DVD & Blu-ray Reviews
DVD-Video Reviews, Part 1 of 3
Published on April 1, 2004
PROKOFIEV: Romeo and Juliet Ballet
Galina Ulanova, Juliet Yuri Zhdanov, Romeo S. Koren, Mercutio A. Yermolayev, Tybalt; Members of the Bolshoi Ballet Choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky (co-director) Directed by L. Arnstam Music conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky
Studio: VAI DVD 4260
Video: 4:3 color
Extras: Bonus Track from Swan Lake
Length: 91 minutes
Filmed in vivid, even lurid color in 1954, this Russian film version of Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet may be to ballet what Citizen Kane is to film noir – a kind of archetype. If Franco Zefferelli watched it, I am sure he learned much from its staging and cutting, which is consistently cinematic and not “just another movie of a static ballet set.” The principal dancer and obvious star of this mighty paean to tragic love is Galina Ulanova (1910-1988), for whom Prokofiev wrote this ballet in 1935, as well as his scores for Cinderella and The Stone Flower. To watch her transform from a naive free-spirited youngster to a mature self-willed woman in love is a coup of acting worthy of Vivian Leigh, Janet Gaynor, or Celeste Holm (both of the latter whom Ulanova resembles).
Typical of Russian film credits, no first names are supplied for any other of the principals except Romeo, Yuri Zhdanov, fifteen years Ulanova’s junior (remember the Nureyev-Fontaine collaboration for Sadler’s Wells) but equally lyric and athletic in the part. He and Ulanova make an exquisite series of love-as-altar, love-as-crucifixion tableaux in the course of the ballet, especially in the economical but geometrically perfect chapel scene with Friar Laurence marking their betrothal. A. Yermolayev plays the arrogant and bilious Tybalt to perfection, with an engaging, lithe presence reminiscent of both Henry Daniell and Nigel Davenport. S. Koren’s Mercutio captures the flamboyant, devil-may-care quality of his nature until the fatal duel with Tybalt, when his look of mortality is enough to convey “a pox on both your houses.”
Wonderful large-ensemble shooting and editing makes this an eminently visual experience, with the opening “I bite my thumb” street brawl chaotic and menacing enough to warrant the Duke’s intervention. The death of Tybalt is cut to a high balcony where Juliet empathetically suffers the death blow herself. The decors and the lighting are at times startling, a cross between the Italian new-wave cinema of Antonioni and the garish, angular set designs of Dr. Caligari. But dominating the entire production is Ulanova’s versatile, spontaneous grace and effortless dancing – a merger of dramaturgy and ballet at its highest level. The bonus track, the White Swan pas de deux with Konstantin Sergeyev, is poised and elegant but it’s like watching marble come to life in contrast to the flexible and fluent motions of the Prokofiev. Highly recommended.
The Art of Joan Sutherland: Operatic Scenes 1963; Live Lieder Recital 1969
Richard Bonynge, piano and conducting The CBC Orchestra
Richard Conrad, tenor
Studio: VAI DVD 4254
Video: Black & White/Color, 4:3
Length: 110 minutes
Alternately entitled “The Art of Joan Sutherland” and “The Art of Bel Canto,” this compilation of two Canadian broadcast productions captures the florid, coloratura art of soprano Joan Sutherland accompanied by one of her muses (the other was her mother), husband Richard Bonynge. Sutherland herself provides narration for the 1963 survey of operatic arias by way of Prima Donnas, discussing her predecessors, like Galli-Curci, Patti, and Sembrich in the roles she performs in full consciousness of her heritage. We hear arias from Bellini’s I Puritani and La Sonnambula, Rossini’s Semiramide, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, Ricci’s Crispino e la Comare, Verdi’s La Traviata, and a virtuoso aria by Benedict (Jenny Lind’s accompanist), “The Gypsy and the Bird.”
The 1963 set of opera arias is staged, with mostly pasteboard backdrops, but the singing is real enough. All of the Sutherland virtues are evident: the florid melismas and cadenzas, the breath control, the sustained high notes, the rhythmic acuity. Personally, I have always had reservations about her tonal quality and its “white” notes, her often slurred diction, her wooden acting. But her ability to resuscitate both operatic virtuosity and the salon lyric are historically noteworthy. She and lyric tenor Richard Conrad make for a splendid duet in Verdi’s “Sempre libera,” especially after the empty-headed pyrotechnics of Ricci’s Annetta, who claims that being a doctor’s wife makes her the prettiest of all.
