Every year the Berliner Philharmoniker plays a concert on May 1st in a European city to commemorate its founding in 1882. There are DVDs of the concerts in Palermo Europa Konzert From Palermo, Lisbon Europa Konzert From Lisbon / Pierre Boulez, Maria Joao Pires, Berliner Philharmoniker, Istanbul European Concert From Istanbul, Naples Berliner Philharmoniker/Riccardo Muti: Schubert/Martucci/Verdi, and Prague Europa-Konzert From Prague: Mozart - Baborak/Berliner Philharmoniker/Barenboim that I'm aware of. And each has something to recommend it. But I have to say that this concert from Berlin itself is perhaps the best of them all. It does not occur in the Philharmonie but in a huge 19th-century factory building, the Kabelwerk Oberspree, whose interior is a large oblong space of steel girders and brick walls. The orchestra is on a raised platform and the large audience, which looks to number in the thousands, is seated in chairs on the flat factory floor. The acoustics, if one can judge by the recorded sound, are spectacular; I've rarely heard such clear recorded sound from such a large space. And the orchestra simply outdoes themselves. If one ever had any doubts that the Berliner Philharmoniker is one of the world's very greatest orchestras, their playing on 1 May 2007 will dispel them. In this concert the orchestra is conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.
The program consists of works from the central Germanic literature: Wagner's Prelude to 'Parsifal', Brahms' Double Concerto (with violinist Lisa Batiashvili and cellist Truls Mørk) and Brahms' Fourth Symphony.
Wagner's Parsifal Prelude is one of those works when, once heard, is firmly etched in one's memory. It has such a glowing, ecstatic sound that one cannot help but be moved. As Debussy remarked, it 'seems lit from behind' ('semble eclairée par derrière'). Rattle's direction evinces this effect and the strings of the Philharmoniker have never sounded better.
The two soloists in the Brahms Double Concerto may not be as well known in the US as they are in Europe, but they are both instrumentalists of the first rank. The thirtyish Lisa Batiashvili is Georgian, the daughter of two professional musicians. She studied with her father and then at the Hamburg Musikhochschule. Truls Mørk is Norwegian and generally considered to be one of the leading cellists of our day. The two instrumentalists have played chamber music together and it shows; they are in close touch, musically, with each other. Rattle and the Berliners give them sensitive support. The Double Concerto was the last orchestral work Brahms wrote. It was written for cellist Robert Hausmann and for his old but estranged friend, Joseph Joachim. The work brought the two old friends back together. As part of the gesture toward Joachim, Brahms used the musical motif 'A-E-F', an alteration of Joachim's old musical motto 'F-A-E' ('frei aber einsam' ['free but lonely']), which has an ironic touch, since it was Joachim's divorce from his wife Amalie that had caused the rupture between the two lifelong friends: Brahms had taken Amalie's side in the divorce.
Of his symphonies, Brahms' Fourth Symphony is the most indebted to music from the baroque era. When he began the symphony he had been studying several of Bach's works and indeed the main theme of the finale, a chaconne, is based on a theme from Bach's Cantata No. 150, 'Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich'. There are those, and I am among them, who consider this work to be the composer's greatest work. To hear Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker play this towering work very nearly brought me to tears (as, I must admit, did the Parsifal Prelude). This is, simply put, one of the greatest performances of this work I've ever heard and to be able to see AND hear Rattle and the Philharmoniker is an added pleasure.
As I stated before, the sound on this DVD is outstanding. And the visuals are quite on a par with the sound. All praise to the DVD's technical team. Total time: 102mins; Format: NTSC 16:9; Sound: PCM stereo; DD 5.1; DTS 5.1; Regional code: 0 (worldwide)