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Daniel Barenboim: Warsaw Recital & other DVDs by Accentus

img  Tobias Fischer

The DVD, which many, at the time of its arrival on the market, touted as the saviour of classical music, has never quite lived up to its promise. In fact, rather than representing a paradigm of quality, it has, in a way, only cast the discrepancy between a glorious past - in which operas were turned into breathtaking movies and Herbert von Karajan could invest sums usually allotted to Hollywood blockbusters into stunningly artful cinematic representations of his Beethoven symphonies (documented in various movies as well as revealing documentary Maestro for the Screen / Filmstar Karajan) - and a present, in which mostly amateuristic productions clearly lag behind the live experience, in even sharper relief. And yet, just when the format seemed to have resigned itself to s small niche, it appears to be staging a comeback. In London, Van Walsum successor ICA, in a bid of becoming the first all-round artist management company, has begun publishing a series of remarkable videos, documenting classic performances by artist from Georg Solti to the Beaux Arts Trio. And on the other side of the channel, in Bach's former hometown of Leipzig, multi-media specialists Accentus have equally established themselves as an ambitious new platform. At the heart of the ir strategy are collaborations with national and European broadcasting associations as well as a seemingly simple creed: Making the quality of the images match the quality of the music.

You only realise how anything but obvious this claim is on watching Lucerne Festival at Easter, one of a quartet of recordings marking the label's entry on the market. Recorded at the Concert Hall of the KKL Luzern, the movie conveys the feeling of being awarded a first row seat right behind Italian maestro Claudio Abbado, as he leads the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela through a heartfelt rendition of Tchaikovsky's „Pathétique“. In fact, one could claim that the feeling is more akin to sitting right next to him on stage. After all, one arguably takes in more here than even from the most expensive seat in the house: All the tiny details of his facial expression and subtle nuances of the hands, with which he nonetheless decisively eases the musicians through this maze of inter-related themes and glowing and subsiding passions, or even the heartfelt little „bravo“, which he silently extends to them after having safely navigated through the whirlwind of the majestic first movement, are suddenly becoming visible and reveal the relationship between the all but eighty year old conductor and his youthful co-combatants as one of paternal guidance on the one hand and mutual respect and feedback on the other.

In a sense, nothing is revolutionary about the footage, nor about the Accentus catalogue in general. All releases up until now have been live-productions feauturing a roster of distinguished artists and, perhaps with the exception of a release dedicated to the 300th birthday of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, established repertoire. What does stand out, though, is the focus on offering multi-angle productions clearly edited by music professionals with an eye and ear to the score (which, as on Abbado's Lulu-Suite by Alban Berg, serves to render the music pleasantly translucent and clear), a powerful and rich sound (some of the deep brass vibrations on the same Berg-piece would knock even the calmest Tibetan monk off his slippers) as well as a notable penchant for contemporary interpretations. All four DVDs were recorded as recently as last year, signaling a highly welcome tendency to try and keep a finger on the pulse - an important gesture in terms of re-connecting classical music with the time we're living in rather than placing it in a distant galaxy of its own.

Important, too, is the emphasis on treating each DVD as a unique project. If the Abbado-disc brought the sensation of a big symphony hall to the living room, then Daniel Barenboim's Warsaw Recital is recreating the sense of intimacy that Chopin's music deeply suggests, but is rarely awarded. The f-minor Fantasia, which he enters into after a short but seminal ten-second moment of concentration and focus, is therefore an ideal opening to this one and a half hours long immersion into the work of the composer in his hometown: While the music, in the very spirit of a fantasy, seems to flow from the moment, as if created in a sudden outburst of inspiration and on-the-spot improvisation, the camera captures both Barenboim's reflection in the lid and his silhouette against a transfixed audience, sending the listener gently into a sweet, spiritual limbo, from which he will only awake one and a half hours later, when the last, fiery notes of a furiously paced Waltz No 1 have completely died down. The rapport between the music and moving image is particularly close here. In the most striking scene of the entire evening, the Marche funèbre of the Sonata in b flat minor, the camera zooms in on the sound board of the piano and as Barenboim creates the instantly recognisable motoric rhythm of the opening bars with deadly precision and a cold, mechanical drive, the movement of the hammers almost visually depicts the slow, sorrowful stumble of a funeral procession. In moments like these, tiny details can take on seminal importance: One of the images that stays with you long after the concert is over, are the close-ups of Barenboim's hands – thick, round, remarkably unpianistic hands extending into knobby fingers, which despite their seemingly unspectacular gestures are capable of making the earth stand still for as long as they're in contact with the keyboard.

On the other hand, some of those details can prove too be much, especially when they're bordering manierism. In the case of the double bill of Evgeny Kissin and Nikolai Demidenko performing the two Chopin piano concertos, watching the soloists in action - contorting their faces into all kinds of lachrymose grimaces – almost makes you want to avert your eyes. On the other hand: Whatever works. Demidenko especially appears positively thrilled about being able to perform the first concerto, which, with its feathery runs and gently rolling harmonies seems  to have been all but written especially for him. In striking contrast with Barenboim's extreme shifts between explosive fusillades and highly controlled reticence and Kissin's fulminante style, Demidenko's touch is all honey, silk and air and makes even the most breakneck escapades seem like musical ballet – at times, it almost sounds, as though he were playing on a keyboard made of shimmering icicles. The lightness of touch almost makes you forget the astounding virtuosity involved – an impression more than compensated by Kissin, whose approach has a more athletic and yet nonetheless profound resemblance. No wonder, that he chooses to play one of Chopin's étude as an encore, setting himself the task of performing it, put simply, as fast as he possibly can.

Thanks to its dream line-up and formidable performances, the Kissin/Demidenko could easily have turned out a reference recording. On the other hand, it somewhat suffers from a production balance, which reneges the orchestra to second tier by overemphasising the solo piano. It is a feat, of course, which has become standard practise for concerto recordings in general. But here one notices it with particular urgency, since this post-production decision clashes conceptually with the pervasive sensation of witnessing a spontaneous offering. It is the only minor point of criticism, however, about these releases, which may not reinvent the wheel, but do offer a promising future for the DVD in classical music. Considering the sad state of the format, that is an impressive achievement for sure.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Accentus Recordings
Homepage: Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra
Homepage: Daniel Barenboim
Homepage: Evgeny Kissin
Homepage: Nikolai Demidenko

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