DVD & Blu-ray Reviews
DVD-Video Reviews, Part 1 of 2
Published on May 1, 2004
Part 1 of 2 [Pt. 2]
Van Cliburn: Concert Pianist
Studio: A&E/RCA “Legendary Visions” 82876-57907-9
DVD/Audio Disc combo
Video: 4:3, Color and Black&White
Audio: Dolby Digital Stereo
Length: 58:17 (DVD); 52:02 (Audio)
Originally produced for A&E”S “Biography” series, the video portion of this RCA presentation is narrated by Dan Rather and traces the life and artistic impact of Texas pianist Van Cliburn (b. 1934). The major focus is, of course, the 1958 Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition, which Cliburn not only won but during which he singularly managed to crack “the Iron Curtain” at the same time. Using historic, newsreel footage from the period, the film takes pains to establish the political-cultural context which surrounded the Moscow competition. The launch of Sputnik, the U-2 incident, the hostility of Kruschev to President Eisenhower, each made the mid-1950’s a time of nuclear proliferation and international paranoia. The tall, lanky Texan, appearing to Russians like a clone of Gary Cooper, won their hearts and minds with the suave assurance of his playing.
Upon his return to America, Cliburn became a national icon, a symbol of the power of a classical musician to move old and young generations with the same charisma attributed to Elvis Presley. The rest of the film, punctuated between the Tchaikovsky Concerto and other staples from Cliburn’s repertory (Chopin, Rachmaninov, Brahms, and Schumann/Liszt), traces Cliburn’s youth in Louisiana and then the move to Kilgore, Texas, where his mother single-handedly took over his professional growth. We do see a moment of work with Rosina Lhevinne at Juilliard, enough to bequeath something of the Russian School of piano playing to Cliburn. Artists Leontyne Price, Roberta Peters, Robert Merrill, and Leonard Slatkin contribute their very positive impressions of Cliburn’s work and character. We see his return after a nine-year hiatus to the White House at the invitation of President Reagen, then his famous Chicago return to play the Tchaikovsky with Slatkin. The few historic concerts by Cliburn include a moment with Dimitri Mitropoulos, and a section of the New York performance of the Tchaikovsky with Russian Kyrill Kondrashin, who had to obtain a special visa to leave the Soviet Union.
Some lively audience commentary provides color to the significance of Cliburn to Americans who either knew him in the 1950’s-1960’s era, or are experiencing his recent incarnation as a legendary star igniting their interest in classical music. The film, written by David Daniel, is extremely friendly and un-intrusive of Cliburn’s life and work. We get a bit of the Edward R. Murrow interview, also delicately distancing itself from the downside of Mother’s influence and anything of Cliburn’s private life. In retrospect, Cliburn gets the same hands-off treatment Rock Hudson received from Hollywood. But the graciousness of the man, his love of music, his status as a cultural ambassador, all stand out in high and even noble relief. The audio disc features a collation of the standard Cliburn discography of Chopin’s C# Minor Scherzo, Schumann’s Widmung, Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1, Debussy’s L’Isle joyeuse, etc. The playing is pearly and sweet, fluid, and for me, not particularly deep. But Cliburn fans and students of cultural politics will find the survey of Cliburn’s life and art fascinating and rewarding.
WAGNER: Das Rheingold
Staatsorchester Stuttgart/Lothar Zagrosek.
Soloists: Wolfgang Probst, Michaela Schuster, Eberhard Lorenz, Esa Ruuttunen
Stage Director: Joachim Schlomer
Studio: TDK/ Naxos 20 5206 9 DVUS-OPRDNR
Video: 16:9 widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Length: 152 minutes
This modernization of the first opera in the Ring Cycle casts Wotan as a modern ruthless businessman with his scallop-haired wife Fricka sitting on the board of directors. Loge has his hair slicked back like a Mafioso and struts gloating across the stage. Capturing the opera’s horrific themes of greed, treachery, and betrayal, this daring conceit works. Wasn’t it G. B. Shaw who said that the entire Ring cycle is an indictment of capitalism? One reviewer complained that there was too much “aimless, unmotivated movement about the stage.” I’m sorry, but this staging problem is common to many Wagnerian productions. You either have the subordinates stand still while the lead characters interact–sometimes lengthily–or you try to think up something inventive for them to do. If that something consists of having the Rhinemaidens fondle their gold suggestively, then so be it. In this fast-paced production sometimes innovation works, sometimes it’s preposterous. However questionable they may be to the helmet-and-loincloth traditionalists, most of these modernisms pique your interest (although I did miss Alberich’s dragon/toad transformation). But as Wagner said once to a countess when she puzzled over his libretto and staging, “The music! Listen to the music!” And most of the time, this crew delivers. Conductor Lothar Zagrosek gives a spirited reading and coaxes more-than-adequate performances out of his cast. Listen to Froh’s (Bernhard Schneider) apotheosis to Freia in Scene 4, or the grotesque, slightly comic giant’s Leitmotif in Scene 2. Only Wotan truly disappoints. This is no more evident than in his rendition of Scene 4’s “Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Augen,” referred to as a “magnificent peroration” in The New Kobbe’s Opera Book. As sung by the weary Wolfgang Probst, it is more of a complaint of a CEO who’s grown dog-tired about all this squabbling over a ring.
