DVD & Blu-ray Reviews
DVD Reviews, Part 1 of 3
Published on September 1, 2004
ALL MUSIC VIDEOS (and more in Pt. 2)
Keeping Score: MTT on Music (2004)
The Making of a Performance: Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony
Studio: San Francisco Symphony
Video: 16:9 widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 on symphony, stereo on documentary
Subtitles: German, French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese
Extras: Narrated slide show on Tchaikovsky’s life, Piece on SF Symphony
This first-rate pairing of a documentary on Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, followed by a full-length concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, was broadcast recently on PBS as the first in a series of San Francisco Symphony telecasts. The project grew out of the efforts of the Symphony’s staff in starting their own record label to issue MTT’s recordings of the Mahler Symphony cycle in SACD format (which we have been reviewing). Tilson Thomas adopts a very similar informal “just talkin’ to ya’” style of music appreciation pioneered by his one-time mentor Leonard Bernstein in his award-winning TV series for Omnibus. We see him working with the score of the Tchaikovsky, finding new details and turns of phrase that can bring what he himself describes as a warhorse to new life. He talks about the vital emotional weight of the work and how it reflects the mix of despair, pathos and elation the composer himself was experiencing. The grueling work of copyists and librarians of the over 3600 scores in the archive of the SF Symphony is shown in the transferring of all of MTT’s new marks and notations in his own score to all the various parts for the individual orchestra players.
The colorful conductor doesn’t hog the spotlight; there are segments with several of the first-chair soloists as they work out their important solos in the work. (Among other details we get to glimpse some of the home audio systems of these musicians – who says professional musicians are all satisfied with Goodwill-level playback systems?) For example, it pointed up the major amount of time oboe players must devote to making and adjusting their reeds. Just about every aspect of what goes into putting together a public performance by a symphony orchestra is touched on, and one appreciates the dedication and effort expended by all concerned.
The live performance of the symphony is beautifully shot and edited, making full use of the widescreen canvas and 5.1 surround sound. I was initially disappointed to find there was no DTS option, but they must have used the highest bit rate allowed for Dolby Digital because the sonics are really superb – clean, wide-range and with a huge dynamic ratio. Comparison with the Boston Symphony version of the music reviewed in our Hi-Res section this issue on a new xrcd showed the video track to be clearly superior. I found this the best video translation of a concert music event I have ever seen. Of course having a fascinating conductor who engages in plenty of body language (as did his mentor) certainly helps in keeping up visual interest. Tilson Thomas and his forces put together a convincing portrayal of Tchaikovsky’s despairing emotional state in most of the first three movements, without falling into the dour lugubriousness heard in some performances of the work. However, in the finale the mood switches to a sort of brilliant victory march, and MTT and the players throw themselves into the festive mood with gusto.
It’s admittedly a challenge to present most full-length concert music in video form to a general viewing audience, but this video makes the best case possible for the effort. The difficult task of avoiding having the images contradict the audio portion is well-handled. A camera appeared only briefly at the very end; the producers must have used the Von Karajan technique of shooting several performances with the cameras all shooting from the same side so that when edited together none appeared in the shots. However, unlike the German productions, the images weren’t nearly all closeups. There were some terrific closeups, but alternated with long shots of the entire Davis Hall and medium shots of MTT. Image quality was superb, with dramatic but natural lighting. Only one shot was seriously out of focus – MTT’s introduction to the camera in the empty hall before the concert started. All the shots made sense musically and only once did I see players just sitting there waiting their turn. Gone are the days of seeing a lovely closeup of the horn players dumping their condensation on the floor while the music is being heard from a different section of the orchestra…[If you have trouble finding the DVD, visit the SF Symphony online store at www.shopsfsymphony.org]
– John Sunier
Richard Wagner: Siegfried (complete opera)
Recorded live on October 1, 2002 and January 5, 2003
Staatsoper Stuttgart /Saatsorchester Stuttgart, cond. Lothar Zagrosek
Stage direction and dramaturgy: Jossie Wieler and Sergio Morabito
Siegfried: Jon Fredric West; Mime: Heinz Göhrig; Der Wanderer: Wolfgang Schöne; Alberich: Björn Waag; Fafner: Attila Jun; Erda: Helene Ranada; Brünnhilde: Lisa Gasteen
Studio: EuroArts TDK SWR
Video: Enhanced for 16:9
Audio: DD.5.1, DTS 5.1, PCM Stereo
Length: 251 mins.
