This is a DVD of the 2004 'Europe Concert' ('Europa-Konzert') by the Berlin Philharmonic at the Herodes Atticus Odeon in Athens, a huge, acoustically marvelous outdoor amphitheater dating back almost 2000 years. It is an all-Brahms concert, with Daniel Barenboim playing the First Piano Concerto in D Minor, Op. 15 and then the orchestra alone in the Schönberg orchestration of the First Piano Quartet (G Minor, Op. 25). Conductor is the then newly named music director of the BPO, Sir Simon Rattle. Interestingly, it's the first time Barenboim and Rattle ever played together. The 'Europe Concert' is a yearly concert played on 1 May to commemorate the founding of the Berlin Philharmonic on 1 May 1882 and each year it is in a different European location. This is the first of these that Rattle had conducted, but Barenboim has conducted the orchestra in three of them. The interesting documentary about the history of the Europa-Konzert includes clips from a number of them since their inception in the early 1990s. I have reviewed several of these here at Amazon.
Barenboim gives a heroic performance of the Piano Concerto and is matched brilliantly by the orchestra. Rattle is able to give the huge and dramatic introduction to the concerto the right amount of heft without it becoming shrill or muddy, as so often happens with lesser orchestras. The almost inhuman skill of this orchestra is on display repeatedly, never more than in the fugal section of the last movement where the thematic lines are handed off from instrument to instrument with quicksilver deftness. (But where did the always terrific principal oboist, Albrecht Mayer, get that godawful yellow necktie?) Barenboim caps his performance, earlier marked by both clarity and power, in the chain of cadenzas in the finale. A marvelous performance greeted with rapturous applause from the audience. In a nice gesture, when Barenboim is given a huge bouquet of spring flowers during the bows, he pulls out a couple and hands them to Rattle and to concertmaster Daniel Stabrawa.
Some people are surprised that that arch-radical Arnold Schönberg adored the music of Brahms who has come down to us as the epitome of cushioned and comfortable German romanticism. But of course Brahms was more classicist than romanticist and Schönberg not only admired him, he borrowed from him in his own music albeit transmuting its procedures (e.g. the 'developing variation form' from this work's first movement) for his own purposes. His orchestration of the First Piano Quartet (done at the request of Otto Klemperer) is, generally, fairly conservative and it is only in the Hungarian csárdás finale that he cuts loose with some decidedly unBrahmsian orchestration, especially in his use of xylophone, glockenspiel, side-drum and cymbals, as well as trombone glissandos, brass double-tonguing, and divisi strings! No one comes away from this finale without a smile, though, and surely that is reason enough to justify its existence. Needless to say the BPO play the whole thing with great élan. Rattle coaxes extraordinary expressiveness from his players throughout, molding phrases with utmost care. An exciting performance!
The videography is crystal clear, the editing unobtrusive and always apt, the sound very lifelike with the exception of some muddiness in the loudest tuttis, possibly a function of the concert's outdoors venue. This is of little importance in the overall impact, however.