No other orchestra can boast such top notch musicians as the Berlin Philharmonic. They have first desk soloists who, on their instrument, can compete with practically any other player of the same instrument. I'm thinking in particular of Emmanuel Pahud, the flute player whose dazzling playing has been wowing audiences since he joined the Berlin Philharmonic in the early 90's. As one of the Berlin Philharmonic's two principal flutists, he's been the head flutist in roughly half of the Berlin Philharmonic records since he joined the band. Here he's been elevated to a place as an actual soloist.
But he's not the only soloist featured on this disc. Also stared is Sabine Mayer, who has won herself a place as one of the greatest clarinetists alive. While she is currently on her own (not a member of the Berlin Phil), she was once in the orchestra for a short period of nine months during the end of the Karajan years. This was back in the years when the Berliners didn't look too favorably on having female members in their orchestra; Karajan thinks this is why the orchestra voted to oust her and not because of anything lacking in her actual playing. Either way, she's turned out to be an astonishing genius, one the Berlin Philharmonic is glad to invite back to record with their own Emmanuel Pahud.
In the flute concerto, Pahud has absolutely nothing holding him back, resulting in playing that is full of deep love on his part. In this two movement work, he uses his flexibility to achieve a wide range of emotion and dynamics. Memorable as the exhilarating virtuosic moments may be, it is Pahud's tender, affectionate phrasing in lyric passages that are the most gripping. And his accompanying partners, the Berliners and Rattle, catch his vision wonderfully, letting him take the lead while still adding a whole lot of their own individuality, making for a dream performance.
The Clarinet Concerto is quite different from the dreamy, wistful Flute Concerto. It's a bit restless, as if though it's swaying back and forth from a state of pensive sadness and a big-boned drama that's still just as pensive. Meyer manages to make something out of this piece. It could sound reckless and full of wild abandon, but Meyer doesn't let this happen. Rather, she fills this piece with a beauty that never leaves, even in the virtuosic fast passages. But she never lets you fill happy; it's always sad and, as it were, full of a longing for something you can almost reach--just not quite. I think this is what Nielsen had in mind. Meyer certainly captures the piece wonderfully. The Berliners and Rattle? Put it this way: you'll be scratching your head trying to figure out how they were able to come up with such a sophisticated, ravishing accompaniment. That's all I think I need to say.
The Wind Quintet could not be more different than the two concertos. It's in a strong neo-classical vein--the music doesn't wander from key to key like it does in the concertos. Joining Pahud and Meyer are three absolutely wonderful first desk players from the Berlin Phil: Radek Baborak on the horn, Jonathan Kelly on the oboe, and Stefan Schweigert on the bassoon. And, oh, what a stunning group of chamber musicians this is! Every note comes forth crystal clearly, without a care in the world. What impresses the most here is the clean phrasing coupled with such a zest and spirit. It certainly left me inspired.
The Berliners (especially their star players) have made a strong case for these works. Considering the wonderful music, wonderful playing, and wonderful sound quality from EMI, it would be arbitrary for me to give this disc anything less than my highest recommendation.