10 Feb 2013
Just a short blog to share my thoughts on two wonderful recent DVD
releases that have a few attributes in common. Both feature conductors
and players passionate about the music they are playing (and it shows!),
both feature behind the scenes documentary sequences that offer real
insight and both, er, feature antiphonal violins.
First up is Schumann at Pier2, which
features performances by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, one of
my favourite chamber orchestras, and their music director, Paavo Jarvi.
The film documentaries their project of taking the four symphonies of
Robert Schumann and performing them at a warehouse that is mainly used
for exhibitions and rock concerts. Pier2 turns out to be an ideal
concert space and an informal one, too, with the front-most audience
members sitting in sofas.
I was a little disappointed at first that the DVD did not feature
complete performances of the symphonies (I will seek out the CD
releases). It does, however, follow the symphonies in chronological
order. The concert performances are interspersed with footage of Jarvi
(clearly a passionate advocate of Schumann) talking about the composer,
rehearsals and, most interestingly, sequences of individual players (or
combinations of them) talking about their parts and playing them. These
played parts are very cleverly segued into the concert performances and
offer a fascinating insight into Schumann's writing. As if further
evidence were needed that Schumann was not a poor orchestrator
then it can be found here. Though, I have to say, Jarvi does make the
odd alteration to Schumann's parts. But such is the commitment in these
performances that I can forgive this.
Highly recommended, particularly if you want to see passionate and democratic music-making in action.
Next, we have a performance of Smetana's Ma Vlast,
performed live at the Prague Spring Festival in 2011 by the Prague
Conservatory Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Jiri Belohlavek. This
masterwork is performed at the opening of the festival each year by
different orchestras. Memorably, it was performed by the Czech
Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Czech exile, Rafael Kubelik, in
1990. Kubelik was a co-founder of the festival in 1946 but he defected
in 1948 when the Iron Curtain came down.
Belohlavek is a fine conductor and is revered much more in his native
Czech Republic than here in the UK, where he was chief conductor of the
BBC Symphony Orchestra until last year. He made the BBCSO into a very
fine sounding ensemble but his lucid and serious technique was clearly
not what the classical music industry were interested in here. They tend
to prefer more frantic podium antics, these days.
Anyway, in the accompanying documentary the conservatory musicians were
clearly delighted to have had the opportunity to play for Belohlavek and
their admiration is obvious both from what they say and how they play.
The film also highlights the incredible amount of behind the scenes work
that goes into organising such an event, including the intensive
courses that the young musicians go through.
The performance itself is a very fine one. It has the essence of an
'event' as tends to be inherent in concerts such as this featuring young
musicians after such preparation. The playing is of a very high
standard. The string sound is not as refined as in the classier
established ensembles but then these musicians are unlikely to have the
more expensive instruments that their professional colleagues have, not
to mention the years of experience in corporate 'blending'. There are
occasional wind intonation issues, which would be expected when using
quadruple wind forces (anyone who has tried to tune four flutes will
empathise). These are minor quibbles, however. The ensemble and passion
are things of wonder here, particularly the opening bars featuring no
less than five harps playing more or less in unison. I wonder how much
rehearsal time that took?!
A heartwarming experience, then, and a cracking performance. This group
displays their enthusiasm for music and nationalistic fervour without
the need for coloured jackets and twirling double basses!