DVDs of classic BSO performances, Berlin Philharmonic

HANDEL: “Water Music” Suite (arr. Harty)

MOZART: Symphonies Nos. 36 (“Linz”) and 38 (“Prague”)

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Charles Munch, conductor

(ICA Classics DVD)


TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Erich Leinsdorf, conductor

(ICA Classics DVD)

ICA Classics continues its welcome series of video recordings that the Boston Symphony Orchestra made back in the 1950s and 1960s, in conjunction with WGBH-TV, under music directors Charles Munch and Erich Leinsdorf, often in repertoire with which they're not normally associated. That's the case with these two new releases, as Munch leads selections from Handel's “Water Music” and two late Mozart symphonies, and Leinsdorf ventures far afield with Tchaikovsky.

Both discs are revealing, but it’s the Leinsdorf that’s the eye opener.

Munch’s concerts were given at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, back when the BSO had a Sanders Theatre season, and shot in black and white, with limited camera movement, though there are plenty of close-ups. The Handel is a real throwback: Sir Hamilton Harty’s arrangement of six pieces from the “Water Music” for modern orchestra was a favorite in the ’50s but is hardly heard these days. Munch, in a concert from 1960, conducts just the F-major Allegro and Air and the D-major Hornpipe: The performance is not aggressively overdotted and has a spring in its step, with nicely shaded dynamics and sumptuous horns.


The Mozart symphonies — the “Linz,” from 1958, and the “Prague,” from 1959 — are variously successful. This is not lean-and-mean modern Mozart. In the “Linz” there's an easy swing to the siciliano second movement, and the Menuetto is stately without being stodgy. The outer movements, however, seem constricted and reserved, with little wit. The “Prague” fares better, boasting an operatic sense of drama and suspense to the opening, an Andante that’s a nocturnal serenade, and a nimbly bustling Presto finale.

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The Leinsdorf release is, except for the “encore,” taken from an April 1969 concert at Symphony Hall, and it was shot in color. Here Leinsdorf’s idiosyncratic technique can be studied from every angle, including overhead; he even appears in inset against soloists or the full orchestra. His “Egmont” seems calibrated rather than felt, and the bonus track — a minuet from Mozart’s “Posthorn” Serenade recorded at Sanders Theatre in 1963 — is of historical interest only.

But his performance of the Fifth Symphony is Tchaikovsky on speed, in its own way as remarkable as Serge Koussevitzky’s celebrated 1944 BSO recording of this work. There’s nothing world-weary about the Allegro con anima first movement, which drives like a snowstorm; the Andante cantabile is clear-eyed and full-bodied, and the finale is well, passionate. Leinsdorf could look quizzical on the podium; in this instance, he looks possessed.

Both discs offer an opportunity to renew acquaintance with some legendary BSO first-desk players: flutist Doriot Anthony Dwyer, oboist Ralph Gomberg, bassoonist Sherman Walt, principal horn James Stagliano, and, of course, timpanist Vic Firth. There are also informative liner notes from former Globe critic Richard Dyer.

Jeffrey Gantz

BACH: St. Matthew Passion

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

(Berliner Philharmoniker)

I will be surprised if the year brings any release more gripping or more important than this DVD, which captures what Peter Sellars calls his “ritualization” of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic in April 2010. Bach’s piece is inherently theatrical, and quasi-operatic stagings have been attempted before, but Sellars has done something unique. Instead of trying to capture the literal narrative of the Passion story, Sellars presents suggestive, minimally staged fragments of action, just enough to allow viewers to imagine and re-create the story of Jesus’s death for themselves.


A few boxes serve as props; one the size of a coffin is at the center of the drama. Choral singers and soloists, dressed in black, move about the stage — embracing one another, conversing, sitting dejectedly on the stage of the Philharmonie concert hall as the story unfolds. The movement suggests characters wandering through a story that they are experiencing yet cannot understand.

Crucially, the musicians become part of the drama rather than standing apart from it. The Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu makes his aria “I will stand by my Jesus” into a visual dialogue with oboist Albrecht Mayer; baritone Thomas Quasthoff, and violinist Daishin Kashimoto have an epic staredown during the former’s “Give me my Jesus back.”

The director makes a key dramatic choice by dispatching baritone Christian Gerhaher, singing the role of Jesus, to a balcony over the stage. That bit of staging gives him a disembodied presence, as if Jesus had already departed this earth before the story begins. It puts the dramatic focus squarely on the Evangelist, to whom the other characters bring their joy, their sadness, their unanswerable questions. His hands are bound when Christ is taken. The storyteller becomes the story.

Mark Padmore sings the Evangelist’s role with a light, agile vocal tone. But more impressive than his voice is the penetrating dramatic intensity he marshals. I cannot imagine how Padmore managed to sing his last words of Part I so delicately while lying stretched on the coffin-size box. Even if he were mute, his eyes, sad and piercing, could convey most of the story.

The sight of Padmore on the coffin is one of dozens of indelible images. The chorus singers run through the concert hall when the disciples are said to scatter after Jesus’ arrest. The women of the chorus comfort mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozená as she sings “Now my Jesus is gone.” Padmore and bass Jörg Schneider (as Judas Iscariot) touch each other’s face and share a long, silent gaze after Judas asks whether he will be the one to betray Jesus. Padmore falls lifeless on the ground at the beginning of Quasthoff’s “Come, sweet cross” aria.


The sight of the chorus making cradling motions while singing of holding Jesus after his death undid me completely.

If this sounds at all campy, trust me, it isn’t: Everything is done with the utmost sincerity. Standing apart from the dramatic flow is Simon Rattle, who shuttles back and forth between two podiums while conducting a performance that bristles with emotion and urgency. Rattle makes some shocking choices: The infamous chorus in which the crowd demands “Let his blood be upon us and our children,” which usually sounds jarringly dissonant, is conveyed with a grave, hopeless beauty.

Quasthoff, who recently retired from public performance, said that the “St. Matthew” performances were “very, very moving and very, very special.” Rattle, who has now led the Berlin Philharmonic for almost a decade, called them “the most important thing we ever did here,” and it is hard to disagree. I have never experienced such an overflow of meaning in this most meaningful of pieces. Here is that rare performance that sweeps away a work’s past and revivifies it — and, in so doing, demands to be seen and heard.

David Weininger