Fellini, Jazz & Co
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Suite No.2 for Jazz Orchestra [26:40]
Nino ROTA (1911-1979)
La Strada - Ballet Suite (1954) [24:05]
Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Fountains of Rome (1917) [17:17]
Pines of Rome (1924) [24:07]
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - suite: No.3 Allegretto (1930 rev. 1956) [2:46]
Belkis, Regina di Saba - Danza gueresca (1932) [3:31]
Paul LINCKE (1866-1946)
Berliner Luft [4:35]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
rec. The Waldbühne, Berlin, Germany, 23 August 2011
Sound: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1
Region: 0 (worldwide)
Booklet notes: English, German, French
EUROARTS DVD 2058408 [105:00]
This DVD is a faithful documentation of an outdoor concert given by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under the animated and enthusiastic direction of Riccardo Chailly in Berlin in the summer of 2011. The venue is the huge Waldbühne arena. This was built by the Nazis to emulate a Greek amphitheatre with a capacity in excess of 22,000. It has come into its own as the venue for the orchestra's summer concerts. I mention all this because the sweeping camera shots impress with the vastness of the venue and with no additional screens provided for the concert-goers at the rear - more than 30m higher than those at the front and further than that front to back - might as well have listened to the concert on the radio for all the visual engagement they can have enjoyed.
I have a very different response to DVDs from CDs. Be it of an opera, ballet or concert I require a DVD to be more of an event to be experienced in totality. Had I been at this concert - in a good seat! - I think I would have enjoyed it a great deal; does it merit the immortality DVD provides? - probably not. The main interest for me was the combination of repertoire and ensemble. "Muddy Field" dates as they are unaffectionately termed in the UK are a staple of most freelance orchestral players where summer weekends become a cycle of dashing around the country accompanying pseudo-operatic celebrity singers or bashing through abridged versions of 1812 with accompanying fireworks. No profit-conscious promoter in his right mind would sanction for one second a programme of little-known Shostakovich, Rota and Respighi. So all credit to the German promoters for doing so - and the warmth of the audience reaction proves that unfamiliar does not mean unappealing. Likewise the presence of the Berlin Philharmonic and a conductor of true international standing does make this a better class of muddy field gig. Given the near superhuman status of the orchestra I was rather entertained to see little glimpses of 'ordinary' orchestral behaviour. The harpist slips on a sensible warm cardigan as the night air cools, the cello section look thoroughly bored - they often do - the bassoonist has an ear-plug in because he is sitting right in front of the trumpets, the basses have a bit of a joke. The playing is of predictably stellar quality and Chailly earns major brownie points for being in ebullient good-natured form, loving the music, respecting the players and enjoying the event. All good so far but there is a major but coming. I have watched this in standard DVD format - the Blu-ray might well be better - the sound here is average at best. This is very curious; look closely and you will see that every single string player has been allotted their own microphone clipped to the strings sitting just behind the bridge. Likewise every other instrument in the orchestra. One would imagine this would give the sound engineer for the disc if not the concert remarkable control over balance and internal instrumental detail. Not so - instead we get a very string heavy balance with reasonable detail from the novelty instruments like accordion and guitar but disappointingly lacking in cutting edge for the brass in particular. Take the opening work - the Shostakovich Suite No.2 for Jazz Orchestra. There is confusion sown by the use of this title. The original second jazz suite was thought lost in World War II so when Shostakovich compiled this suite in the mid-1950s - with the alternative title Suite for Variety Orchestra - it has ended up better (mis)titled as it is here. Dismiss instantly any thought that this has the slightest thing to do with jazz but note the presence of the aforementioned phalanx of trumpets and a bank of four saxophones. The saxes play beautifully but the sound is so smoothed-over and gentrified that Shostakovich's pawky, subversive writing becomes light music lite. Especially when the string balance gives the stunning Berlin players such prominence and weight that the spirit of the music drowns in a resonant well of string tone. With the amount of available mic-ing the surprise is the amount of acoustic overhang that remains on the soundtrack. This is a function of all the additional amplification required to send the sound throughout the arena. Surely this should have been minimised on the DVD release. Chailly has recorded this suite before as one of his 3 CDs for Decca featuring the lighter music of Shostakovich. On that disc he had the advantage of another world-class ensemble; the Concertgebouw Amsterdam. That performance trumps this at every turn - not in terms of execution or interpretation but the piece benefits so much from a more translucent recording and generally lighter touch. Anthony Short in his useful liner-note explains the origins of the eight short movements from various film scores. With the increasing availability of the original scores listeners will recognise some movements. It’s great fun and well worth a listen but far from important. The next work is also derived from a film score. At over twenty-four minutes I must admit my attention started to wander for all of Nino Rota's easy skill and melodic charm. Actually the swooning style of writing is better suited to the balance and it is hard not to be impressed by the sheer unanimity of string tone produced by the massed Berlin strings. The video direction is very good too with simple but effective highlighting of solo instruments and some beautiful shots of the arena as darkness falls. When Rota writes some swinging passages again one cannot fault the excellence of the playing but it is hard not to feel that the last ounce of idiomatic rightness is missing. It almost swings but it certainly doesn't unbutton. It does bring us to the next but which might well be a deal-breaker for some. In best open air tradition the audience applaud at every opportunity. This not only means between each of the short Shostakovich movements but also after the up-tempo swinging section of the Rota. Chailly clearly wants to let the music move on but has to stop to allow the applause. Again, in context, at the event this would be fun - from the comfort of your home for repeated listening it’s an intrusion. For all its technical competence and ability to be pictorial I find the emotions that drive La Strada too generic, too obvious and literal and at the length it is, for me at least, it outstays its welcome.
