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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 - incomplete (1894) [21:57]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No 6 in F major, Op. 68, Pastoral (1807/08) [46:00]
Magdalena Kožená (mezzo)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
Video director: Henning Kasten
Filmed: 1 May 2013 Spanish hall, Prague Castle, Prague, Czech Republic
TV format: 16:9; Sound format: PCM Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1.
Region code: 0 (worldwide); Subtitles: English, German, French
EUROARTS DVD 2059428 [84:00]

The Berlin Philharmonic gives an annual concert to celebrate its founding, on 1 May. A location with a ‘special cultural history’ is selected, and as the notes quaintly put it, this has led the peripatetic orchestra ‘all over Europe to some of the most beautiful sceneries’. This time they went to Prague. 

They brought with them a programme that reflected three thing: Rattle’s Englishness, Magdalena Kožená’s Czechness, and the orchestra’s German-ness. The beautiful scenery selected was the Spanish Hall of Prague Castle, a day-tripper’s paradise of gilt and gold, and one to which the film’s director is drawn like a moth to the glorious flame. The cameras swoop and swirl, as they trace the decorative beauty of the hall, its finery swanky and showy.
Yet the Spanish Hall need not be a gilded cage for one of the world’s most chromium-plated orchestras. Sumptuous though it is, it’s not big, and the audience is relatively small in number. That can work for one of the selected works, Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia. It’s not a work I much associate with Rattle. In fact VW is not a composer I much associate with him. The smaller string ensemble is placed at the back of the hall on a raised platform. Some conductors, and Rattle is one, explicitly ask them to cultivate a viol-like tone. Differences, both spatial and timbral, are strongly cultivated here, and one should not overlook the visual implications of VW’s separation either, or the prominence given to the string quartet who sit in their normal places. It’s a performance of sweep and polished expression, occasionally subject to some lurches at a relatively slow tempo. The orchestra plays with fine commitment, not least concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto, though arguably he’s a little too soloistic.
Why aren’t all Dvořák’s Biblical Songs here? Rattle and Kožená recorded them for DG but we are missing two in this concert performance. I assume they were de-selected from the concert and not cut from the film footage, as there is, sometimes, a degree of sameness about a few of them - unless the singer is especially attuned to the metier. Kožená is invariably attuned, which makes the excision all the more regrettable. She sings what remains with fine tone and sense of phrasing, devout and hopeful.
The saviours of the Pastoral are the wind section. They play with great accomplishment and phrasal beauty, balancing finely, making personal statements throughout. Rattle’s take is predominantly languid and transitions can be a touch heavy. Certainly the orchestra seems to be enjoying itself, with some knowing smiles and body movement. There just time for Rattle deftly to whip out a handkerchief from his pocket to mop his brow under the hot lights.
It seems as if there were six cameras set up to catch the performance and they were well marshalled by director Henning Kasten, albeit I’d have preferred more orchestral and less architectural action.
Jonathan Woolf  

Previous review (Blu-ray): Michael Cookson

Masterwork Index: Beethoven symphony 6 ~~ Vaughan Williams Tallis fantasia