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Berliner Philharmoniker: The Asia Tour
Yuja Wang (piano)
Seong-Jin Cho (piano)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. November 2017 – SACDs: Philharmonie Berlin, Suntory Hall Tokyo; Blu-ray: Hong Kong Culture Centre, Wuhan Qintai Concert Hall, Seoul Arts Centre

I have relished all the releases in Berliner Philharmoniker’s own label series, launched in 2014. Three in particular standout for me: the Schumann set of four symphonies (review), the Beethoven cycle of symphonies conducted by Sir Simon Rattle (review) and The John Adams Edition (review). Now this new release, another hardcover edition, marks Sir Simon Rattle’s last tour of Asia as chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker which is documented here in audio and video recordings.

At the centre of this set are the audio recordings presented on five hybrid SACDs recorded at Philharmonie Berlin and Suntory Hall Tokyo. There is also a single Blu-Ray disc that comprises of video recordings from the Hong Kong, Wuhan and Seoul concerts, plus a documentary of the tour. There is also a code for downloading High Resolution Studio master audio files of the entire album.

Noticeably, the programme of the touring Berliner Philharmoniker is a mix of its core repertoire, including Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, with the Bartok Piano Concerto No. 2 an occasionally programmed score and Unsuk Chin’s Chorós Chordón, a new work specially commissioned for this autumn tour. Four of the five SACDs focus primarily on two concerts from the tour, both given at Suntory Hall, Tokyo.

The first concert from Suntory Hall (24th November) on CDs 1 and 2 opens with Don Juan, the tone poem after Nikolaus Lenau’s dramatic poem and a work whose success elevated the young Strauss to superstar status; it is meat and drink for the orchestra. Rattle’s compelling performance ensures that a ripe, sumptuous sensuality predominates in this moody, colourful showpiece. The striking range of orchestral colour and the stormy, robust surges of restless energy from the Berlin players are almost overpowering. Next, a work I much admire and would like to see programmed more often, is Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2, played here by Chinese/American soloist Yuja Wang. Premiered in 1933, this virile score is infamous for being one of the most difficult works in the repertoire and the Berliner Philharmoniker didn’t play it until almost twenty years later. Wang is in fine form, providing plenty of rhythmic potency and fervour in the outer movements and in the central movement she creates a glorious atmosphere conveying mystery and introspection. As the video of her performance at Wuhan Qintai Concert Hall shows, Wang often chooses to wear revealing clothing - here a dress slashed at chest and leg. The images from a close-up fixed camera by the piano that seems to want to look up her skirt are unflattering. Wang is a fine pianist who I sincerely hope doesn’t become more famous for her skimpy stage wear rather than the quality of her performances.

On CD 2 is another repertoire staple: Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, and the orchestra’s experience and assurance in this work is evident in spades. A product of Brahms’ time composing at the Austrian summer resort of Mürzzuschlag in the Styrian Alps the Fourth is a marvellous work and remains for many Brahms’s most popular symphony. Rattle’s watchwords seem to be refined drama and gratifying beauty rather than striving for an abundance of intense excitement. Best of all, the lovely slow movement feels like a dreamscape attaining beguiling heights of fantasy and grandeur, as if Rattle is depicting a gentle Rhine cruise through magnificent countryside.

CDs 3 and 4 are the second Suntory Hall concert (25th November) beginning with Petrushka, Stravinsky’s second great ballet score written for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. A renowned Stravinsky conductor, Rattle has chosen to use the 1947 revised version that he played with the CBSO back in the 1980s. One feels that the players are totally engaged, while Rattle generates excitement and rhythmic punch with enviable style. Bearing a dedication to Rattle, Unsuk Chin’s new work Chorós Chordón takes its title from a translation from the ancient Greek for ‘Dance of the Strings’. It’s a reasonably accessible score from the Korean-born, now Berlin-based, composer, with a cosmological theme which is varied in its orchestral texture, weight and colour. Chorós Chordón certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome and I will be pleased to hear it again.

On CD 4, the final work from the second Suntory Hall concert is Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 3, a score firmly fixed in the Russian tradition although written during the composer’s time living in Switzerland close to Lake Lucerne. It’s a work from a past era that unashamedly looks back yearningly to the composer’s Russian homeland. Rattle’s overall approach in this colourful, bustling, vital and restlessly dramatic work, is ardent and fiery, with outstanding control of tension and dynamics. Especially impressive is the lyricism of the opening movement, tinged with a nostalgic quality; it is honed and smoothly polished and the drama produced is strong and decisive.

