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Berliner Philharmoniker: The Asia Tour
Seong-Jin Cho (piano)
Yuja Wang (piano)
Berliner Philharmoniker / Sir Simon Rattle
rec. November 2017, Philharmonie Berlin (Ravel concerto); Suntory Hall Tokyo. DSD
5 Hybrid-SACDs + 1 Video Blu-ray Disc

In November 2017 the Berliner Philharmoniker embarked on a Far Eastern tour, giving concerts in Hong Kong, mainland China, South Korea and Seoul. This set of audio and video recordings, presented on the orchestra’s own label in their usual lavish style, commemorates that tour. The trip had a double significance: it marked 60 years since the orchestra’s first tour to the region and it was their last visit to the Far East with Sir Simon Rattle as Chief Conductor. The set is, therefore, rather more of a souvenir issue than previous releases on the label. The hardcover book is lavishly illustrated with colour pictures from the tour and there’s also an essay by Tobias Möller about the orchestra’s touring history in the region.

One detail that especially caught my eye in Mr Möller’s essay was that when the orchestra first embarked to Japan with Herbert von Karajan in 1957 there were no direct scheduled flights from Germany to Japan. As a consequence, the orchestra chartered two aircraft, which flew to Japan following different routes. These were propeller aircraft and the orchestra was deliberately divided between the two ‘planes so that in the event of a crash the entire orchestra would not be wiped out. How times change!

On this 2017 tour, concerts were given in Hong Kong (2), Guangzhou, Wuhan, Shanghai (2), Seoul (2), Kawasaki and, finally, two concerts in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. I’ve seen and heard several of the previous releases on the Berliner Philharmoniker label and, so far as I can recall, all those that have combined an audio and a visual element have been based on the same concerts. This time things are slightly different. With the exception of the Ravel concerto – and the solo encore that followed – all the SACD audio discs come from the pair of concerts given in Suntory Hall. However, the video performances preserve the concerts in Hong Kong (10 November), Wuhan (13 November) and Seoul (20 November). From the listing on the back of the box – there is no separate track list for the Blu-ray – it appears that encores are not included in the concert films but that’s not the case, though both pianists play different encores to those heard on the SACDs.

I’ll deal first with the SACDs which preserve in their entirety the two concerts in Suntory Hall, Tokyo. These were the concluding concerts of the 19-day tour; both of the tour programmes were played and as Sir Simon comments in the documentary film, these concerts were “a proper climax” to the tour.

The first of the two concerts began with Don Juan by Richard Strauss. This is not a work that Rattle has previously recorded, to the best of my knowledge. It was included in Karajan’s repertoire for the 1957 tour so it was a nice touch to reprise it 60 years later. Rattle leads an excellent performance. The music sparkles at the start, the fight with Don Pedro is suitably swashbuckling – even if we know it was one-sided – and the poignant ending is very well done. The two love scenes are especially memorable, the BPO’s playing sensitive and seductive. The Chinese pianist Yuja Wang joins the orchestra for the Bartók concerto. The first movement is played with scintillating virtuosity by all concerned. The start of the second movement is breathtakingly hushed, the Berlin strings showing amazing dynamic control. Wang matches their delicacy at first, though a little later, mirroring the forceful timpani, her playing has great power. The central scherzo-like episode scurries along. In the bravura finale Wang plays with terrific virtuosity, her technical prowess matched at every step by Rattle and the orchestra. Her selection of the Rachmaninov Vocalise as an encore is an inspired choice since it lowers the temperature and also allows her another opportunity to display the sensitive side to her pianism.

Rattle closed this concert with the Brahms Fourth symphony. Back in 2008, when he was still recording for EMI, he recorded a live Brahms symphony cycle with the Berliner Philharmoniker, which I admired (review). Here, the first movement is marvellously played, as you’d expect, yet for some reason that I can’t quite identify the music doesn’t quite seem to take flight until the last couple of minutes; other listeners may hear it differently. Thereafter, the performance worked much better for me. The slow movement, played with great finesses, is lovely and here I especially admired the BPO’s wind choir. The short third movement is dynamic, after which Rattle begins the finale very powerfully. The central section, led off by the flute variation, sounds deliberately drained of colour. The return of the full orchestra is a moment of grandeur after which the movement is played out in a trenchant fashion. For his encore, Rattle chose one of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances. The performance is light and affectionate, the music proving to be the perfect foil to the intellectual rigour of Brahms’ finale.

The second concert opened with Petrushka. Here, Rattle opts for the 1947 version of the score, as he did in his vibrant and colourful CBSO recording, made as long ago as 1986. That was a very fine recording and I wasn’t surprised to discover that my colleague Simon Thompson liked it a lot (review). This new account with the Berliner Philharmoniker is superb from start to finish. The performance is brim-full of colour and character. It seems to me that Rattle establishes immediately and maintains a strong narrative thread and his magnificent orchestra invests the music with an abundance of light and shade. Rhythms are consistently taut, although Rattle allows plenty of flexibility from soloists when it’s needed in order to make expressive points. Among a host of superb instrumental soloists, the principal flute and the pianist deserve special praise. This is, quite simply, one of the finest recordings of Stravinsky’s great ballet that I can remember hearing and it reminded me why I love the work so much.