Producer Franz Kraemer introduces the 1969 recital of Italian, French, Russian, and English songs, a recital marked by its warm geniality of artists and audience. As Kraemer points, out, gypsies, birds, nature, and naughty girls who turn out to be virtuous are the oft-used subjects of the composers who wish to have their sopranos compete with nightingales. So, Alabiev’s “The Nightingale,” Abt’s “Sage mir, Vogel,” and Delibes’ “Le Rossignol” come as no surprise. The opening arias from 18th century competitors Bononcini and Handel show off that florid, deft vocal style that Sutherland and Marilyn Horne would perfect for late 20th century performances. Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl provides the rubric song, “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls” that Sutherland references in her recollections of early musical impressions. Now a true Prima Donna Assoluta, Dame Sutherland inhabits those marble halls, the darling of the coloratura tradition that nurtured her.
Allegro Non Troppo (1976-79)
Written & directed by Bruno Bozetto
Studio: Italtoons/Home Vision Entertainment
Video: 4:3 color & B&W
Audio: Stereo, original Italian language soundtrack
Subtitles: English for live action sequences
Extras: Bonus features: The Best of Bruno Bozzetto (10 short films) & The World of Bozzetto (Italian TV documentary); Notes by film critic Phil Hall
Length: 85 minutes
Bozetto is Italy’s master animator who decided in the early 70s to create his own feature-length tribute/parody/sequel of Disney’s 1939 concert music/animation extravaganza Fantasia. There are six classical selections, featuring familiar classics: Debussy’s Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun, Ravel’s Bolero, Sibelius’s Valse Triste, and music of Vivaldi, Dvorak and Stravinsky. The music comes from recordings by Karajan, Maazel and Hans Stadlmair. In between the animation & music sections are black & white live action sequences involving a demanding conductor leading a symphony orchestra of grandmothers and starring actor Maurizio Nichetti as a put-upon animator. These slapstick “breaks” as Bozetto calls them are not nearly as effective as the animation portions. Bozetto explains in the documentary how he stayed within his limited budget by asking everyone working on the film to send a grandmother to be in the orchestra sequence filming. The was to provide a gross alternative to the classy images of Stokowski conducting his Philadelphia Orchestra seen in Disney’s Fantasia.
Another area of contrast to the Disney original is the subject of each of the animations. For example, the graceful flying horses and satyrs of Disney’s Pastoral Symphony section are replaced for Afternoon of a Faun by a tiny senior satyr who laments his inability to attract the giant young nymphs who gambol thru the pagan forest. The Bolero becomes the accompaniment for a trenchant visual comment on how the world is evolving/devolving. The Stravinsky selection presents a similar march of the dinosaurs to that used with Fantasia’s Rite of Spring, but with touches of humor and a final unexpected twist. In many ways this mix of the classics and animation was more of a success than the real sequel, Fantasia 2000, in that it developed the concept further with a more modern sensibility. The extras are a delight: the documentary on the filmmaker shows him as an unassuming, ingenious and typically Italian artist. The ten animations include a couple of my favorites – Self Service, which shows Bozzetto’s lifelong fascination with insects – and Baeus, which allows a lowly but cute bug to change his status in life. Like most European short animation, there is little or no dialog – just sounds. This handily leaps over the language difficulties and reaches a much larger audience around the world with a truly universal language. Bozzetto’s work would probably be enjoyed by children but he is obviously making strong points on a very adult level. I find him one of the best animators out there.
- John Sunier
VIVALDI: The Four Seasons; Concerto for 2 Violins in A Major; Concerto in G Minor (2002)
Played by Accademia Bizantina/Ottavio Dantone
Violin soloist: Stefano Montanari
Studio: Arts Music
Video: Widescreen enhanced for 16:9
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, PCM stereo at 48K/24bit
Subtitles: English, Italian, French, German
Recorded at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice
The sumptuous decor of the ornate hall in which this performance at the Venice Baroque Music International Festival took place is nothing less than breath-taking. The performances and sonics are also exemplary; it’s nice to have the option of the uncompressed PCM stereo – which does handle the massed string tone better than the Dolby Digital surround. When fed via Dolby Pro Logic II I preferred the surround effect and overall fidelity. The camerawork is excellent – just enough closeups at the proper times. One feels especially honored to be given such a lavish visual presentation to go with the musical one. The printed note booklet is very detailed and informative as well – including even the complete poems on which Vivaldi based his concerto tone-paintings.
