May 1, 2016, will probably go down as a red-letter day in the affairs of Røros, the remote former copper-mining settlement in central Norway where this year the Berlin Philharmonic presented its annual Europakonzert in the handsome 1784 rococo church that overlooks the town. It might be a red-letter day, too, for anyone who acquires this DVD, for the concert itself has more than a touch of magic about it.
Norway itself features twice, first in the haunting introit in which oboist Albrecht Mayer casts his spell in the lonely goatherd’s song in Grieg’s arrangement for small orchestra of his ‘Evening in the mountains’. And then in Vilde Frang’s encore for solo violin, the second movement, ‘Veslefrikk’ (‘Naughty boy’), from Bjarne Brustad’s 1932 Evantyrsuite (‘Fairy Tale Suite’), a witty yet technically intricate piece somewhat after the manner of Bartók.
Frang, whose disc of the Korngold and Britten concertos (Warner Classics, 2/16) won the Concerto category in last month’s Gramophone Awards, is predictably fine in the Mendelssohn, technically accomplished and emotionally engaged. And what a joy it must be to play this concerto with the Berliners, whose sensitivity to Mendelssohn’s instrumental imaginings is second to none. The result is a performance that is vital and alive yet also steeped in melancholy.
Beethoven’s Eroica might seem a curious envoi for such an evening, though I can see that a progress from the shadows of Mendelssohn’s E minor to the sunlit uplands of Beethoven’s transfigured E flat does have the makings of a special journey. The size of the Røros sanctuary means that there are fewer Berlin strings onstage. With most orchestras this would spell death in the Eroica but not here, where the performance yields nothing to Rattle’s recent Berlin recording (Berliner Philharmoniker, 6/16) in depth of sound and richness of palette, while surpassing it as a superbly engaged re enactment of the music. Had the performance been available when I completed last month’s Gramophone Collection on the symphony, it would have given Abbado’s memorable 2002 BPO Rome Eroica a run for its money.
The sound in the symphony may be a touch boxy – more a result, I suspect, of the church’s fabric-draped glass clerestory windows than the actual box pews – but it is no worse than the acoustic of, say, Berlin’s old Titania Palast, where Furtwängler conducted some comparably memorable Eroicas.
I tend to listen to DVDs rather than watch them but Henning Kasten’s video direction, the occasional redundancy notwithstanding, strikes a nice balance between location shots and a properly informed view of the music-making. The only drawback is the EuroArts packaging, which is a disgrace. There is no programme booklet and so nothing about the musicians, the location, the occasion or, indeed, the music (you read about that here first). Even the back-cover blurb is lazily edited, giving the founding of the BPO as 1892, not 1882. A memorable release nonetheless.