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From the New World
Charles IVES (1874-1954)
The Unanswered Question [6:59]
John ADAMS (b. 1947)
Slonimsky’s Earbox [15:35]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le Chant du rossignol [22:23]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor From the New World [43:43]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Andris Nelsons
rec. 3-4 December 2010, Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany
Video Director: Agnes Méth
Resolution: 1080i/60; Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1; Video Codec: AVC/MPEG-4;
Sound Formats: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0; Picture Format: 1080i, 16:9; Region Code: ABC (Region Free); Filmed in High Definition from an HD source. Timing includes audience applause.
C MAJOR BLU-RAY 713504 [95:00] 

It must have been an exciting prospect for the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, one of the world’s finest orchestras, to collaborate with Latvian maestro Andris Nelsons. Amongst several prominent appointments he is to take over as full-time music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from the 2014/2015 season. This exciting Unitel Classica Blu-ray release was filmed at a live concert in the glorious setting of the Herkulessaal, Munich with some material taken from a rehearsal session. 

All four composers on the release are connected to ‘The New World’ either by being American-born or having resided there for a time. The featured work, Dvořák’s much loved Symphony No. 9From the New World’, was commenced in 1893 during the composer’s stay in America. Next comes the rather neglected symphonic poem ‘Le Chant du rossignol’ (‘The Song of the Nightingale’) from the pen of Igor Stravinsky who became a naturalised U.S. citizen. Also included are two attractive if short scores from Ives and Adams.
 
The concert-opener, Ives’ The Unanswered Question is one of his most played and enigmatic works. Written in 1908 and described by the composer as a “cosmic drama” contains three strata of instruments creating spatial effects by each playing in their own tempos. Here the groups are physically separated from each other. In the foyer, just outside the entrance door of the Herkulessaal, Nelsons conducts a group of twenty strings playing a set of chords with delicacy and an ethereal atmosphere. Although I could not ascertain where the trumpet was located, the brass player asks seven questions and in reply the flute quartet at the front of the stage progressively becomes more strident and animated. This is a most satisfying performance with all the technicalities working pretty well.
 
Next a vastly contrasting change of mood with Slonimsky's Earbox by John Adams. It lasts around fifteen minutes. A musical tribute to the multi-talented author Russian/American Nicholas Slonimsky, the model for the score was the exciting opening from Le Chant du Rossignol. With the Bavarian players expending tons of energy this vibrantly frenetic and colourful orchestral showpiece from 1995 just sparkles and crackles, ending on a jubilant note. Le Chant du Rossignol is a symphonic poem that the composer constructed from his 1909/14 opera The Nightingale. This was in turn based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. In truth The Song of the Nightingale is not a score that I especially warm to. However, Nelsons and his Bavarians made the best possible case for this concert piece. Its principal attributes of fascinating rhythms and beguiling colours are beguilingly presented. 

It was wealthy arts patron Jeannette M. Thurber who invited Dvořák to America offering him a stunning salary in 1892 to be director of the new National Conservatory of Music of America. During his eventful three year stay it is known that Dvořák heard Negro spirituals and Native American music. He told the Chicago Tribune that in his Symphony No.9 he had infused his nostalgic yearnings for his Czech homeland attempting to “portray musical characteristics that were clearly American”. In this thrilling performance Nelsons marshals his sections with conspicuous assurance, leading a performance of innate energy and vibrancy. It feels a notch or two above the routine standard of playing this work often produces. I love the freshly sprung rhythms and the remarkable passion and power of the opening movement with its deep seam of nostalgia. The haunting pathos of the captivating Largo is outstanding featuring the well known melody for the splendidly played reedy cor anglais. Nelsons’ balancing of the orchestral textures and tempi in the ebullient Scherzo is outstanding too. The Finale is bold and forthright - delivered with weight, power, passion and compelling drama. The well-rounded Bavarian brass blaze out splendidly and the unified string sound radiates an attractive bloom. The impeccable woodwind section is kept extremely busy and deserves praise. A separate CD of this Nelsons performance of Dvořák’s ‘From the New World’ has also been released on BR Klassik 900116 (c/w A Heros Song) See review.  

Agnes Méth’s video direction is generally excellent. She employs her cameras actively, never allowing things to become monotonous or tiring. On a few occasions the cameras miss a player giving a solo and in The Unanswered Question I could have done without the distraction in the background of the coffee bar being tidied-up together with a number of auxiliary staff seen milling around.
 
The sonics on this Blu-Ray disc are mightily impressive and the picture definition and colour of the high definition resolution was stunning - cool and sharp. In addition the slim booklet contains a helpful enough essay.
 
I have seen Andris Nelsons live in concert. With his exhilarating conducting it is easy to see why he has achieved so much in such a relatively short time. He has conducted at Covent Garden, the New York Met, the Wiener Staatsoper and Bayreuth. His conducting of the world class Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks is exemplary, scrupulously prepared, colourful, committed and compelling. It was clear just how much the audience at the Herkulessaal in Munich loved these performances and I certainly did too.
 
Michael Cookson 

Masterwork Index: Dvorak Symphony 9

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