- John Sunier
Midnight Pipes, Episode MP9021
Frederick Hohman plays the Great Organ of Methuen Memorial Music Hall
Studio: Zarex Video
Audio: PCM 48K stereo
Subtitles: multiple languages
Extras: Organ specifications, Midnight Pipes Series Tour
Length: About 30 min.
Rating: ** 1/2, higher for pipe organ fans
Zarex produces a series of recordings and videos having to do with pipe organs and organ music. This is evidently just one episode of their series of half hour programs visiting various organs, talking about their history and specs, and hearing several short works performed on them. Organ aficionados will got nuts with the detailed discussions of pipes, choirs and registrations. There is usually a tour of the organ innards as well. The Methuen Music Hall is not large but extremely ornate and the Great Organ is quite a visual feast. In fact when the camera panned down from the high pipes to the columns with gargoyl-like faces on either side of the console I was reminded of the final scene on the rooftop in Ghostbusters. Organist Hohman performers a selection form de Grigny’s Livre d’Orgue, Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise transcribed for organ, another transcription of Wagner’s rousing Ride of the Valkyries, and one of my personal favorite pipe organ show-off works – Mulet’s Peter, Thou Art the Rock. He flails his arms around more than I’ve ever seen an organist do before, but at least that adds some visual interest to an awfully static subject. The jacket blurbs promising the First 20 Episodes are misleading; I couldn’t find any other episodes and gather that this just meant an onscreen listing of all those episodes which can be purchased individually like this one. (Then again perhaps there’s an “easter egg” I missed, which when opened reveals all those other episodes…) The PCM sound is excellent – I plan to keep this DVD if only for the smashing performance of the Henri Mulet work. For more information visit www.zarex.com
- John Sunier
Bruno Walter: The Maestro, The Man
BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 (Excerpts in Rehearsal)
Bruno Walter conducts Vancouver International Festival Orchestra
Video: 4:3 black & white
Length: 58 minutes
Having grown up with Bruno Walter (1876-1962) very much alive and active, often seeing him on the CBS segments for “The Sound of Genius” with members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I feel that Walter was a strong initiating force in my musical make-up. I came to revere his work with the New York Philharmonic in Beethoven and Brahms over the later collaborations with the CBS ensembles, the latter of which I found lacking in tension and overly sentimental. By July 1958, when this video was shot, Walter had largely retired from active concert work but occasional invitations, as here to Vancouver, he would accept according to his whim and health.
The video is in three segments: the outer two are strictly devoted to rehearsal of the Brahms D Major’s first and last movements. Walter leads and adjusts in spoken English, with very clear indications about tempo, phrasing and dynamics. He sings the errant episode, then directs the players to the letter indicated in the score. He is courteous but firm. He gets what he wants. The energy generated by the 82-year-old conductor is remarkable in itself, the molded performance has all the earmarks of a strong interpretation.
The middle section of the video is an interview with friend Albert Goldberg at Walter’s Beverly Hills home, rife with flowers and birdlife. Walter is perfectly candid about his equation of music with moral force. He has nasty things to say about both twelve-tone music and jazz, which will raise some hackles. Conservative and opinionated, he embodies a Tradition and he lives its defense without apology. Beethoven is his god, as well as the entry point to other masters that have served music – Brahms, Mahler, and Wagner. He alludes to his book On Music and Music-Making as substantiating his views on the cosmos. In his bowtie, in his armchair, sitting and discoursing, Walter is an emissary from a vanishing world bearing a cautionary message that his music stands at the gates to keep our world civilized. [From his standpoint...Ed.] To relegate him and his music to “entertainment” or “amusement” is a sin – a complete and willful misrepresentation of the divine mission he lives to serve.
