Berlin Philharmonic (Harnoncourt) – ‘Johann Strauss in Berlin’ A DVD-Audio review by Stuart M. Robinson

Although the number of classical DVD-Audio releases is steadily increasing, as much as it pains me to say so, only a precious few titles are actually worth listening to. For some reason, record labels feel that classical music buffs – who are often the most hardened and critical of listeners – will be happy with sub-standard, often aged recordings sloppily remixed for six channels.

Think again. I’ve lost count of the professional reviewers, manufacturer representatives and consumers who have voiced their complaints about DVD-Audio’s woeful classical music catalogue, especially in the light of the SACD competition. Just a few weeks ago, Pioneer’s own John Bamford went out of his way to tell me how dismayed he was to learn that at recent European DVD-Audio media presentations, members of the press were given what he (and I) consider to be mediocre classical music titles, thereby resulting in an unfortunate, but understandable reaction to the format.

John had a solution however, and an obvious one at that. Seek out those classical music recordings that will serve as a showcase for the DVD-Audio format, and to that end he suggested I obtain two Nikolaus Harnoncourt titles on the Teldec label (a classical arm of Warner Bros).

The first of those is reviewed here. Entitled ‘Johann StrauЯ in Berlin’ (or ‘Johann Strauss in Berlin’ for those of you using the English corrupted spelling – a collection of StrauЯ polkas, waltzes and marches played by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Most of the StrauЯ works on this disc are in some way connected with Berlin, hence the title. StrauЯ often performed concerts in the city and even premiиred works there, including the polka ‘Pigeons of St. Mark’s’ and the ‘Emperor Waltz’, written to celebrate the alliance between the emperors Franz Joseph and Wilhelm that is often considered to be amongst the finest of StrauЯ compositions.

Even if you no nothing about classical music, many StrauЯ pieces will be familiar, ‘Voices of Spring’ and the ‘Tritsch-Tratsch Polka’ being obvious examples. And let’s not forget that it was ‘On the Beautiful Blue Danube’ that made many ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ scenes so memorable. StrauЯ works are invariably up beat and often joyous, contrasting quiet passages with all the power and forcefulness of a full orchestra. Way back when I was percussionist in a small orchestra, StrauЯ was one of the most favored composers amongst fellow performers. His popular pieces allowed us to demonstrate our finesse and unrivalled musical artistry, while at the same time providing an opportunity to let rip with everything we had. A small delicate ‘ting’ on a treble bell, quickly followed by a damn good thrashing of the biggest bass drum one could find.

Harnoncourt, as he explains at some length within the disc’s liner notes, has attempted and in my opinion succeeded, to preserve the original timing and intonation of the StrauЯ pieces featured here. He writes: “And the famous ‘oom-pah-pah’ – or, as the Viennese say, ‘ess-tam-tam’ – in a great waltz accompaniment is a thing of great delicacy whose rhythms resemble the complex pounding of the heart. To perform it is simple, but not at all easy! The second beat should be a little too early, but if it is, then it really is too early. ” Harnoncourt’s timing is spot-on; unlike many imitators his StrauЯ interpretations have the rhythmic precision they deserve yet are not played at a fast and furious pace, as is the current unfortunate trend.

The music is engaging and the performance, both in terms of orchestral direction and the accomplishments of the musicians involved is outstanding, but what about the sonic qualities of the disc? Will yet another classical music release fall wide of the high fidelity target?

The answer is undoubtedly ‘no’ as from start to finish, ‘Johann StrauЯ in Berlin’ turns out to be a stunning, jaw-dropping experience. Recorded at 24-bit 96kHz in September 1998 and April 1999 using a Senex SX 8000 MOD system, one is first impressed by the lack of any discernable background noise, aside from the odd shuffling of orchestra members, especially as five of the tracks are taken from a live performance.

Then the fidelity of the recording itself becomes apparent as each group of instruments is captured with such precision as to be startlingly realistic. One can clearly hear not only the musical range differences between violins and violas, for example, but also the tonal qualities of the instruments. The string section as a whole is conveyed without even the slightest hint of veiling or the softened high frequencies apparent in other recordings. It’s even possible to pick out certain groups of instruments; the clarinet counterpoise during the ‘Tritsch-Tratsch Polka’ or the snap of an ‘Emperor Waltz’ snare drum. Loud and soft passages are delivered with equal aplomb, rarely have I heard such convincing kettledrums – towards the end of the ‘Emperor Waltz’ – even when the remainder of the orchestra is in full flight. There is a remarkable passage within the overture of ‘De Fledermaus’ where one can distinctly hear the ringing decay of a triangle even beneath the crescendo of strings, brass and percussion.

The third, and perhaps most obvious attraction of the disc is its huge dynamic range. Quiet sounds are just that, they’re soft, delicate and distinct, and then just when you’re off-guard, along comes a wave of unbridled power, unleashed by the remainder of the orchestra, complete with quite alarming low frequency energy from both kettle- and bass drums. Those low frequency elements are sharp, dynamic and have an incredible level of transient attack.

The multi-channel presentation could also be considered flawless; it is gimmick-free and utterly convincing. Teldec engineers have managed to convey a true sense of three-dimensional space thanks to subtle use of ambient cues from the surround channels, along with an engrossing left/centre/right soundstage that accurately replicates the layout of the orchestra. One expects the brass to be towards the right and the violins to the left, and that’s exactly where they are. Instruments towards the front of the orchestra are distinct, whereas those towards the rear are more diffuse, influenced by the sonic signature of the hall itself. If there is a more natural, faithful presentation of an orchestral concert, I have yet to hear it.

The disc only contains a handful of supplementary materials; there is a brief Harnoncourt biography, a small number of still images and brief details about alternative titles from the Teldec catalogue, including a three and a half minute mini-documentary promoting Zubin Mehta’s earlier release of Mahler’s Symphony number 2.

I cannot recommend ‘Johann StrauЯ in Berlin’ highly enough. It is a wonderful example of DVD-Audio at its finest and should, finally, prove to classical music buffs and the sceptical press alike that the format has huge potential. I sat through the entire disc grinning from ear to ear, and you will too, ‘Johann StrauЯ in Berlin’ is an outstanding recording accomplishment.