The fifth CD is a performance by Seong-Jin Cho of the Ravel Piano Concerto in G major. This is not Cho’s performance of the same work from the Hong Kong Cultural Centre on 11th November, but one taken from the pre-tour concert from Philharmonie, Berlin on 4th November. One of the greatest twentieth-century concertos and completed in 1931, Ravel’s score was undoubtably influenced by a visit in 1928 to America, his meeting Gershwin and his encounter with jazz. Ravel stated that the work was “written in the spirit of Mozart and Saint-Saëns.” South Korean pianist Cho is completely at home with it, as if relishing every note and nuance; he plays beguilingly and with an abundance of style to creatine character and sparkle. Finest of all is the subtle beauty of the Adagio assai where time seems to stand still. The sound quality of the 5 SACDs is generally first class, with excellent clarity, presence and balance.   

The single Blu-ray disc of videos from the Hong Kong, Wuhan and Seoul concerts are the same works as those on the SACDs but not the same recordings. The filmed performances are enjoyable and, as expected, I can discern little difference in interpretations from those on the SACDs. The picture quality of the filming at the Culture Centre, Hong Kong is satisfactory, although I did wonder what logo the canvas lid cover on the Steinway piano was covering up. Acceptable, too, is the quality of the picture filmed at Wuhan Qintai Concert Hall, China. However, the picture definition from most of the cameras at Seoul Arts Centre, South Korea is disappointing; it looks as though the lens on one camera is in need of cleaning and it’s a shame that the respective camera directors miss many of the important orchestra solos. Overall, the camera work isn’t a patch on the excellence of the film work we have become accustomed to for the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall. Nevertheless, it’s pleasing to have the opportunity of seeing the interior designs of these Far East concert. The integral booklet contains all the essential information in the form of introductory texts, however, most of the pages are basically a photo collection of the orchestra members on their Far East holiday.

Despite several admirable performances, this is probably the least obviously desirable and collectable of the high-end, lavishly packaged series of Berliner Philharmoniker recordings.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: John Quinn

Suntory Hall, Tokyo, Japan, 24 November 2017
CD 1
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Don Juan [17:35]
Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Piano Concerto No. 2, Sr 95 [28:27]
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Vocalise, Op 34. No. 14 [3:35] (encore)
Yuja Wang (piano)
CD 2 [41:11]
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 4, Op. 98 [41:43]
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Slavonic Dance in E minor Op. 73, No. 2 [5:21] (encore)
Suntory Hall, Tokyo, Japan, 25 November 2017
CD 3
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Petrushka (1947 version) [38:48]
Unsuk Chin (b. 1961)
Chorós Chordón (2017) [12:10]
CD 4 [46:08]
Sergei Rachmaninov
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 [41:13]
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Act III Intermezzo, Manon Lescaut, [5:35] (encore)
Philharmonie, Berlin, 4 November 2017
CD 5 [26:37]
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Piano Concerto in G major [21:30]
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Reflets dans l’eau [5:12] (encore)
Seong-Jin Cho (piano)
Blu-ray Video:
Culture Centre, Hong Kong, 10 November 2017
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Piano Concerto in G major
Seong-Jin Cho (piano)
Wuhan Qintai Concert Hall, China, 13 November 2017
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Don Juan
Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Piano Concerto No. 2, Sr 95
Yuja Wang (piano)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 4, Op. 98
Seoul Arts Centre, South Korea, 20 November 2017
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Petrushka (1947 version)
Unsuk Chin (b. 1961)
Chorós Chordón (2017)
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44
Bonus video footage:
i) Documentary: “The Berliner Philharmoniker in Asia. A Tour Diary” [28:00 min]
ii) The Berliner Philharmoniker's Digital Concert Hall [1.28]
Picture Format:
Full HD 1080 / 60i – 16.9
Audio format:
LPCM Stereo 2.0ch, 48kHz/24bit
ii) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, 48 kHz
Audio Download
Code for download of High Resolution Studio master audio files of the entire album (24-bit / up to 96 kHz)
Integral Booklet:
124 pages - Essays in German & English
Digital Concert Hall
7 Day Ticket for the Berliner Philharmoniker's virtual concert hall
Hardcover Edition
24.6 x 15.6 x 3.6 cm: 760g (approx.)


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