Wilhelm Kempff, piano – SCHUMANN: Arabeske in C, Op. 18; Papillons, Op. 2; Davidsbuendler Dances, Op. 6/BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 17 in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2; Piano Sonata No. 14 in C3 Minor, Op. 27, No. 2; Piano Sonata No. 27 in E Minor, Op. 90
Studio: EMI DVB 4904489
Video: 4:3, Black&White & Color
Audio: PCM Mono
Bonus: Dino Ciano plays SCHUMANN: Novellette No. 1/BARTOK: Nos. 4-5 from Out of Doors
Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991) attained a cult status in the 1980s when he became the last exponent of the Great German Tradition (most Americans did not know Eduard Erdmann or Conrad Hansen) still actively pursuing the music of Bach, Schumann, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and occasionally, Liszt. An objectivist, Kempff made architecture his primary concern in music, although his expressive qualities took in the vertical harmony and the communication of affects. In one moment in this video from ORTF Paris 1968, the missing opening bars of the Tempest Sonata are replaced by Kempff, speaking in French, stating that “in my playing the sentiment is all.” A variable performer technically, Kempff could be disengaged and sloppy (as in Papillons) or on fiery target, enthralling an audience in the manner of a musical Sybil.
The first four selections are in sometimes blurry or scratchy black and white, although the sonic quality of the mono sound is good. Kempff was not an emotive player, but his head nods expressively and he looks once or twice out to the audience when there is one. The opening Arabeske is tender and lyrical, the nostalgia for the dream, as one poet put it. But the Papillons, on the same 1961 program, while demonstrating a moment or two of fleet dexterity, seem uninvolved and perfunctory. We switch to Besancon, 6 March 1963 for a stupendous and moving account of Schumann’s intricate set of David’s League Dances, really a set of eighteen tempi of initiation, a challenge to interpret solely and as an unfolding series. The camera gets in on those hands of Kempff, making short work of Mit humor while applying both ravishing sound and innigkeit to Schumann’s knotty figures.
The Beethoven (other than the incomplete D Minor Sonata) sonatas are each in color and were shot January 19, 1970, with Kempff’s being 75 at the time. He plays both the Moonlight and the concise E Minor Sonata with directness and grace, applying some lovely harmonizations to the familiar Sonata quasi Fantasia, Op. 27, No. 2, while quite overwhelming his French auditors (especially the ladies) with the E Minor, a piece Schnabel is said to have solved only weeks before his death in 1951.
The bonus track features the gifted young Cortot student Dino Ciani (1941-1974) in music by Schumann and Bartok, works which he recorded for French ORTF November 21, 1967. Sporting a big tone and hard patina, Ciani could be the young Maurizio Pollini, though Ciani is not so sang froid. Wonderful colors appear in the Bartok, remnants of Debussian harmony (another Ciani specialty) fused with Magyar sensibility. This is a musicians’ DVD, where pianism is secondary to the artistic communion, the message of the moment.
Albert King: Live In Sweden (2003)
Studio: Image Entertainment
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: PCM Stereo
Extras: Interviews (2)
Length: 58 minutes
Rating: *** 1/2
It isn’t every day you see a performer walk out with a smoking pipe and a smoking guitar, but that is what you get here with legendary blues guitarist Albert King. This footage was from a concert in Sweden on June 9th, 1980. The man is in excellent form and plays a few of his classic tunes as well as a few others, like a sweet version of “Summertime.” The quality of the video is slightly better than VHS videotape, although I saw some horizontal lines up and down the picture in parts. Sound is good, and camerawork isn’t as dizzying as some of the concerts filmed today. There are some nice close ups of King’s fret board so you can check out some of his licks. There is a full band accompanying King complete with horns, drums, and another guitar player.
In the interviews, King discusses his history in the music business, including why he plays the guitar and the things that led up to his financial and popular success. It’s clear that the King’s drive is dictated by his own desire to express inner feelings and to provide a form of entertainment that will make blues fans of children and adults alike. This concert gives a glimpse of the power behind his playing—I only wish the playing time was longer. Songs included: Born Under A Bad Sign, The Sky Is Crying, The Very Thought Of You, Cadillac Assembly Line, Summertime, Cold Women With Warm Hearts, As The Years Go Passing By.
