The Berlin Philharmonic at the peak of their "Karajan sound" capabilities throw the full weight of their symphonic splendour at this Bach program.As for sound and video quality: all DVDs from this Karajan series are exceptionally good considering that the original material was recorded 20 some years ago. They leave nothing to be desired.
Bach's three well-known Violin Concertos are paired here with a splendid concerto for three violins, reconstructed from the surviving version for three harpsichords, BWV 1064. The composer's fascination with the Italian solo concerto, which resulted in numerous arrangements and compositions, dates to his second Weimar period from 1708 to 1717. However, current research has revealed that Bach wrote the violin concertos around 1720, during his engagement as Kapellmeister in Cöthen. On this recording, soloists Petra Mullejans, Gottfried von der Goltz, and Anne Katharina Schreiber are backed by the matchless Freiburger Barockorchester in dazzling readings of these evergreen favorites.
Elgar’s Violin Concerto has a certain mystique about it independent of the knee-jerk obeisance it has received in the British press. It probably is the longest and most difficult of all Romantic violin concertos, requiring not just great technical facility but great concentration from the soloist and a real partnership of equals with the orchestra. And like all of Elgar’s large orchestral works, it is extremely episodic in construction and liable to fall apart if not handled with a compelling sense of the long line. In reviewing the score while listening to this excellent performance, I was struck by just how fussy Elgar’s indications often are: the constant accelerandos and ritards, and the minute (and impractical) dynamic indications that ask more questions than they sometimes answer. No version, least of all the composer’s own, even attempts to realize them all: it would be impossible without italicizing and sectionalizing the work to death.
Judging simply by timings, Mintz and Sinopoli seem to have decided on a middle path in their approach to the first movement of this concerto: they take nearly a minute less over it than Mutter and Karajan (also on DG), about a minute and a half more than Perlman and Giulini on EMI. Using ears rather than a stopwatch, however, they seem to be giving by far the slowest performance of the movement that I have heard in years. It is a reading from which anything which might savour of soloistic display has been expunged, in which no note, even one of a flourish of semiquavers, is allowed to be 'merely' decorative. Mutter is fond of polishing every note like a jewel, too, but the very opening of the concerto in hers and Karajan's reading sounds positively sprightly set beside the newcomer. The moment Mutter enters the speed slackens markedly, but Karajan watchfully assures that the pulse returns with each tutti, and a sense of momentum is present throughout, even during the soloist's most wayward rhapsodizings.
Maxim Vengerov now confronts - and conquers - one of the supreme challenges all great violinists must face: The Brahms violin concerto. This beautiful, virtuosic work has defined careers from Heifetz to Perlman. Vengerov's turn has come, and his rich, burnished tone and impassioned phrasing make this one of the standout concerto CDs of the year. The soulful partnership of Vengerov and Barenboim (one of his most important mentors) is also a strong selling point.
This is the world premiere recording of Vasks' second symphony. It is a 40-minute, one-movement work which opens with a glorious bang, with the orchestra at its most powerful and busy. A few minutes in, Vasks offers us repose which is almost religious, there is a buildup and then more reflection, and a long crescendo to great might again. The work ends on a beautifully introspective, soft, haunting refrain. Vasks is primarily a Romantic, so the work is tonal; there are touches of Kancheli (but not as much breast-beating), Shostakovich (again, not as pessimistic).