Chorós Chordón was commissioned by the orchestra specially for this tour from the Korean composer, Unsuk Chin, who now lives in Berlin. It received its premiere in the Philharmonie a few days before the tour began. In the documentary that forms part of this package Chin relates that back in the 1980s she sneaked into a rehearsal in Seoul when Karajan and the Berliners were touring because she couldn’t afford a ticket for the concert. Now the wheel has turned full circle and she finds herself feted on this latest tour. The title of the work is an ancient Greek expression which translates as ‘Dance of the Strings’. We learn from the notes that the piece represents “the Universe in a nutshell”. It’s scored for similar forces to those employed in Petrushka. The music includes a lot of busy textures and what seem like fragmentary contributions from all over the orchestra. The music describes a wide dynamic range and includes several ear-splitting climaxes but also many more passages of great delicacy. My presumption is that Chorós Chordón receives a performance of pin-point accuracy from Rattle and the orchestra but I’m afraid it didn’t do a great deal for me. I’m sure that’s a failing on my part and that others will find much more to admire in the piece.

Rachmaninov’s Third symphony is another work which I believe is new to the Rattle discography. It’s been worth the wait. The first movement mixes passages of sparkling virtuoso music with episodes of archetypal melancholic yearning. Rattle and his players seem equally attuned to both aspects. The aching nostalgia of the second movement comes across beautifully, the response of the Berlin strings particularly memorable. The central scherzo episode (from 5:17) darts and flickers at first and later is played with no little fire. I love the refined way in which the end of the movement, with its shadows and half-tints, is accomplished. There’s a considerable amount of dash in the finale and the lyrical outpourings are just as satisfying to hear. I have the sense that the orchestra was even more than usually keen to show their qualities on this last lap of the tour. Quite possibly that extended to the conductor too, for Rattle whips up the music most excitingly in the last few pages. The Puccini encore was well chosen. At the start we can once again savour the refinement of the BPO’s strings and later the whole orchestra plays with no little ardour.

The tour programmes also included the Ravel Piano Concerto, possibly alternating with the Bartók concerto. However, the audio performance comes from a pre-tour concert back in Berlin. Apparently, this was selected in preference to performances during the tour in order to present the performance in optimum sound. The young Korean pianist, Seong-Jin Cho seems a trifle reserved – an impression I formed before seeing him play on the Blu-ray disc, which confirmed the impression – but technically he’s excellent. The lovely slow movement is played with no little refinement – the orchestral contribution is distinguished – and the finale has plenty of spirit. In that concluding movement there are some uproarious solos from members of the orchestra. Cho’s playing of Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau is a lovely encore.

The Blu-ray disc offers us the chance to see performances from three of the concerts prior to the Tokyo finale. One point of difference is that while the two orchestral encores are the same as we hear on the SACDs, the pianists chose different pieces. Seong-Jin Cho follows his Hong Kong performance of the Ravel with Debussy’s Claire de Lune, which he plays most poetically. Yuja Wang follows her Bartók performance in Wuhan with Liszt’s over-elaborate take on the Schubert song Gretchen am Spinnrad. Incidentally, during both of these encores Rattle comes onto the stage and sits very unobtrusively at the back of the orchestra to listen. I’ve seen him do this before – but no other conductor that I can remember – and I think it’s a most graceful compliment to his soloists.

I admired the performance of the first movement of the Brahms symphony rather more in the filmed performance from Wuhan and I conclude that this must be because I could see as well as hear the performance. The one disappointment of the Blu-ray disc concerns the performances given in Seoul – the Stravinsky/Chin/Rachmaninov programme. There’s nothing at all wrong with the performances per se but to those of us who have experienced the high-quality camerawork in previous video releases on the Berliner Philharmoniker’s label the Seoul camerawork will come as a disappointment. A great deal of the concert is presented in long shots and close-up shots of players are few and far between. I can only presume that the Seoul Arts Center is not set up for robot mini-cameras and the other sophisticated techniques available in the Philharmonie. The camerawork in Hong Kong and Wuhan is much more satisfactory.

I got good audio results when watching the Blu-ray disc and very good results when listening to the hybrid SACDs in stereo. I suspect that the video side of things was not under the orchestra’s control; they had to use the pictures provided at the venues in question. However, the audio side of things was under the control of producer Christoph Franke and engineers René Möller who have worked on most of the previous sets that I’ve heard from this label. Consequently, the audio side was in very safe hands.

The Blu-ray disc also includes a 28-minute Tour Diary as a bonus feature. This is interesting, though I can’t imagine people wanting to view it more than once or twice. For me, there are two things that resonate most in the memory: firstly, the sight of the spectacular modern halls in which the orchestra played on this tour; secondly – and chiefly – the evidently voracious appetite of local residents to hear the orchestra: many of the concerts were relayed on big screens to large crowds outside the halls.

The documentation is lavish, as usual with this label, including a large number of colour photographs from the tour. The set is presented in the customary high-quality hardback cover. There’s also a code which allows you to download the performances in 24-bit high resolution audio.

As the Rattle era comes to an end this excellent set offers a very enjoyable memento of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s last Far East tour under Sir Simon’s leadership. It will surely sell like hot cakes in the countries that were visited but it’s just as valuable to other collectors as a reminder of the excellence of the Rattle/BPO partnership.

John Quinn

Track Listing (SACDs)
Disc 1 [49:39]
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)
Disc 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)
Disc 3 [46:56]
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) Petrushka (1947 version) [38:48]
Unsuk Chin (b. 1961) Chorós Chordón (2017) [12:10]
Disc 4 [46:08]
Sergei Rachmaninov Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op 44 [41:13]
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) Manon Lescaut, Act III Intermezzo [5:35] (encore)
Disc 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)
Yuja Wang (piano)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
Recordings from 24 & 25 November 2017 from the Suntory Hall Tokyo
*Recording from 4 November 2017 from the Philharmonie Berlin
Documentary: “The Berliner Philharmoniker in Asia. A Tour Diary” [28 min]



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