something wildly exciting. Then Boulez’ sudden decision to hold back the tempo for the five-note brass tattoo seconds before the end rather short-circuits the excitement created up to that point, and seems perverse at best. Stronger, in this performance, are the inner movements. Keeping the music moving, and with very pointed playing, the second movement is very successful indeed, and the central passage of the fourth movement, Bartók taking on Shostakovich, is at once more savage and less satirical than usual, an excellent idea in my book. The nocturnal middle movement brings wonderfully mellifluous and blended playing from the orchestra, and is perfectly led and paced by Boulez.
The Debussy, played as an encore, is announced by Boulez (in English!). The impression of rhythmic rigidity, military rather than festive, might be less strong if we couldn’t see the conductor, but this is a DVD after all, and is meant to be watched.
The concert has been well filmed, the camerawork pleasingly tranquil. We are shown the building a few times, notably when the camera cuts to an altar for the brass chorale in the second movement of the Bartók. We get to see a lot of Boulez, and close-ups of the musicians are apposite and well timed, though the protruding veins on the oboists’ and bassoonists’ necks – magnificent players, all – make one thankful that one’s children have made different career choices. Extras include a pretty travelogue of Lisbon with German commentary and English subtitles, and a deeply unimpressive series of rehearsal photographs. The booklet essay is adequate, but more interesting than any of this is the Euroarts and Idéale Audience catalogue that accompanies the DVD, confirming the bank-breaking DVD riches now available for music lovers. On the disc itself, a few minutes of rehearsal footage showing how so impassive a conductor works with an orchestra to achieve such undeniable results would have been an enlightening bonus.
William Hedley

Some fine things here, some less compelling, but all beautifully filmed in a stunning building.