This is a recording of a live concert gala for New Year's Eve, 2007, in the Philharmonie Berlin.
Blu-ray productions such as this have every advantage over attending a live performance except for the thrill of actually occupying the same space and time as the great orchestra and its conductor. I know of no concert hall in which one can hear each instrument with perfect clarity and at the same time see each member of the orchestra; and it is such a pleasure to see the total commitment of each member of the orchestra that results in readings of great precision, color, and intensity.
The visual element (beautifully sharp and immediate in Blu-ray) helps to call attention to the particulars of the composers' decisions regarding orchestration and to reinforce one's knowledge that this orchestra is not only a great ensemble but also a collection of individual soloists with world-wide careers of their own. Witness for example the contribution of flutist Emmanuel Pahud, following in the footsteps perhaps of the Berliner Philharmoniker's most famous flutist alumnus, James Galway. I think that it is unfortunate that the credits, both on-screen, and in the booklet, fail to list the individual members of the orchestra; and while one can look up the personnel on the Internet, it takes some matching up of faces to figure out who is the leader of each section for a particular performance. The Berlin Phil has, for example, three concertmasters, any one of which may occupy the principal chair for a given concert. In this case it is Guy Braunstein.
I came to buy this disc and several others by the Berliner Philharmoniker as a result of enjoying their "Digital Concert Hall" for the past two years (since early 2009). There, both live and archived Berlin performances are delivered in HD and high-quality stereo over the Internet for a fee. "Attending" Berlin's concerts in this way has increased my respect for the orchestra and given me a heightened appreciation for the ways in which home viewing of concerts can be in some respects a superior experience to being physically present in the hall. I bring this up because for those readers familiar with the Digital Concert Hall this disc is even better! Camera work involving cranes and other intrusive devices can only be justified for special occasions like this one, but they do provide a somewhat more dynamic experience than the permanently installed robotic cameras used for the Digital Concert Hall. Similarly, the 5.1 surround sound goes beyond the Digital Concert Hall's current restriction to 2 channels (as of this writing, but 5.1 is ready to go once the Adobe Flash player acquires that ability).
DVDs and Blu-rays of the past decade or so have treated us to sonics beyond anything I dared hope for before: 5.1 surround with near-perfect frequency response, great dynamics, and negligible distortion. Recording engineers have mastered the feat of letting us hear each instrument individually while at the same time melding it all into an integrated whole. This is one such disc that benefits from the expert use of modern technology. In this case, I'd characterize the sound as just slightly on the bright side, with the massed violins sometimes sounding ever so slightly hard-edged; but then the Berliner's string section is indeed a muscular one.
Of the two soundtracks my own preference is for the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, but PCM stereo is provided, too. (Many concert DVDs are available that provide a choice among PCM stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS 5.1. In such cases DTS usually provides a more bass-heavy and spacious sound compared with Dolby Digital. On the Blu-ray disc at hand, the DTS-HD MA makes no difference in the bass versus the PCM 2.0, as far as I can hear; and the surround effect is subtle. No Dolby Digital track is provided, which is OK unless that should happen to be the only surround mode available in your hardware.) Be sure to turn up the volume so that you hear the timbres of each individual instrument; the tuttis will then blow you away, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your tolerance of, or enjoyment of, realistic dynamic range. Although there was a brief period several years back in which surround sound was used to place the listener aurally so that (s)he was surrounded by the instruments, sound engineers today almost always use surround sound sparingly, only to provide some hall ambience; and that is the case here.
Interpretations are non-idiosyncratic, which is to say that the music is allowed to speak for itself. (And indeed, as is Simon Rattle's wont, the orchestra is often left to play on its own while Rattle simply watches benignly and gives the occasional cue.) These performances deliver both poetry and excitement through the careful judging of pacing, which includes taking time for pastoral and romantic moods and providing a sense of anticipation before adopting brisker tempi for the more exuberant and climactic sections of the score -- but all kept within tasteful bounds. The only drawback for me in these performances is that I do not care much for the European (especially German) way of playing double-reed instruments--too slow a vibrato for my taste; and on this occasion the Berlin Phil had as its solo oboist Jonathan Kelly, who exemplifies this style somewhat more than others in spite of his being British. But that is just my taste; Kelly is a great oboist who plays with sensitivity and vigor.
For me the highlight of the evening was the Borodin Symphony No. 2, whose endearing lyrical melodies and rhythmic and incisive outbursts especially benefit from the virtuosity of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Although all choirs of the orchestra performed superbly, the woodwinds were a particular delight in this piece; and that definitely includes the French horns, which, though brass, are sort of honorary woodwinds (as the chamber-music ensemble known as a woodwind quintet includes a French horn as standard equipment).