BAMBOO DREAM: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan
Music: Arvo Paart
Studio: Arthaus Musik DVD 100 379 (Distrib. Naxos)
Video: Color; 16:9 widescreen enhanced
Audio: PCM Stereo; Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Length: 63 minutes
It used to be common, political phraseology to refer to the “Bamboo Curtain” in relation to all things Chinese and the Cold War. So far as pictorial icons were concerned, Korean actor Philip Ahn sufficed as a militant Chinese or Japanese; Hawaiian actor Richard Loo comes to mind; more recent vintage brings along James Hong, Victor Wong, B. D. Wong, and a cast of kung-fu images from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan. But the balletic, Chinese icons were conspicuously absent–until now. Choreographer Lin Hwai-Min, trained in New York, has taken the music of Arvo Paart as a musical source for his 2002 visions of bamboo, that long reed whose associations are of magic, spirits, refuge and sorcery. A set of eight tableaux grace the stage, the delicate lighting design by Chang Tsan-Tao, and an entire new cast of talented dancers, including Wu I-Fang, Tsai Ming-Yuan and Chiu I-Wen who light up the stage with their athletic, sensual presence.
The eight dances range from opening soliloquy on the bamboo flute to large ensemble pieces that occasionally smack of Swan Lake and Western, classical ballet. But the eclectic nature of the studied mosaics integrates aspects of Martha Graham, Japanese bunraku, and the martial, meditative elements from Tai-Chi. When the women do their graceful leg extensions, the poise and flexibility are Western, with touches of acrobatics, as from Cirque du Soleil; but the individual toes are often contorted or the foot turned at an acute angle to suggest the tensions of the personae in character. Morning Mist utilizes the long, white-sleeved robes we see in pieces by Martha Graham. The dancers combine at moments to form standing “snow angels” and other geometric patterns of order and light. Autumn Path uses only two dancers who maintain an almost static space to concentrate what must be an end to their relationship, a union tortured and hauntingly amorous. The use of an all-cello instrumental ensemble turns Morning Mist into a balletic counterpart to Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5. At Midnight features elder dancer Ching-Chun in a meditation on approaching night and death, an introspective piece that allows the camera to capture the dancer’s body and facial intensity. One number, Summer Heat, is a throwback to primitivism. the dancers’ gesticulating like crouching apes, a parody of Stravinsky’s Spring Rite or a Kubrick-inspired gesture to naturalistic religion.
The musical excerpts are taken from recordings by Gidon Kremer, Keith Jarrett, Dennis Russell Davies, and the 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, among others. The liquid choreography, the lithe and expressive dancers, the studied use of light and the ever-present, long, phallic sticks of bamboo, collectively make for an hypnotic effect, from the soft crooning of the bamboo flute until the last piece, Snow, which has a mysticism of color and movement reminiscent of the cinema classic Kwaidan.
A must-see experience on DVD.
DELIBES: Coppélia Ballet (complete) (2000)
The Royal Ballet, Covent Garden
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Nicolae Moldoveanu
Studio: BBC/Opus Arte (Distr. by Harmonia mundi)
Video: 16:9 widescreen enhanced
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Extras: Documentary “The Ballet Moves;” Intro to the original BBC telecast by Deborah Bull; Ilustrated bio of Sir Osbert Lancaster; Printed booklet with synopsis and bios in English, French & German
Length: 120 minutes
The delightful music and story of Delibes’ 19th century classic full-length ballet is brought to life in this Royal Ballet telecast. The story concerns the beautiful mechanical doll of toy-maker Dr. Coppelius, who is so realistic that the girls of the village plus one would-be Romeo believe her to be his real life daughter. This naturally leads to all sorts of misunderstandings, jealousy and finally hilarity. The village has a generic central European stylized appearance and the matching costumes of the villagers are colorful and attractive. The lead female dancer is Leanne Benjamin as Swanilda and Carlos Acosta is the handsome Romeo who arouses her jealousy by paying attention to Coppelia. Both seem excellent, though I’m the first to admit I’m not a ballet critic. Highest-quality image and resolution. Though the sound is not quite up to the terrific Mercury Living Presence LP set some of us remember of yore (even better in the mono originals which I wish now I’d kept!), the DD 5.1 surround is rich and involving. While looking at the extras is usually done after watching the main feature, I also wish I had viewed the introduction to the telecast first – it sets the scene extremely well, and answers some question that might come up for those not balletomanes. The ten-minute film on the move of the Royal Ballet from their decrepit rat-infested former quarters to the new Covent Garden was fascinating. Among other things it revealed a major physical therapy center to handle all the dancers’ aches and sprains, and an interview/tour with the lady in charge of ballet shoes discussed “slipper beatles,” which are such a serious problem that they must spray special insecticides on the shelves where the shoes are kept so that when the beatles crawl out of them they die.
