Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony no.7 in D minor, op.70 (1884-5) [38:24]
Slavonic dances (second series), op.72 (1887) [39:58]
Romance for violin and orchestra, op.11 (1873-7) [14:46]
Symphony no.8 in G major, op.88 (1889) [40:25]
Piano concerto in G minor, op.33 (1876) [42:46]
Symphony no.9 in E minor, op.95 (1893) [42:54]
Cello concerto in B minor, op.104 (1894-5) [40:50]
Ivan Zenaty (violin); Igor Ardašev (piano);Mischa Maisky (cello)
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Bělohlávek (1); Petr Altrichter (2); Libor Pešek (3)
rec. live, Alte Oper Frankfurt, 1993
Sound: PCM stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1
Region: 0 (worldwide)
ARTHAUS MUSIK 107513 [3 DVDs: 100:00 + 88:00 + 89:00]
How do we justify watching classical music on TV at home, especially given that most of us experience patently inferior sound reproduction on our television sets? For some musical events - opera, ballet - the answer is obvious. The music was specifically written to be accompanied by visual elements and loses to a hugely significant degree by their absence.
What about music that was written purely to be listened to in its own right? Concert halls are, after all, not intrinsic in themselves to the listening experience: they are merely an economically efficient means to gather a paying audience together to finance the performance. I am not denying that watching live music can be an enjoyable experience or that a caught-on-the-wing, risk-taking live performance can be utterly thrilling. That excitement is caused by what one hears, not by what one sees from the stalls. So why watch a filmed concert at all, rather than listening to it on CD or the radio from a far better quality audio-only source? What can we benefit from seeing?
The most likely answer, it seems to me, is that we can profit most from watching what, before cameras got onto and behind the stage, only the orchestra could see: how the conductor uses his technical and artistic skills to coax a performance from his players. That is, after all, what almost all professionally filmed concerts, with cameras lingering lovingly on the conductor's hands and facial expressions, do. It seems hardly necessary to point out that the - logically justifiable - alternative of filming from the real concert hall audience’s perspective would result in DVDs what replicated all those rather sad YouTubevideos shot on camera phones from the far distance of the back row.
That conclusion suggests, then, that the best reason to watch concerts on DVD is to study top-flight conductors at work. There is a great deal of material on offer. Just to take “Golden Age” examples, Toscanini, Mengelberg, Talich, Stokowski, Reiner, Munch, Szell, Leinsdorf and Karajan all spring to mind. The two Teldec DVDs The Art of Conducting are sources of both rare historic material and constant artistic illumination.
While that may be the best reason to watch concerts on DVD, it is not the only one. So while these three conveniently-boxed discs of Dvořák's music, as performed in a series of concerts in the Alte Oper Frankfurt in 1993, may not provide as much food for musical thought as one featuring one of the conductors listed above, they do undeniably offer experiences that are simply very enjoyable.
All three of the conductors represented here are Czech and completely at home in Dvořák’s idiom. Moreover, two of them had, when these recordings were made, already enjoyed a close association with the Prague Symphony Orchestra: Jiri Bělohlávek had been its principal conductor from 1977 until 1990, after which Petr Altrichter had taken up the reins for a couple of years.
The first disc is directed by Bělohlávek - even though it’s said to be Altrichter on the rear of the box - and gives us a well-played if rather strait-laced account of the seventh symphony. That is followed by the second set of Slavonic Dances in a far more relaxed and unbuttoned performance, though one that only manages to hint at the musical depths unearthed by Vaclav Talich in a superb televised performance with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra from 1955 (available on Supraphon DVD SU7010-9). Czech violinist Ivan Zenaty brings the disc to a close with a winning account of the admittedly rather slight Romance for violin and orchestra op.11.
The disc 2 performances headed up by Altrichter are of the eighth symphony and the piano concerto.
Reversing the Arthaus Musik marketing department’s billing, the concerto is positioned first on the disc, just as one imagines it was in the concert. Czech pianist Igor Ardašev, still in his 20s when this concert was filmed, displays a rather detached and undemonstrative stage presence. That is immediately belied by his warm, flowing performance of the concerto’s solo part. This account is, in fact, anything but detached: Ardašev is clearly fully engaged with the work and is ably supported by a strong and idiomatic contribution from the orchestra. Even though the concerto lacks the obvious Dvorak “big tune” that gives, say, the New World symphony or the cello concerto their popular appeal, a performance like this one demonstrates what a great shame it is that it remains so rarely heard. Petr Altrichter’s distinctive account of the symphony is hardly less successful. Lively, well-sprung rhythms emphasise the innate Slavonic liveliness that is the score’s most obvious characteristic. The conductor also ensures that its occasional darker and more dramatic hues, harking back to the seventh symphony, also emerge powerfully and to great effect.
Although the New World is billed first on the packaging, the set's third disc actually opens with the Cello Concerto. Superbly technically assured, soloist Mischa Maisky crouches over his instrument so closely that they sometimes almost seem joined into a single entity. His intensely dramatic account, full of insight and authority from his very first entry, very understandably goes down a storm with the capacity Frankfurt audience. I imagine that Libor Pešek has conducted the New World - something of a natural calling-card for Czech conductors - on very many occasions, but the performance here is fresh and invigorating from the opening bar and takes nothing for granted. To their great credit, the Prague musicians - who impressed me very much on all three discs in this set - respond with equal enthusiasm, making for an altogether enjoyable 42 minutes or so that seems to pass much more quickly.
From a technical point of view, things are very well done indeed by what seems to be an expert technical crew - presumably largely British, if the names on the final credits are a guide. The sound reproduction is well integrated yet clear enough to hear fine individual detail. Camera shots are judiciously chosen with close regard for the scores' requirements. The stage lighting is also well judged, retaining a concert hall atmosphere while ensuring that we are offered the best visual experience. Indeed, viewers of a more delicate sensibility may find the images rather too detailed once or twice, as we clearly see drops of sweat falling repeatedly from the visibly overheated Petr Altrichter’s brow.
I had just one small post-production quibble, though I concede that it may be peculiar to my own TV/DVD set-up. The booklet notes list an opening track of a minute or so on each disc before the first track of music: I presume that was for an opening title sequence and the arrival of the conductor and soloist on stage. For some reason, my DVD player automatically skipped that, as well as any menu, and just began the first track of music with no further ado which was a little annoying. It may well be that your own player will behave rather better: in any case, the glitch was certainly not enough to spoil the overall enjoyment that Dvorak’s scores - and these discs - offer in such generous abundance.
Enjoyment offered in generous abundance.
see also review of DVD 1 (Symphony 7) by John Sheppard and DVD 2 (Symphony 8) by Colin Clarke
Masterwork Index: Cello concerto ~~ Symphony 7 ~~ Symphony 8 ~~ Symphony 9