If not for the lush music making, I would promptly dispatch this DVD to the garbage heap. Although the juxtaposition of Wagner’s grand music with the wretched urban settings is interesting, this production ultimately fails to coalesce.
Act 1 takes place in a spacious, decrepit kitchen, with Heinz Göhrig (Mime) peeling and julienning potatoes. Jon Fredric West bounds in wearing sneakers and a T-shirt with the words “Sieg Fried” on his chest. West’s singing doesn’t quite live up the level of the Met production last spring. Later in the act, Mime, frightened by the Wanderer (Wolfgang Schöne in a black leather jacket, sunglasses, and a cap), finds relief by masturbating. In Act 2, Fafner sits on a chair in a military exclusion zone. The Woodbird, a blind blond boy who has lost his way, keeps popping up unexpectedly. In Act 3, Brünnhilde’s “rock” is a sterile bedroom straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Siegfried wakes Brünnhilde up with a crude gesture and woos her with a T-shirt still soaked in dragon’s blood. The two principals stand on opposite sides of the rococo room and avoid looking at each other–not a very auspicious beginning for a romance. The opera ends with Siegfried and Brünnhilde fighting over a bed sheet.
The singing, conducting, sound quality, image transfer and camera angles are uniformly excellent.
Richard Wagner: Götterdämmerung (complete opera)
Götterdämmerung, by Richard Wagner, recorded live on October 3, 2002 and January 12, 2003
Staatsoper Stuttgart/Saatsorchester Stuttgart, cond. Lothar Zagrosek
Directed for the stage by Peter Konwitschny
Brünnhilde: Luana DeVol ; Siegfried: Albert Bonnema; Gunther: Hernan Iturralde; Gutrune: Eva-Maria Westbroek ; Hagen: Roland Bracht; Alberich: Franz-Josef Kapellmann; Waltraute: Tichina Vaughn
Studio: EuroArts TDK SWR
Video: Enhanced for 16:9
Audio: DD5.1, DTS 5.1, PCM Stereo
Length: 269 mins.
Watch this Stuttgart performance of Götterdämmerung with your eyes closed. And when Albert Bonnema sings Siegfried, wear ear plugs. You might enjoy it better. Act 1, in particular, is nauseatingly kitschy. Bonnema as Siegfried romps around the stage with his hobby horse (Grane), dressed in furs. When he leaves Brünnhilde’s rock wearing her armor, he cuts a ridiculously bosomy figure. And after imbibing the potion at the Gibichungs, he mounts Gutrune onstage, who promptly shoves him aside. His singing (if you can call it that) is whiny and adenoidal and grates on the ears. The Norns are three uninspiring bag ladies. Westbroek does a credible job as Brünnhilde (in front of an idyllic backdrop straight out of Nazi-era movies), but she is overripe for this role and grimaces excessively. Gunther looks perpetually perplexed, Hagen is nothing more than a dull bureaucrat, and Alberich is a ghost with abnormally long fingers who expires in Hagen’s lap. There is a lot of drinking going on, and the magical Tarnhelm looks like a button. Zathrosek’s luscious, artful conducting is completely divorced from the onstage shenanigans, as though we were watching or listening to different performances.
The sound and picture quality are excellent. One objectionable aspect of DVDs produced in Germany is that the men’s names, no matter how insignificant, are always listed first. And this DVD is no exception.
Robert, Gaby & Jean Casadesus: First Family of the Piano (1967)
Studio: VAI DVD 4276
Audio: PCM mono
Video: 4:3 Color
Length: 76 minutes
A documentary created for the Bell Telephone Hour broadcast of 12 February 1967, this compilation features a musical dynasty whose patriarch Robert Casadesus (1899-1972) enjoyed preeminence among pianists, particularly in the music of Mozart and of France. Narrated by his son Jean (1927-1972), the film captures the professional and personal lives of a complete musical family and partnership, wherein Gaby Casadesus (1901-1999) balanced a keyboard career with the raising of three children. At the time of the documentary, Jean was my teacher at Harper College, SUNY, where he led a master class and a survey of piano literature. I was enrolled in the latter class, with occasional visits to his forays with Liszt and Beethoven in the master class.
