Europa Konzert 2013 from Prague Castle
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) [15:44]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Biblical Songs for voice and orchestra, Op. 99 (1894) [21:57]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No 6 in F major, Op. 68, ‘Pastoral’ (1807/08) [46:00]
Magdalena Kožená (mezzo)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
Video director: Henning Kasten
Filmed: 1 May 2013 Spanish hall, Prague Castle, Prague, Czech Republic
TV format: 1080i Full HD 16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo 2.0 / DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround Sound
Region code: All (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, German, French
An annual event for the Berliner Philharmoniker is the May Day concert, to commemorate the founding of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on that day in 1882. Each year a venue of cultural importance in a European city is chosen for the concert, and this is broadcast around the world.
This prestigious series has led the orchestra to some of Europe’s most beautiful settings. They held this year’s event at the Spanish Hall of Prague Castle in the Czech Republic. This is the third time that the Europa Konzert has been held in Prague.
During his tenure as music director Rattle has certainly not swamped Berlin with English music and seems highly circumspect about those works that he does programme. One work they are currently playing is Vaughan Williams’s masterwork the Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis for double string orchestra and solo quartet. In the Spanish hall a non-tiered stage has been constructed for the orchestra. Behind the main string orchestra slightly elevated at the rear of the stage Rattle has placed a second string ensemble of only nine players (four violins, two violas, two cello and one bass) and the string quartet comprising the principal members of the violin, viola and cello sections were all sat in their usual places. Such was the quality of their playing that the strings could easily have been playing the Tallis Fantasia all their life. Towards the climax Rattle subtly increases the intensity allowing the sweep of string textures to sound especially radiant.
A devoutly religious man Dvořák was in America in 1894 when he wrote his set of ten Biblical Songs, settings of sacred texts from the Book of Psalms in Czech translations from the Kralice Bible. The writing contains a number of influences that might reflect Dvořák’s introspection as a result of his homesickness and sorrow for the deaths and illnesses of friends and relatives. The cycle has been orchestrated but not every song by Dvořák. He orchestrated the first five with Vilém Zemánek completing the remainder. Singing in her native Czech language Magdalena Kožená, the wife of Sir Simon Rattle, sings just eight of the songs leaving me wondering if she sang the whole set of ten at the actual concert. Adeptly displaying her flexibility and attractive tone colour across the surprising broad emotional range of the texts Kožená excels in this demanding repertoire. Frequently in her low register she sings Hospodin jest můj pastýř (Oh, the Lord is my shepherd) quite beautifully. I loved the introspective reverence she creates in the Při řekách babylonských (By the Rivers of Babylon). The orchestration, including some splendid individual woodwind contributions, is given the best possible advocacy by the Berliner Philharmoniker with a performer they have come to know so well. No surprise to see the Prague audience give Kožená a standing ovation and it was well deserved.
It may seem an easy option to programme such a colossal masterpiece as Beethoven’s Pastoral. Even great orchestras who have played such popular scores hundreds of times can retreat into the routine and the lacklustre; a phenomenon I have witnessed several times. Any concerns that the BPO would play on autopilot were totally unfounded. Both orchestra and conductor are far too professional to allow even a whiff of the mundane. In a score inspired by his profound devotion and respect for nature Beethoven unusually gave descriptive titles to the movements. In the opening Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country almost immediately an invigorating outdoor feel is evident and when combined with steady tempi and Beethoven’s elevated inspiration the result is highly satisfying. After a cautious start the Scene by the Brook paints an evocative pastoral mood with clean and precise playing that flows splendidly. Rattle ensures rustic merriment in the Scherzo, delivers a powerful Thunderstorm leading to a spirited reading of the Finale whilst maintaining a fresh Alpine feel.
Directed by Henning Kasten, the camera shots are in vivid HD colour that allows a sense of the atmosphere in Prague Castle’s Spanish Hall. An increased variety of camera angles would have been desirable and frequently key episodes for solo instruments suitable for close-ups were not captured, probably down to requiring additional cameras. The sound formats are PCM Stereo 2.0 and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround Sound. I used the PCM Stereo option which was of high quality and felt especially well balanced to a mid-orchestra perspective.
As expected there are no texts in the accompanying booklet for the Biblical Songs however I was satisfied with quality of the English subtitles. The timings I have given against each work are for the length of the actual music with the applause taken off.
This is a lovely disc offering an agreeable mix of popular and lesser known works beautiful played and recorded.
Masterwork Index: Beethoven symphony 6 ~~ Tallis fantasia