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Ludwig van Beethoven: Overture ‘Leonore No. 3’, opus 72b
Carl Orff: Carmina Burana
George Frideric Handel: Messiah: ’Hallelujah’ Chorus (arr. Sir Eugene Goossens)

Sally Matthews (soprano), Lawrence Brownlee (tenor), Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey (chorus master), Knabenchor des Staats-und Domchores Berlin, Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)
Recorded at the Philharmonie Berlin, Germany (December 31, 2004) – 89’
Blu-ray EuroArts 2053674 – Picture format: 1080i Full HD 16:9 NTSC – Sound format: PCM Stereo – Subtitles in English, German, French, Spanish, and Korean – Blu-ray disc with booklet essays in English, German, and French

It’s hard to overstate how much of a boon the era of high-definition has been to classical music. One needs to look no further than the Metropolitan Opera with the popularity of their “Live in HD” series to see the tremendous advantages that crystal-clear picture and sound have in presenting the dynamism of live performances.

As Blu-ray has established itself in the home theater market, labels have seen fit to release performances previously broadcast on HD television on the medium. This performance from New Year’s Eve 2004 was at the dawn of the HD era in Europe and Euroarts updates a previous standard DVD release in this document of the auspicious concert.

There’s one problem though: the HD is extremely poor compared to today’s quality. The picture is grainy and washed out and there is little warmth or richness of detail in the picture. Furthermore, the only audio track is a PCM stereo track which lacks immediacy. The entire experience is jarring as it’s amazing how far the technology has come in so little time.

As far as the performance, there is a lot to like here. Sir Simon Rattle leads a swift, unrestrained performance of Orff’s masterpiece. The maestro appears possessed from the podium with his fiery eyes daring the players and singers to keep up. And they comply admirably. The brass and percussion of the Berlin Phil play brashly but harmoniously. The “Tanz” is a lively gigue indeed with the strings playing with plebeian vigor.

The chorus sings cohesively, but too politely. With a few exceptions, they are visually unexpressive, which is surprising given the potency of the performance. Vocally, they have sounded better, particularly the sopranos who don’t quite nail all of their exposed attacks in “Floret silva.” The combined children’s chorus contributes quite well.

Still, Rattle’s reading is a fine one. He refuses to linger on the more grandiose moments, cutting off the fermatas in “O Fortuna” and most final chords promptly. He pushes and pushes forward, with a bubbling energy that keeps cascading towards the climax of the piece. Yet he treats the most tender moments of the piece with care and the players respond with impressive transparency.

The soloists are an impressive trio led by soprano Sally Matthews who sings with an opulent timbre. Her “In trutina” is ravishing and breathtakingly measured. Lawrence Brownlee’s roasting swan is formidably sung with a powerful falsetto. The determination of his performance is as amusing as it is terrifying. Baritone Christian Gerhaher, a superb Lieder singer is impassioned, but lacks the vocal muscle for the tavern scene.

The concert is rounded out with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture, No. 3, performed with spirit by the band. Goosens’ ridiculous arrangement of the Hallelujah Chorus closes out the year and the concert in majestic fashion. After all, what else could follow Carmina Burana Sir Simon Rattle jokes.

In the end, the technical limitations of this release are unavoidable. A fine performance it is, but one cannot help but pine for a more immersive experience by which to enjoy it.

Matthew Richard Martinez




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