Gustavo Dudamel / Hilary Hahn

Birthday Concert for Pope Benedict XVI [DVD Video]

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Birthday Concert for Pope Benedict XVI [DVD Video] Review

by James Leonard

For fans of the Pope, the last seven minutes of this disc will be a treat because that's when Benedict XVI, the first German-born pontiff, speaks words of thanks and blessing, in Italian and German, to an audience of 7,000 in the Aula Paolo VI in the Vatican on the occasion of his 80th birthday. For fans of Willi Stächele, the Baden-Württemberg Minister of State, and for fans of Peter Voss, the Director General of the Südwestrundfunks, the last seven minutes will be a treat because that's when they greet the audience in German. For fans of classical music, the middle 87 minutes of this disc will be where the action is because that's where young Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, young American violinist Hilary Hahn, and the mostly middle-aged Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR perform Mozart's A major Violin Concerto and Dvorák's E minor Symphony bookended by the orchestra's brass blasting Gabrieli's Canzona noni toni à 12 and Sonata XIII.

Dudamel had just been appointed music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic the week before this concert, and the excitement in his Dvorák is palpable. With his long curly black hair flying around him, Dudamel's conducting is clear and direct, not overly detailed but emphatic, his gestures big but not exaggerated, his facial expressions ranging from rage to ecstasy to heartfelt gratitude. Dudamel's tempos are sometimes driven, sometimes languid, but always flexible and always going somewhere, and his interpretation uses the work's marvelous melodies and glorious harmonies to express its often unappreciated formal structure. If this is the sort of performance Los Angeles has to look forward to, it may be worth moving to the city of angels.

When this concert was given, Hahn had been an internationally famous violinist for a decade, and the boredom in her Mozart is tangible. Standing staid and almost still with her hair tightly wrapped in a bun, Hahn plays the "mostly in first position" concerto as if it was a work with which she was too long familiar. Although her playing is always tasteful and beautiful, there's little warmth in her tone or enthusiasm in her technique. Even in the cadenzas she composed herself, Hahn appears objective to the point of abstraction.

On the other hand, the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR plays with the energy, the ensemble, and the richly textured tone of the great German orchestra it is, and the accompaniment to Hahn's Mozart is as graceful, bright, and joyful as its Dvorák is urgent, dark-hued, and passionately nostalgic. Director of photography Walter Hasenfratz's cameras do an excellent job of capturing the visual splendor of the event, and audio producer Dietmar Wolf's microphones do an incredible job of making the most of the impossible acoustics of the cavernous Aula Paolo VI. On a scale of 1 to 10, then, Dudamel is a 10, Hahn a 5, Wolf a 6, Hasenfratz and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester an 8, Stächele a 4, and Voss a 4. Benedict XVI, of course, is above and beyond any critical and ordinal system.