Yes, indeed, these two pieces for winds (and in the case of the Dvorák, winds plus cello and double bass) are among the glories of the wind literature. And particularly the Dvorák is one of my favorite pieces, period. To explain the 'But...' in my title: Dvorák's score clearly calls for one of the bassoonists to double on contrabassoon, and for some reason that is not done here. This is not a mere quibble, though, because the waxy, resonant tones of contrabassoon adds a very necessary color to the overall sound. But, having said that, I have no other real criticisms to offer; the playing is, in the words of Linda Richman, 'like buttah.' Wind-playing just doesn't get much better than that of the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Ensemble.
These performances were filmed in Potsdam in a hall at Frederick the Great's castle, Sanssouci, in 1990. So, of course, the visual effect in a parqueted and paneled room with gilt ceilings and baroque paintings on the walls is gorgeous. Dvorák's serenade calls for eleven players--two clarinets, two oboes, two bassoons, three horns, cello and double bass--and of these seven are still playing with the Berlin Philharmonic. The legendary clarinetist Karl Leister, along with hornist Manfred Klier, oboist Hansjörg Schellenberger, and clarinetist Peter Geisler, are no longer playing in the orchestra. (During Abbado's tenure, still going on at the time of these performances, seventy BPO players either retired or were replaced.) Having admired Leister's playing for many years, it was a thrill to watch (and hear) him play.
I really cannot comment in any greater detail about the performances themselves except to say that they are wonderful. I suppose one could argue about the tempo in, say, the Andante con moto of the Dvorák; it seemed a little slow. As to the Beethoven Octet (two each of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns) I can't find a single thing to criticize. Simply glorious playing. The de facto leader of the group, to whom all look for tempi and cues, is the now-departed Hansjörg Schellenberger, an elegant oboist if there ever was one; clearly he is also a good leader.
If you love these works as I do, and want to observe and hear really top-flight musicians play them, you can't do better than this DVD. I gave it four stars only because of the missing contrabassoon.
[One last trivial note: In case you hadn't been aware of it, there are no flutes in these two pieces. That was typical of much of the so-called 'Harmoniemusik' of the period, but I'll confess a little secret: I much prefer wind ensemble music without flutes. I've always hung onto Mozart's comment to his father, in a letter, that he didn't much like the flute. Amazing, considering he wrote flute (and flute/harp) concertos. But there you are. My secret is out.]