The old model for creating a hit classical recording – big-name soloist plus big-name conductor in major repertory work – is not so common anymore, but this live Brahms recording from the Staatskapelle Berlin under Venezuela's Gustavo Dudamel, with Argentine-Israeli-Palestinian-Spanish pianist Daniel Barenboim as soloist, shows that there's life in the concept yet. One could point to the virtues of pianist and conductor separately: it's a rare septuagenarian who can combine power and clear articulation of detail the way Barenboim does, and Dudamel builds a vast sweep in, especially, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15. But it's the way that the two work together that really makes news. Chalk it up to shared South American heritage or to whatever the listener wants, but the way the orchestra and piano define separate spheres and work them together is extraordinary. Again, it is in the Piano Concerto No. 1 and its Beethovenian drama that their mutual understanding is most evident, but there is a sense of great variety powerfully unified throughout.
Maxim Vengerov now confronts - and conquers - one of the supreme challenges all great violinists must face: The Brahms violin concerto. This beautiful, virtuosic work has defined careers from Heifetz to Perlman. Vengerov's turn has come, and his rich, burnished tone and impassioned phrasing make this one of the standout concerto CDs of the year. The soulful partnership of Vengerov and Barenboim (one of his most important mentors) is also a strong selling point.
In the early 1990s Daniel Barenboim recorded the three Da Ponte operas with the Berlin Philharmonic. The BPO had played "Figaro" and "Don Giovanni" many times, but this was the first time that the group had ever tackled "Cosi fan tutte." Perhaps that is why they sound so fresh and energized under the thoughtful baton of Barenboim. Mozart's operas are usually performed with a small chamber or opera house orchestra, but this time the score of "Cosi" (which has so many beautiful, subtle touches, and is almost a celebration of beauty itself) is given the full treatment of perhaps the greatest orchestra in the world. While the resulting sound is somewhat "bigger" and more "lush" than is usual, Barenboim does manage to keep things appropriately light and "classical," just as he has so successfully done in the piano concertos which he is recording with the BPO.