David Bowie – Black Tie White Noise Limited Edition – EMI 07243 5 90967 2 (CD + DVD):
This limited edition CD/DVD version of the Black Tie White Noise album comes in a cool case that opens up to a big marquee of the artist and the album title. The original was released back in 1993. The first disc is this recording, but in addition you get a bonus CD that contains extra songs and remixes of the songs on the original album. If you haven’t heard this album before you might not realize it is not a new release. Bowie always seemed to be a little ahead of his time, and although some of the beats and samples might be older to the initiated, other artists would make this type of music today. The album grows on you, and the flow of track two is a good example of how most of the songs can be a hook, and not just a phrase or two. Bowie can sound hollow and a bit like a scary vampire. I really liked track 3, but it sounded strangely familiar. Sure enough it is a weird, mélange of instrumental sounds of an old Cream song. This album is definitely a different phase for Bowie and may not appeal to the old fans. The alternative dance crowd will probably dig this album a lot. Track 9 almost seems a little out of place with all the danceable upbeat songs throughout—it’s a soul/R&B tune.
The second disc is full of mixes—most of which are more danceable than the standard album, although tracks like “Miracle Goodnight” are more rock mixes. And the mix of “Don’t Let Me Down & Down” is even more soulful than the original. The DVD has videos that were recorded at the Hollywood Center Studios in Los Angeles on May 8th, 1993, as well as some promo videos. The interview footage with Bowie makes this set very appealing to the dedicated Bowie fan. He discusses the talent on the record, the recording process, and many of his views on making music and especially the songs on this record.
Songs on CD are: The Wedding; You’ve Been Around; I Feel Free; Black Tie White Noise; Jump They Say; Nite Flights; Pallas Athena; Miracle Goodnight; Don’t Let Me Down & Down; Looking For Lester; I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday; The Wedding Song; Real Cool World; Lucy Can’t Dance.
Songs on Bonus CD are: Jump They Say [Rock Mix]; Black Tie white Noise [3rd Floor Us Radio Mix]; Miracle Goodnight [Make Believe Mix]; Don’t Let Me Down & Down [Indonesian Vocal Version]; You’ve Been Around [Dangers 12” remix]; Jump They Say [Brothers In Rhythm 12” remix]; Black Tie White Noise [Her Come Da Jazz]; Pallas Athena [Don’t Stop Praying Remix No 2]; Nite Flights [Moodswings Back To Basics Remix]; Jump They Say [Dub Oddity].
DVD includes: You’ve Been Around; Expanding And Experimenting; Nite Flights; Otherness; Miracle Goodnight; On Marriage; Black Tie White Noise; I Feel Free; I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday; Miracle Goodnight; Jump They Say; Black Tie White Noise.
Big Brother and the Holding Co. with Janis Joplin -
Nine Hundred Nights (2004)
Narrated by Rip Torn
Studio: Eagle Vision
Video: 4:3, DVD 9
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital Stereo, DTS 5.1
Subtitles: French, Spanish
Extras: Complete video performances of The Coo Coo, Ball & Chain, Piece of My Heart; Rare audios of Hall of the Mt. King; Photo Gallery; Discography, Biographical timlines, Interview outtakes, Psychedlic treats
Length: 148 minutes
Big Brother and the Holding Co. was the San Francisco rock band that launched the short but spectacular career of Janis Joplin. This documentary tracks the formation, development and eventual breakup of the psychedelic rock group via interviews with some of its members and video footage shot by D.A. Pennebaker, studio videos and Super 8s, and previously unreleased footage of their performing Combination of the Two at the Monterey Pop Festival (they had turned down being in the film). The band is seen/heard performing in the studio and rehearsal hall some of their hits such as Blow My Mind, Down On Me and Comin’ Home.
The entry of Janis into the four-man group had immediate repercussions. Some members welcomed the attention she brought the band, but the band’s founder and leader Peter Albin felt threatened her getting all the fame and coverage. The story would be interesting to the uninitiated up to a point, but fans of the band and those who lived thru and dug the psychedelic rock era (or still do) will lap it up. None of the visuals of the performances are very good quality, even that from filmmaker Pennebaker, and the sound is way below par. I heard no surround effects whatever, so my initial excitement at seeing this DVD had a DTS 5.1 track was mitigated by actually hearing the mix. If you want to really hear and enjoy the band and Janis, pick up the Columbia SACD of Cheap Thrills, which we reviewed some time ago. (By the way, its original title was Sex, Drugs and Cheap Thrills, but the record executives nixed that…)
- John Henry