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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D, Op.61 [43:19]
Symphony No. 6 in F, Op.68 'Pastoral' [44:05]
Isabelle Faust (violin)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Bernard Haitink
rec. live, April 2015, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, directed by Torben Schmidt Jacobsen
Sound format PCM Stereo, DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1; Picture format 16:9, 1080i; Region 0
Reviewed in surround
EUROARTS 2061294 Blu-ray [90 mins]

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra holds an Easter Festival in Baden-Baden, where in 2015 they gave this concert of Beethoven, focussed on two of his middle-period masterpieces, the violin concerto and the sixth symphony, written about 18 months apart in late 1806 and mid-1808. They make a fine major key pairing since both have a strong vein of that non-verbal religious (or at least spiritual) feeling that was such a feature of both Beethoven’s character and his music. They require dedicated and serious preparation and execution, and that is what we hear – and see – at this recorded concert.

Isabelle Faust is not, despite her surname, one of those violinists whose virtuosity is so jaw-droppingly spectacular that one suspects a pact with the devil. She has a formidable technique alright, but she is a servant of the work, with playing that is always precise, with sweet timbre, plenty of colour, and rhythmical alertness. Only very momentarily at the end of the slow movement does the tuning sound less than perfectly immaculate – and more importantly few artists deploy her range of dynamics here, with whispered pianissimi to compel our concentration. And she has the Berlin Phil on hand, whose individual contributions, especially in the slow movement, have all the finesse one expects. Haitink and his players provide a true collaboration rather than a mere “accompaniment”.

As on her 2012 CD with Abbado and the Orchestra Mozart, Isabelle Faust’s cadenzas derive from those Wolfgang Schneiderhan (himself one of the greatest interpreters of this work) adapted from Beethoven’s transcription of the work for piano and orchestra. The one at the end of the first movement has a feeble march tune which is a cue to reintroduce the timpani. It is not the composer’s finest hour perhaps, but more fun when you can see both violinist and timpanist. I usually return when listening to this work to Schneiderhan and Jochum for spiritual insight, or for more spectacular display to one of the old school soloists with big tone, a Heifitz or an Oistrakh. But this is a splendid example of the leaner modern way with the concerto.

The Pastoral symphony was given by Haitink and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe a couple of years ago in London, and I rate that among the finest live performances I have heard of any Beethoven symphony. The work is a success in both his Amsterdam and LSO cycles, and this BPO performance is also very fine. Tempi are traditional, with no excessively speedy first movement as in Karajan’s era, but still a good sense of momentum. That goes too for a Scene by the Brook as flowing as it should be, and for the scherzo when the “merry gathering of country folk” sounds as if all are enjoying themselves. The oboe and bassoon in the trio are among many notably fine wind solos to be heard throughout. The storm is certainly thunderous enough, and the transition to the finale is led with sublime eloquence by both clarinet and horn.

Faust’s CD version of the concerto with Abbado on Harmonia Mundi was lauded in all quarters, and is coupled with a superb account of the Berg concerto. There are other filmed versions of the Beethoven violin concerto, by Perlman and Barenboim, Mutter and Karajan, Mutter and Ozawa (from a Karajan memorial concert), and even from Milstein and Boult (in 1972, and with acceptable sound). And of course there are several filmed versions of the Pastoral, mainly in various complete cycles. In audio only, Haitink’s Pastoral is a particular success in his LSO Live cycle. So this coupling seems to have the field to itself on blu-ray. Not every concert is worth preserving, but this one was.

The video direction is unremarkable, with too many close-ups of players so that one begins to dwell on facial hair and skin condition rather than phrasing and intonation. The Baden-Baden Festspielhaus claims to be Germany’s largest opera house with 2,500 seats, which could have been a recording challenge, but here the blu-ray’s surround sound is well-balanced and gives an agreeable sense of a warm acoustic.

Roy Westbrook

Previous review (DVD): Wai Kit Leung



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