Notes and Editorial Reviews
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May morning in Oxford, and the Berliner Philharmoniker join in the celebratory mood abroad in the university city’s medieval streets with this concert in Sir Christopher Wren’s glorious Sheldonian Theatre. For 20 years, the Philharmoniker have given a May Day concert in one of Europe’s great historic cities, and here, under the baton of Daniel Barenboim, the Berlin players thrill the Oxford audience with the sonorous Prelude to Act III of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, a deeply-felt account of Elgar’s autumnal Cello Concerto by the young American cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and a rousing performance of Brahms’s
life-affirming First Symphony.
Picture format: 1080i Full-HD
Sound format: PCM 2.0 / DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Booklet notes: English, German, French
Running time: 89 mins
No. of Discs: 1 (BD 50)
R E V I E W:
Prelude to act III.
Symphony No. 1
Daniel Barenboim, cond; Berlin PO;
Alisa Weilerstein (vc)
EUROARTS 2058064 (Blu-ray: 89:00) Live: 4/30 and 5/1/2010
EMI favored Alisa Weilerstein by including her in its “Debut” series when she was still a teenager (see
24: 2); she’s also made some recordings as cellist in the family trio (two of them reviewed in
: 29:6 and 33:2). Even so, this is, in a sense, her breakthrough recording—made during a high-profile concert in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre. The choice of repertoire was risky. Anyone who plays the Elgar, of course, has to take on Jacqueline du Pré’s recording with Barbirolli, which, arguably, has a kind of benchmark status unmatched by that of any other single recording of a canonical work. In this case, however, the challenge was stronger than usual. The concert took place in du Pré’s home town of Oxford, and, of course, Weilerstein was partnered with du Pré’s husband, Daniel Barenboim, who was also on the podium for du Pré’s live Philadelphia recording made toward the end of her performing career and who, I’ve read, hasn’t conducted the work since du Pré’s death more than 20 years ago. The pressure must have been intense—especially since the concert (one in a yearly series in which the orchestra celebrates its founding in a historical European city) was broadcast live around the world. But Weilerstein is a fabulous cellist, and she held her own.
Despite the dazzling quicksilver of the second movement, this is, for the most part, a dark and intense performance, marked more by fervency than by a nostalgic sense of farewell. Thus, for instance, the arrival of the first movement’s second theme doesn’t bring much light with it—and the finale is unusually emphatic, with the
taken extremely seriously. In lesser hands, perhaps, such an approach might seem exaggerated, but Weilerstein’s commitment is so contagious that even listeners seeking something more autumnal are apt to be carried away. Barenboim is with her all the way, and the orchestra—hardly known as world-class Elgarians—brings its coals to Newcastle with aplomb.
The concert begins with a patient and poignant reading of the third-act prelude to
, notable for the luxury of the orchestral tone, and it closes with a spectacular reading of the Brahms First. You might reasonably expect this orchestra to coast in a work it’s played so often—indeed, toward the beginning, Barenboim simply lets the musicians go their own way, standing motionless as the timpanist sets the scene. But there’s no autopilot here; they play as if every note matters, and matters deeply, and their burnished sound is gorgeous from first to last, both in the climaxes (the ending will knock you out) and in the quieter moments (try, as but two examples, the hush right before the first-movement
begins and the spine-tinglingly expectant horn calls at the finale’s
). As for the interpretation: There’s perhaps nothing dramatically new here. Barenboim offers a conservative reading in the Furtwängler orbit, a reading marked by rich, blended, and bass-centered sonorities (you won’t find Toscanini’s or Weingartner’s leanness here, much less Scherchen’s jagged edges), a reading that sacrifices rhythmic bite for eloquence of phrasing and harmonic intensity. But his pacing is so consistently inspired, the transitions are so artfully negotiated, and the sense of arrival in the final pages is so convincing, that this old-fashioned performance makes the music sound remarkably fresh.
The sound is excellent, in terms of both timbral honesty and sense of space (although I wonder whether I am the only one who feels disoriented by those moments in concert videos where the aural image and the visual image contradict one another—where, say, we’re viewing from the back of the orchestra while listening from the hall). The video work is first-rate, too, except for a few of the shots from the rear, which produce slightly distorted images. All in all, a major release.
FANFARE: Peter J. Rabinowitz
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Cello in E minor, Op. 85 by Sir Edward Elgar
Alisa Weilerstein (Cello)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1919; England
Symphony no 1 in C minor, Op. 68 by Johannes Brahms
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1855-1876; Austria
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