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HALL OF FAMEon 27 October 2006
I came close to writing a one-word review: Wow! But considering how verbose I tend to be, I wasn't able to hold myself to that.

In his latter years it was fashionable in some circles to deride the talents of Eugene Ormandy. And in recent years it has been equally fashionable to gloss over the abilities of Itzhak Perlman. Neither view is tenable, but let's face it, that's how fashion goes: sniping at the those at the top. Let me assure you, though, that this DVD shows the glories of Perlman's playing, Ormandy's conducting and the silken sounds of the Philadelphia. The DVD was compiled from two live concerts: the Tchaikovsky violin concerto and his Romeo and Juliet from 1979, the Mussorgsky from 1978, all of them recorded in Philadelphia's Academy of Music. The Academy's acoustics have come in for justified criticism through the years -- and of course has now been replaced as the Philly's hall by the new Kimmel Center -- but one would never know that from the sound on this DVD. Audio producer Aaron Baron gets credit for that. Visually it is stunning, with exceptionally clear views and expert editing under the direction of the redoubtable Kirk Browning, the doyen of classical music television in those days.

As for the playing, it is equally stunning. Perlman is, in my experience, the most enjoyable violinist I've ever heard in live performance. Part of that is his utter naturalness with the instrument; he plays as if the violin were simply the extension of his arms and hands. And part of it is the rounded, almost juicy tone he produces, coupled with absolutely secure technique. He is, of course, best-known for his way with the Romantic literature; is there any more Romantic violin concerto than the Tchaikovsky? On first viewing this performance I immediately went back and repeated the Canzonetta, entralled by its songfulness coupled with its melancholy joie de vivre. I know that last phrase is an oxymoron: so sue me. Somehow Perlman melds those two emotions into one in this movement. The outer movements are full of brio and an infectious joy of living. This is a completely convincing performance, not least because of Ormandy and the Philadelphia's resplendent support.

Ormandy was not noted for his theatrics on the podium. Somehow he got the same emotionally expressive responses from the orchestra that other more demonstrative conductors got through their choreography. A case in point is the performance of Tchaikovsky's 'Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture'. Without seeming to do much more than cue entrances and beat time, Ormandy has the Philadelphia conveying the emotional tone of this most hyperbolic of works in thrilling fashion. On closer inspection one can see the extreme subtlety of Ormandy's directions to the orchestra, and like the thoroughbred ensemble it was, the Philly responds to every minute adjustment in pulse and dynamics. (I had a particularly strong positive emotional response to the deep, thrilling sound of the viola section in their solo section about five minutes into 'Romeo and Juliet.' What a superb section that was!) It's not for nothing that the Philadelphia was called, in Paul Henry Lang's memorable phrase, 'the solid gold Cadillac of orchestras.'

If ever there was an orchestral showpiece, it is Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition.' It was not often commented upon, but Ormandy was especially good in his interpretation of Ravel's works. (I treasure above all others a vinyl recording of Ormandy and the Philadelphia playing Ravel's 'Rapsodie espagnole' and a later 'Tombeau de Couperin.') Here we get a masterful sonic depiction of Mussorgsky's stroll through a showing of the drawings and watercolors of his recently deceased friend, artist Victor Hartmann. The work gives the first desk players of the orchestra a chance to shine. I was particularly pleased with the playing of the Philly's then relatively new principal oboist, Richard Woodhams. Their sound is solid mahogany. Glorious. And the trumpet soloist in 'Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle' is nonpareil; I wish I could identify him but the name escapes me. Ormandy's handling of 'Bydlo' with the oxcart approaching, passing and disappearing into the distance is perfectly depicted. As it should be, the 'Great Gate at Kiev' is overwhelming in its impact. The sound of the brass section is solid mahogany. This is an exciting and completely satisfying performance of Mussorgsky's (and Ravel's) masterpiece.

I could not find a single criticism to make of this DVD. Considering that the performances are more than twenty-five years old and recorded with the technology of the time, that is noteworthy. I listened in both LPM Stereo and Dolby 5.1, but not DTS 5.1. Sound is just fine, and I've already commented on the videography, which tends to depend on close-ups of Perlman and Ormandy, but with many close views of the orchestra as well, all without detracting visually from the aural impact of the performance.

Strongly recommended.

Scott Morrison
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