In 2003 Pierre Boulez led the Berliner Philharmoniker in a performance of Bartók's 'Concerto for Orchestra' at the beautiful Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Lisbon and camera crews recorded it. This DVD presents that performance in up-to-date video and audio, smoothly directed by Bob Coles. Accompanying it is a twenty-minute documentary about the work, with script by the film's co-producer and director, Günter Atteln. The film was co-produced by the doyen of German classical music videos, Paul Smaczny. [This performance is also seen on a complete concert DVD that I've reviewed previously: Europa Konzert From Lisbon / Pierre Boulez, Maria Joao Pires, Berliner Philharmoniker. In addition to the Bartók it contains a marvelous Mozart piano concerto with pianist Maria João Pires.]
The documentary is in English, although the interview with Boulez is, interestingly, in German with subtitles. It takes the Concerto movement by movement, describing various points of its construction (complete with views of pertinent parts of the score) such as its unique form, its metrical complications, its brilliant orchestration and the like. Interweaved with this are biographical details of Bartók's life, particularly his difficult emigration to New York during World War II and his several years in poor health and poverty there. Much is made of Serge Koussevitzky's commission of the piece. Boulez makes the point that although the commission may have initially been more in the nature of 'alms for the poor' the work turned out to be hugely successful both at its premiere in Boston and later that year in New York. And he comments that the extremely virtuosic writing for the orchestra was specifically in response to the vaunted technical abilities of American orchestras of the time, as compared to the orchestral standards in Europe.
As for the performance of the work, the Berliner Philharmoniker under Boulez play brilliantly, each of the orchestra's departments covering itself with glory, from the strings in the first and third movements as well as with that well-night impossible-to-play whirling figure in the fifth movement, the brass in the second movement chorale and the finale and, best of all, the winds in the 'play of pairs' second movement. One is not surprised, I suppose, that this performance is very nearly the equal of the classic Reiner/Chicago recording, and certainly in better sound.
I can easily imagine this DVD being used in a music appreciation class, but also believe that for those who either know and love the Concerto, or for those who don't know it very well or at all, it would be enlightening and enjoyable.