The BR-Klassik Greatest Moments comprises superb music defined by grand, sweeping gestures and lush, full-body sounds, elements at which these German orchestras excel.
It is always exciting to listen to an orchestra’s greatest hits, and with this collection we get to hear a selection of favourites from a fantastic German orchestra, namely the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra); the Münchner Rundfunkorchester (Munich Radio Orchestra) and Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks (Bavarian Radio Choir) are also present on this album. Some of the best conductors of the 20th century are featured, including Mariss Jansons, Peter Dijkstra, Simon Rattle and Bernard Haitink.
What immediately grabs my attention is the diversity of the programme which ranges from the delicate Baroque sounds of Bach to the contemporary tone clusters of Arvo Pärt. The majority of the works presented here were composed in the Romantic era, a period of music defined by grand, sweeping gestures and lush, full-body sounds, elements at which these German orchestras excel.
We are transported to Spain for the opening rhapsody, España (1833) by the French composer Emmanuel Chabrier. This energetic, uplifting work, described by Mahler as “the start of modern music”, is by far Chabrier’s most famous work, the one which ensured his fame. The orchestra performs this joyful musical diary of Chabrier’s Spanish travels with conviction under the baton of Mariss Jansons. The only downside is that the percussion, particularly the cymbals, sounds quite distant and muffled.
From the warm sunshine of Spain, we move on to Czechoslovakia/America for the third movement of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphonie Nr. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, more commonly known as the ‘New World Symphony’. While Dvořák ’s characteristic Czech style is abundant, the themes are based on the native music of America that he heard while visiting. More particularly, the third movement is based on a Native American dance in Hiawatha. While this is Dvořák ’s most famous symphony, the third movement does not contain the popular ‘New World’ theme. The sound quality of this recording is already a vast improvement on the previous work.
Next on the programme is Joseph Haydn’sDie Schöpfung (‘The Creation’, 1798). This classical era oratorio depicts the creation of the world, as told in the Book of Genesis. This movement, ‘Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes’ (‘The heavens are telling the glory of God) comes from the end of the fourth day of the world in which light triumphs darkness.
Going back further in time we come across the beloved Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor which again features the choir. It is quite a treat to be able to hear the orchestras switch between bombastic, syncopated works such as from Dvořák to the light, fragile melodies of Bach and then back to Dvořák , this time in a meditative and slow-paced Stabat Mater which begins seamlessly after a short orchestral interlude of Walter Braunfels’ Verkündigung, Op. 50 (1948). Under the direction of Mariss Jansons, the orchestra and choir patiently create a very long build-up to a fantastic climax in the live recording of the Dvořák.
The second half of the programme features all Romantic-era works, with the exception of the ‘Gloria’ from Arvo Pärt’s Berlin Mass(1990-7) and the ‘Hallelujah!’ chorus from G.F. Handel’s The Messiah (1742), both of which are conducted by Peter Dijkstra. In addition to yet another work by Dvořák, works by the great composers Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Wagner are presented followed by the final movement (‘The Great Gate of Kiev’) of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition to conclude a wildly diverse and captivating programme.
While the recording quality varies between tracks, it is generally very enjoyable. The biggest downside is that there is not a booklet for this album and it is then impossible to know who is performing each piece and when each work was originally recorded. In (some of?) the live recordings, the sound of the audience’s applause is left in. Since this only is present in a few of the works, it feels distracting and seems to only act as a reminder to the listener that a work was performed live.