SHOSTAKOVICH: The Bolt, Op 27a (Ballet Suite). Jazz Suites 1 & 2. Tahiti Trot, Op. 16
Russian State Symphony Orch/Dmitry Yablonsky, cond.
NAXOS DVDA 5.110006 (B) (DDD) TT: 62:14

MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 in C Sharp Minor. ADÈS: Asyla.
Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Sir Simon Rattle, cond.
EMI CLASSICS DVD 903269 (F) (DDD) TT: 125 min & 69 min.

The Naxos DVD, which is mid-price, is a worthy addition to the DVD Audio catalog. For many the highlights will be the delightful Jazz Suites and the clever Tahiti Trot, an arrangement of Vincent Youmans' famous song Tea for Two. The latter was written in1928 in less than hour when conductor Nicolai Malko challenged the young composer to make an orchestration of the popular song. It took Shostakovich only 40 minutes and the four-minute piece has been a favorite with audiences ever since. The major work, The Bolt, first produced in 1931, is a comic view of a scenario of industrial espionage. After a rather sombre Overture there is a series of vivid dances including a polka and tango. When listening to the DVD on the screen one can see a series of scenes from the ballet. The recording was made in October 2001 in Studio 5 of the Moscow State Broadcasting and Recording House, produced by Lubiv Doronina, engineered by Aleksander Karasev. The sound is not very resonant but extraordinarily clear.The orchestra isn't as big as the Royal Concertgebouw version conducted by Riccardo Chailly, which is a winner in its own right, very well recorded although not multi-channel. The surround sound on the Naxos DVD places the orchestra in front with ambient sound from other speakers. It's very effective.

There's been much publicity about Sir Simon Rattle's new association as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. This DVD documents his first official concert in that position, concerts recorded September 7-10, 2002 in Philharmonie Hall, Berlin. First off, let me say it is visually superb—cameras are in the right place at the right time, color and focus are vividly clear. On the DVD Video disk for audio you have a choice of Linear PCM Stereo, dts 5.1 surround or Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. For some reason, notes refer to the surround sound as "5.1" in some places, "six-channel sound" in others—of course they are both the same. The two disks sell for the price of one, and as a "special feature" the Video disk also includes a conversation between Nicholas Kenyon and Simon Rattle. On the bonus DVD Audio disk you have only still photographs to accompany the performance, and your choice of 5.1 uncompressed MLP 5.1 surround sound or uncompressed PPCM stereo. The sound in both formats is very clear, and defined which permits virtually every orchestral detail to be heard; I prefer a bigger, more resonant sound.

The young British composer Thomas Adès was commissioned by the City of Birmingham Symphony to write Asyla, and the work was first performed with Rattle conducting in October 1997. It is described as a 22-minute four-movement "symphony" requiring a huge orchestra. "Asyla" is plural "asylum" and the music encompasses "refuge, sanctuary and madhouse." Most of it is soft with incredibly intricate writing for woodwinds and brass. Percussion includes a gong which, after being struck, is quickly lowered into a container of water (I wonder if the composer specified the temperature of the water?). Also at one point two tins of canned vegetables are "played" with mallets; I also noticed a table knife and fork on the percussionist's stand, but didn't notice them being "played." There's also a washboard occasionally scraped. The score calls for a regular piano and an upright; often during the performance the camera would linger on the upright piano player but I couldn't hear any of the notes played. Frankly, I don't think it makes any difference. The Berlin audience seemed to appreciate Asyla much more than I did and gave the composer quite an ovation. Rattle's Mahler 5 is of course beautifully played (with the solo horn standing in front of the orchestra during the third movement, and has been praised by some critics, not by others (see REVIEW). It's rather far down on my list of preferred Mahler Fifths; there are two other multi-channel recordings currently available. For surround sound I prefer the Telarc SACD with Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia Orchestra; the other SACD is with the Netherlands Philharmonic conducted by Helmut Haenchen on Pentatone, cavernously recorded, bass-heavy and not as well played.

R.E.B. (August 2003)