Nobel Prize Concert - Joshua Bell, Sakari Oramo [blu-ray]

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(Blu-ray Disc Version) Ludwig van Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3 in C major, Op. 72b
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35
Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82

Joshua Bell, violin
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Sakari Oramo, conductor

- Interviews featuring Joshua Bell, Sakari Oramo, and Mario Vargas Llosa, the 2010 Nobel Laureate in Literature.

Picture format:1080i Full-HD
Sound format: PCM Stereo / DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Running time: 91 mins
No. of Blu-rays: 1 (BD 25)

R E V I E W:


TCHAIKOVSKY Violin Concerto 1. BEETHOVEN Leonore Overture No. 3. SIBELIUS Symphony No. 5 Sakari Oramo, cond; Royal Stockholm PO; 1 Joshua Bell (vn) ACCENTUS 10215 (Blu-ray: 91:25)

& Interviews with Joshua Bell, Sakari Oramo, and Mario Vargas Llosa (25: 18)

Accentus’s release commemorates the December 2010 Nobel Prize concert given in the Stockholm Concert Hall with Sakari Oramo conducting the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and featuring Joshua Bell (who receives top billing on the Blu-ray’s case) as violin soloist. The concert opens with a thundering performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3. The widescreen high-definition visual clarity, like the crisp and full-range audio (DTS HD or PCM), enhances the drama, making the hushed opening particularly atmospheric and reproducing the sudden outbursts and moving bass lines with startling realism. The climaxes rumble at the end. Oramo and the orchestra seem to revel in these sudden outbursts and enhance their effect with a boost in voltage.

Throughout the concert, the camera crew takes an approach similar to that in the old music scores for symphonic works that indicated active parts with arrows; in this case, the camera focuses on any woodwind or brass instrument (or percussion, of course) that might have been honored with an arrow in older times. Perhaps that’s not so distracting the first time you watch, but what about the second, third, or fourth? If you attend the dress rehearsal of a concert, then the performance, sitting in a seat in the hall from which you can view the entire stage, would you always train your attention on whatever seemed to be most prominent aurally, or might you allow your attention to wander freely? Perhaps it’s most telling that at the climaxes in Beethoven’s work, the camera pulls back for a shot that embraces the whole orchestra. I remember such a shot from the concert at the opening of Lincoln Center, when the cameras pulled back for the climax of the Polka and Fugue from Schwanda by Jaromir Weinberger. I’d like to watch the whole concert from this point of view, though I doubt most viewers would share this preference; in any case, perhaps a programmable choice of camera angles might be offered with Blu-ray’s greater storage capacity (such a choice seemed to be promised as features even in early DVDs).

Joshua Bell’s stage manner has always been characterized by what Jascha Heifetz, in a master class, once called “funny business”—swaying and grimacing even if the playing itself, heard without its visual analog, sounded a bit pallid. After finishing watching Bell’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, I reviewed movements of the concerto played on various DVDs by the warm-hearted David Oistrakh, the coolly elegant Nathan Milstein, the brilliant Michael Rabin, and the macho Ruggiero Ricci. And I’ve watched Heifetz’s truncated but electrifying version of the first movement with Fritz Reiner and the New York Philharmonic from the movie Carnegie Hall so many times that I didn’t need to return to it. There’s no funny business in any of these performances. The musical ideas emerge in the audible results rather than in any gyrations, however modest, that produce them.

So what does Bell actually do with the music itself? Well, the opening offers an opportunity for a violinist to write a bold signature, and Mischa Elman always took the opportunity to do so in that passage. So does Bell, though one violinist to whom I showed the passage thought his characterization “grotesque.” In any case, he’s expressive in the first theme, though he allows subsequent running passages to slip momentarily out of control. He enhances the music’s lyricism with portamentos that, however, don’t permit him to surpass in expressivity even the palest of the performances I’ve mentioned (Milstein’s). Nevertheless, he draws forth a pure and crystal-clear tone from the higher registers of the 1713 Gibson-Huberman Stradivari, and builds the passagework to an impressive climax, though his approach to the cadenza doesn’t generate the kind of voltage of Oistrakh’s or Heifetz’s performances. In the cadenza itself, Bell perhaps intentionally takes a lyrical tack; he certainly doesn’t hiss and spit as almost does Václav Hude?ek (on Supraphon 4055). After the cadenza, Bell shows how rich a sound his violin can produce on the G string. In the Canzonetta, the beauty of his tone and his relatively unmannered expressivity contribute to what turns out to be an especially communicative performance, though the middle section doesn’t sound as agitated as does, say, Heifetz’s (in 1957); in the return of the main melody, the recorded sound transmits a great deal of welcome orchestral detail. After an aggressive reading of the transitional cadenza, Bell launches into a performance of the finale that’s commanding not only for its brilliance but for its plaintiveness in the episodes as well. In Bell’s pounding, dance-like reading, the finale provides as robust a flow of adrenaline as does the first movement. Still, the whole concerto sounds more static in his reading than it does in the DVDs I’ve mentioned, or as I remember it from Elman’s performance with John Barbiriolli from 1929 or Milstein’s with Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1940.

Oramo’s and the orchestra’s performance of Jean Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, recorded, again, with startling fidelity, conveys a strong sense of the music’s elemental power. And that clarity allows for separation of the layers of sound in the opening. Ideas seem almost to bubble as from a boiling cauldron (even in the dance-like sections in the movement’s second half (or in what some have designated the second movement). In the Andante, the interplay of scalar passages and pizzicatos in the strings, set against woodwind sonorities, rises and falls in what Oramo has built into a series of grand dynamic arches (commentators have unsurprisingly often described various performances of this symphony as “built” in one way or another). The finale’s pervasive ostinatos sizzle in the recorded sound, and mount in the end to a majestic, almost Brucknerian, conclusion. But compare those climaxes to the even more magisterial ones in Leonard Bernstein’s video performance with the Vienna Philharmonic from 1988 (directed by Humphrey Burton), released in 2010 by Unitel. On the whole, while strength and clarity (analogous to that of the recorded sound) may be the hallmark of Oramo’s reading, Bernstein’s sounds more sumptuous—due in no small part, perhaps, to the Vienna Philharmonic’s smooth power—but hardly less idiomatic or insightful.

The concert as a whole creates an impression of visceral power, albeit somewhat diminished during the concerto. And for violinists, the opportunity to observe Bell’s instrument close up and in great detail may add an incentive that might compensate for what some viewers of my generation might take as foppish pirouetting (there, I’ve said it). Strongly recommended overall, in the last analysis.

FANFARE: Robert Maxham

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: ACC10215

  • UPC: 4260234830101

  • Label: Accentus

  • Composer: Jean Sibelius, Ludwig van Beethoven, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

  • Conductor: Sakari Oramo

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra

  • Performer: Joshua Bell