– John Sunier
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964-2004)
Director: Jacques Demy
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo
Music: Michael Legrand
Studio: Cine Tamaris/Koch Lorber Films
Video: Widescreen enhanced for 16:9
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, French language
Extras: Excerpt from Agnes Varda’s “The World of Jacques Demy”
Length: 92 minutes
In the documentary by Demy’s widow Varda, Michael Legrand explains how Demy wanted a filmic opera with singing throughout, and he got it. The ill-fated love story is one of the most romantic movies ever made, full of glorious Legrand tunes – several of which have become jazz standards – and full of brilliant color and design. Earlier DVDs were only stereo and it’s great to have the music now in 5.1 surround. Umbrellas is really Demy’s tribute to classic Hollywood musicals, and in many ways he did it even better though on a smaller scale and with more serious purpose. The story tells of 17-year-old Geneviéve, who works in her mother’s struggling umbrella shop, and her love of Guy, a gas station mechanic. This was Deneuve’s first film and got five Academy Award nominations. It was one of the first French films to deal with the Algerian war, since it covered the period from early 1958 thru December of 1963. After Guy is off to fight in North Africa, Geneviéve discovers she is pregnant and her mother helps arrange a marriage with diamond jeweler Roland Cassard. Upon return from Algeria Guy marries the girl who took care of his aunt. But when both meet again in l963 in the final scene, the pain over what might have been is obvious. Legrand describes how he and Demy actually marked in the score the places for the “first hanky,” “second hanky,” and so forth.
– John Sunier
Jazzscapes – Music with a View – Rhythm and Waves(2003)
Studio: Concord Records
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Extras: Choice of 3 different images to the 12 tracks of music: Live Slow Motion Waves, Animated Ocean Sunsets, Painted Ocean Sunsets
Length: One hour each image set
This is another from the Concord DVD series of jazz samplers cum meditative on-screen images. The images on this one are some of the most eye-catching I’ve seen – you can select any of three types for the same 5.1 music tracks. The first is actual videos of waves, but slowed down. The second and third look like they began with actual videos which were then processed to look like paintings and drawings. The images zoom in and out slowly; they are very creative and mesmerizing. Strikes me this would be great for some sort of a bar or place of entertainment. The selections – sort of smooth jazz but better quality than most of what I’ve heard in that category – are as follows: Eric Marienthal – Rendezvous; Russ Freeman – Drive; Dave Valentin – Reunion; Braxton Bros. – So Divine; Paul Taylor – Come Over; Phil Perry – Keep Reminding Me; Ed Calle – Joyful; Jeff Linsky – The Crossing; Sheila E. – Heaven; Pete Escovedo – La Samba; The Rippingtons – Caribbean Breeze; Mania Maria – Come With Me
– John Henry
Fiddlin’ Man – The Life and Times of Bob Wills
Studio: View Video
Video: 4:3 color and B&W
Audio: Dolby Digital mono
Extras: Wills bio, Wills discography
Length: 61 minutes
Wills, who died in l975, was in the 30s and 40s one of the top-paid entertainers in North America. He came up out of the dustbowl area and Depression Years with his fiddle and his band, The Texas Playboys. He wasn’t the first but certainly by far the most famous popularizer of what came to be known as Western Swing – a combination of country-western music with blues and jazz. He never participated in the Nashville scene or on Grand Ol’ Opry, feeling his music somehow better than that stuff. The documentary starts with his childhood and the early days of the band playing shows at KVOO, “The Voice of Oklahoma.” It covers four decades of his career, including his later irregular years due to heavy drinking – supposedly brought on by IRS worries and woes. The tales from former Playboys who are still around make him sound something like Benny Goodman as far as a strong-willed no-nonsense bandleader.
The lack of any stars in the rating above is not an error. This is flatly the worst-produced DVD I have ever seen. The music excerpts are mostly terrible kinescopes which can’t have been that bad to begin with – they look like they were copied dozens of times. Even the interviews in color with former band members are all green or blue. There are crude cuts between sections and bad edits. And the mono sound is only in the left channel. I have many Bob Wills recordings on LPs, cassettes and CDs, but I think my future enjoyment of them will be greatly diminished having seen the concert footage in this documentary. I don’t refer to the bad quality but to the silly stage business that Wills indulged in along with his patented hee-haws and hollars. I found it a little annoying just listening before but now that I see the way he pranced around and sidled up to whoever was singing or doing a violin or guitar solo at the moment, I’m really turned off.
– John Sunier