Nobel Prize Concert 2009, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Ravel, Shostakovich, EuroArts 2057898 (Blu-ray 2057894)
Tan Dun: Paper Concerto, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Opus Arte OA1013D
The Gustav Mahler Celebration, Symphony No. 2 (excerpts), etc, Von Otter, Hampson, EuroArts 2058148
Beethoven, Symphony No. 3, Coriolan Overture, Leopold Stokowski, BMG Classic 2862876
The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra features in two DVDs this month. The first, from EuroArts, contains the December 2009 Nobel Prize Concert, of which the highlight was presumably intended to be the participation of Martha Argerich playing Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major. She is indeed magnificent, and the wistful tenderness of the slow movement is certainly compelling. However, even more wonderful is the performance after the interval by the orchestra alone of two of Prokofiev’s three Romeo and Juliet suites, or at least the whole of the second suite and three items from the first.
This is absolutely stupendous. The Friar Laurence item from the second suite and The Death of Tybalt from the first suite, with which the performance ends, are both outstanding. Taken together with Argerich in the Ravel concerto, this constitutes a magnificent DVD and is consequently highly recommended.
Tan Dun (譚盾), with his involvement in the Beijing Olympics and the YouTube Orchestra, has certainly been instrumental in gaining a measure of acceptance for contemporary music. His Paper Concerto (紙樂), by contrast, will have to work harder to acquire adherents. A piece whose climaxes include the ripping of sheets of paper and the exploding of a paper bag doesn’t immediately strike many emotional or intellectual chords.
But the Opus Arte DVD, as well as containing the concerto (performed again by the Royal Stockholm forces, this time with Tan on the podium), also includes three short documentary films. These feature a village in China’s Yunnan Province, plus Tan demonstrating the many “musical” uses of paper. These are all more interesting than the work itself, and I suggest that anyone venturing into this strange territory watches them before attempting the Paper Concerto itself.
The problem with the concerto is that it isn’t really a musical experience at all. Despite Tan’s attempts in two of the documentaries to show how notes can be obtained from sheets or rolls of paper, the function of the various paper devices he persuades his soloists to use is essentially percussive. Would there be much mileage in a concerto for drum kit? Tan loves to probe new possibilities, but here he seems to be exploring something of a cul-de-sac.
What you do learn is that the use of paper for the sake of its sounds is shamanistic in origin — as a result, Tan insists the paper used should always be white. The village documentary, incidentally, contains some highly attractive footage of Miao villagers, including children, singing and dancing.
A DVD from EuroArts entitled Celebration and consisting of a concert honoring the 150th anniversary of Mahler’s birth given in the village where he was born, currently in the Czech Republic, is unlikely to raise much enthusiasm. Its strength is that it features performances by guest soloists Anne Sophie Von Otter and Thomas Hampson, its weakness that it offers bits of this and that, but nothing to get your teeth into.