This was one long old concert and one that made considerable demands on the orchestra in terms of stamina and technique. There is over a hundred minutes of playing here which on the night must have translated into a two and a half hour concert. The emptiness of the musical gestures of the Rota becomes even more apparent the instant the pair of Respighi tone poems start. The wooded location of the Waldbühne at dusk adds a visual theatricality to the music that contributes considerably. Also, the orchestra are much much more comfortable playing in a wholly 'straight' idiom. Respighi's so-skilled orchestration gives every section a chance to shine and there are gorgeous solos from the woodwind in particular. But again I find the thrilling horn call that opens the second movement - The Triton Fountain in the Morning - too recessed. Remarkably the horns seems to be playing without a fifth player a bumper for the principal. In a programme of this length and demand this would be unheard of in the UK. Likewise the heavy brass in the following Trevi Fountain at Noon. You can see these players are exerting themselves to the full but the ear tells a different story. Since the four fountains play 'attacca' there are no applause opportunities and without wanting to read like a culture snob it does benefit the music simply because the mood and atmosphere is able to draw you much further in. As a performance this is good but I have heard ones even more sensuously atmospheric and sonically more exciting. For an outdoor event though this is impressive stuff albeit spoilt by an over-eager audience member determined to show that they know best and not allow the final magical phrase to drift off into a held silence. It has to be remembered that outdoor stages are all but impossible for orchestras to produce anything like their usual blended sound. There is no ambience or acoustic and any attempts at subtlety is sacrificed on the altar of the sound engineer's whim. That this sounds as impressive as it does is simply because the orchestra is so very good. Ultimately, for repeated listening, one surely seeks out simple excellence not excellence ‘all things considered’. Much the same applies for the next group of Roman pictures - this time the Pines of Rome. All of the same observations apply - Chailly is wonderfully on top of the scores and exudes energy and enthusiasm. The orchestra play with panache and high-quality musicianship. Chailly pushes the tempi in the opening Pines of the Villa Borghese which makes for yet more virtuoso display easily and impressively accomplished although at the cost of the playful good humour implicit in the music. The extended trumpet solo in the following Pines near a catacomb is lacking in poetry which is a shame since the string-heavy bed of tone here is very apt. This is all the more pointed up by the ravishingly beautiful floated tone of the principal clarinet that opens the third section - The Pines of the Janiculum. This is movement famous for its use of recorded nightingales which do appear at their appointed moment although I was rather looking forward to a close-up of a percussionist's finger poised over a playback button! For the final march-like Pines of the Appian Way Chailly again prefers a tempo with forward momentum which while exciting somehow reduces the inexorable power of the Roman Empire this music represents. That being said the music is built to a very exciting climax that gets the warmest response of the evening from the thrill-seeking audience.
Pity the poor players - there are still in effect three encores to come. First more Shostakovich in the shape of an interlude from the damned and banned opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk. The liner calls this ‘part of the suite’ but my understanding was that the suite was not created until the revised version appeared in the 1960s as Katerina Ismailova. By rights it should be called the Suite from that latter name. Curiously, Chailly chooses a relatively steady tempo here which feels a little staid in the context of the madness this passage in the opera depicts. This is prime Shostakovich in the way that the earlier jazz suite is just fun. Again I miss the marching-band raucousness of the brass writing that should cut through like a malicious light-sabre. The second encore is more Respighi in bombastic mode - this time the Danza gueresca from his pseudo-oriental ballet Belkis Regina di Saba. This is pure hokum but a real display piece - pity the poor brass with the extended passages of screaming double-tonguing but this being the Berlin Philharmonic they toss it off with apparent ease. The closing Berliner Luft by Paul Lincke is lustily accompanied by the audience with what are obviously traditional wolf-whistles - traditionally out of time in the way that only the best audiences can manage - and hand-claps just behind the beat. All good fun but not a track one will return to for library purposes.
Just to clear up the technical side of the production. This is a region 0 disc with the sound recorded in either PCM stereo or 5.1 Dolby Digital. I listened in the former. Perhaps as I listened I got more used to the sound - all of the detail registers but somehow with a rather homogenised impact. The picture is the now standard 16:9 in the NTSC format - and very crisp it appears too in even the standard DVD form. The visuals are simple and unaffected and very slickly realised. This was clearly a major production with a large crew of cameramen well prepared. Many of the establishing shots across the shadow-filled arena are beautiful but the obligatory 'happy audience members' reaction shots are as tedious as they are deemed necessary. The rest of the production is minimalist in the extreme. There are simple titles book-ending the concert. There are no extras unless one wants to watch one of four trailers for other BPO discs. My DVD collection consists of almost no concerts and this disc for all its virtues does little to persuade me that I should change that stance. None of the music here - for all its passing pleasures - would ever be considered the finest work by their respective composers and much the same applies to this disc. It’s not one by which the orchestra would ultimately wish to be judged. For all it being a better class of mud, this is still a muddy field concert.
Not a DVD by which the orchestra would ultimately wish to be judged.