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The Berliner Philharmoniker in Singapore
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940) [38:07]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major (1887-88) [62:13]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, Singapore, 22-23 November 2010
EUROARTS 2058908 [120:00]

Having watched this DVD through twice on my high-definition TV with good, but not great, external speakers and subwoofer, I only came really to appreciate these performances when I played the DVD back through my audio-only stereo system with big tower speakers. Not that there is anything wrong with the video and there is much that is clearly right about it. For anyone familiar with the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall on the orchestra’s website, you will know what to expect. The video aspect is done very well with many close-up shots of individual players during their solo passages and of the orchestra sections as appropriate. There’s also plenty of Sir Simon Rattle, who conducts as much with his face as with his hands. His facial expressions tell a lot and some may find them even distracting, though not this reviewer. My only criticism is that there could be more views of the orchestra as a whole. The cameras also pan the audience which seems to be made up mostly of young Singaporeans. The picture quality of the DVD is very good, nice and clear, but I imagine the Blu-ray is even better. That one is advertised as 3D, something I would think totally unnecessary for a concert such as this. I cannot see how the sound could be improved, though, from what I hear on the DVD. 

I imagine this recording would be a must for anyone lucky enough to have attended the concert, but the performances are such that they can be generally recommended as well. Rattle takes spacious tempos in both the Rachmaninov and Mahler, more so than some other recordings with which I am familiar, yet nothing ever drags. He characterizes each piece well and his ear for balance and dynamics is impeccable. The Rachmaninov is very dark, capturing the Russianness of the music. The first movement is marked non allegro and that’s what we get, but without a lack of romantic ardor. The saxophone solo, however, is played very straight with minimal vibrato and as one of primus inter pares with the other woodwinds, rather than being obviously soloistic. The second movement waltz is dark and mysterious with rubato employed effectively. The English horn and oboe solos are particularly beautiful. When the waltz theme returns later in the movement very softly and hesitantly, with woodwind obbligato coming through, it is quite moving: one of those “goose bumps” moments. Rattle whips up the finale excitingly and in the last fast section has the horns play with their bells raised-as they would also do in the Mahler. He has the tam-tam hold on for a long time at the close, resounding tremendously, something that is ambiguous in the score but is done more often than not. The audience, which has been silent until now, bursts into applause. Listening to the audio only, one is not aware of any audience present until the applause.
The Mahler First is equally spacious, with judicious rubato, but seems rather straightforward compared to Leonard Bernstein’s Vienna Philharmonic account on a Deutsche Grammophon DVD. One might criticize Rattle for holding back in the first three movements, for his aim is clearly on the finale that bursts in immediately after the last pizzicato is sounded at the end of the third movement. Yet I have no problem with it, as it is not only convincing, but is ravishingly played. Comparison with Bernstein in this case does Rattle’s illustrious predecessor no favors. The Berlin Philharmonic simply outplays the Vienna throughout the symphony. One of the advantages of video over audio here is that you can observe some peculiarities of the performers. Rattle has the oboes raise their instruments and then the horns in the second movement after the first repeat, something I had never seen before. In the finale, he has the horns and trombones stand during the last big brass part at the end, whereas normally they only raise their bells. For the record, the third movement is begun by a single double bass, and not the whole section. This, which can no longer be taken for granted, is as it should be. The Frère Jacques funeral march is so much more effective if played by the solo instrument and was for most of the work’s performance history. Also the last notes of the symphony are performed without any gratuitous drum added.
The DVD extras are four trailers of other Berlin Philharmonic concerts, but there is no commentary on or rehearsal segments of the works presented on the DVD. The booklet contains a more than adequate note on the two works. The trailers serve their purpose well to whet the appetite. They include Daniel Barenboim playing and conducting Mozart piano concertos; an outdoor concert of light music, entitled “Jazz & Co.”, with Riccardo Chailly obviously having fun conducting Shostakovich and Respighi; Yutaka Sado conducting Takemitsu’s percussion concerto, “From me flows what you call Timeand Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony; and Ion Marin with Renée Fleming in a program of arias and short orchestral works.
Although this DVD may not make my list of all-time favorites, it is one that I am sure to return to when I want to hear and see the two works performed as well as they are here.
Leslie Wright 

Masterwork Index: Mahler 1