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!