The annual Waldbuhne (‘forest stage’) concerts are Berlin's answer to Vienna's New Year concerts. Each sees the same orchestra, in this case the Berlin Philharmonic, under a different guest conductor each year, and in both cases the results prove eminently collectable on DVD. These summer Berlin events, however, held outdoors in front of a beer-can-waving, T-shirt-clad crowd, are greatly preferable to their staid Viennese equivalent. Paradoxically, this is because the choice of music reflects a more serious set of assumptions.
Taiwan's Jingo is currently issuing the concerts from 1992 to 2003 and, judging from a random sample, the artistic level is high. Full-length symphonic works are often included — Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto on one, Richard Strauss's Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel on another. And in the same way that the Vienna concerts all include regular popular favorites, so too these Berlin ones all end with Berliner Luft, with the audience joining in, dancing round waving sparklers, and the rest.
Most attractive by quite a long way of the items I've watched is the 1999 concert conducted by James Levine, with Ben Heppner as special guest. The kindly face of Levine always guarantees a good DVD, if only because you know he'll break out into open jollity sooner or later. Dubbed “A Romantic Opera Night,” it's in reality all Strauss and Wagner. Heppner is in exceptionally good voice, and indeed this would be an ideal vehicle for demonstrating just what an extraordinary heroic tenor he is.
He opens with three Strauss songs, then goes on to In fernem Land from Wagner's Lohengrin, Walther's Prize Song from Meistersinger, and the Italian tenor's aria from Rosenkavalier, often thought of as pastiche but here rendered very lovingly. In every case Heppner demonstrates extraordinary generosity. This is Levine's characteristic quality as well, and you can clearly see how amazed Levine is by his performance. Heppner's a leonine figure to look at, too — with his hair sleeked back and dressed in many layers of formal attire. Wonderful as Levine always is, this is very much Ben Heppner's DVD.
When they come to Berliner Luft, rather than attempting to conduct, Levine simply stands still, an American letting the Berliners get on with it, orchestra and rampaging audience together.
The entire situation tends to highlight the character of the guest conductors. Seiji Ozawa, for example, virtually dances his way through the 2003 jazz-oriented evening, mainly of Gershwin, with the Marcus Roberts Trio as special guests, whereas Zubin Mehta appears rather taken aback by the 1997 event he presides over (without printed music) — an evening of Russian pieces, with Daniel Barenboim at the piano.
Second best to the Levine concert I found to be the 1998 one of Latin American music, again with Barenboim, and John Williams as guest soloist. You get Rodrigo's Concerto Aranjuez complete, and the orchestra are visibly (and rightly) impressed by Williams' self-effacing musicianship.
Gounod's Faust needs radical treatment if it's to be made to appeal today. Ken Russell, the celebrated UK filmmaker from the 1960s, had a go for the Vienna State Opera in 1985, and the result has just been issued on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon. Marguerite (Gabriela Benackova) is bizarrely made into a nun, with no clear benefits to the story, and although Francisco Araiza turns in a fine performance as Faust, as does Ruggero Raimondi as Mephistopheles, nothing can alter the ponderous sentimentality of the music. The Walpurgis Night ballet scene, which you would have thought suited Russell's talents, is cut. Even so, if you want a DVD of Faust this one will probably do as well as any other.