Jean makes a special note of his father’s concern with “heart” in his piano playing, making music that had a direct emotional communication of creator to artist to audience. Jean also accents his father’s unaffectedness, what the French word “simple” holds connotatively. We have many moments of Robert’s reflecting back on his New York Philharmonic debut, at which he played Mozart–a composer the critics considered “too easy”–and at which Toscanini was in attendance. “Toscanini made my career in America, when he called me back seven times and the audience was watching for his response. Later, I played Mozart with Toscanini.” The ubiquitous cigarette dangling from his mouth in conversation, or the corncob pipe fixed in his mouth at the piano, Casadesus shrugs at each mention of his colossal success, calling Rubinstein and Backhaus “great pianists.”
We move from the idyllic scenes of biking at Fontainebleau to the throes of concert performances, like the thrilling 3-Piano Concerto by Robert with trio Casadesus and William Steinberg and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. “It was Mitropoulos who suggested we combine as a trio for the Bach concertos,” offers Jean. Jean is seen playing the first movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata while Robert, some two thousand miles away, rehearses the last movement of the Chopin B Minor Sonata. Jena talks about his own thick hands, “ideal for the piano; but they sometimes get stuck between the black keys, and I have to refinger certain passages.” Jean’s admiration for his father as teacher and artist infuses every frame: we have a rare glimpse of Robert’s coaching a Fontainebleau student through Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and a bit of “Minstrels.” On the other side of the equation, we have Robert and Gaby’s insistence that they did not push Jean into music, that they never forced the pressures of a career upon him. Gaby reminisces about the family’s life at Princeton: “I played duos with violinist Albert Einstein,” she quips. “He had a lovely violin tone, no technique, and he favored Mozart and early Beethoven.”
The VAI DVD contains three bonus tracks from Bell Telephone Hour performances by Robert, Gaby and Jean: Jean in Debussy’s “Fireworks” and the Saint-Saens G Minor Concerto; Robert in the last movement from Beethoven’s Appassionata; and the trio in Bach’s D Minor Concerto. For one moment, when the video shows Jean’s bit of master class from SUNY, I thought I might see myself in the video. No, the shots we took, along with those from the Piano Literature class, are not included. In 1972, I had returned to SUNY to pursue my Masters Degree in Philosophy, and Jean was still in residence. Just prior to his fatal departure (Jean died in a car crash) for Toronto for a piano tour, Jean spotted me in the hallway, whilst I was in conversation with someone. Suddenly, an affectionate slap on my right shoulder called my attention to Jean: “Gary, glad to see you; listen, I’ll call you when I get back.” I never saw him again.
MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64/BACH: Prelude in E Major from Partita No. 3/TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35
Nathan Milstein ,violin
Walter Hendl conducts Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Studio: VAI DVD 4279
Video Format: 4:3 B&W
Audio: PCM Mono
Length: 71 minutes
From two historic WGN telecasts of 4 March 1962 and 6 January 1963, we hear legendary Russian violinist Nathan Milstein (1904-1992) in staples from his colossal repertory. Although placed last on the VAI video under the “Bonus” tracks, Milstein and conductor Walter Hendl conversed briefly in the Green Room prior to each of the concerts, and Hendl tries to engage Milstein in a discussion; the first concerns what the soloist is thinking about during the relatively long tuttis the orchestra has prior to the solo entry in the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky concertos. Milstein aptly quips that he thinks about how well or badly the orchestra is playing, setting up his entry. The January 3 discussion revolves around Bach and the many transcriptions of the Bach E Major Prelude that exist, from the Rachmaninov arrangement that Hendl says he likes to play on the piano, to Milstein’s excited claim that he had just seen a photostat of a cantata by Bach which uses the piece as a sinfonia.
The actual performances of both the Mendelssohn and the Tchaikovsky concertos are the usual Milstein blend of rabid excitement and hard-driven tempos, combined with an absolutely polished, secure surface. Utilizing three cameras, the visual tracking of the concerts gives us platform-level shots of Hendl and the orchestra but more varied angles on Milstein, especially during his cadenzas. I was a bit disappointed to notice the camera did not move to the solo flute after the Tchaikovsky cadenza in the Allegro moderato. The Bach partita excerpt is shot on a bare stage with a sort of triangular shadow into which Milstein has stepped. Each of the performances reveals the intense concentration and the blazing technique that were Milstein’s, coupled with suave grace and his ever-slick black hair. For those who loved the Russian school of violinists but wanted a more nervous and visceral tone than that of Heifetz, Milstein was the man.
SZIGETI plays = TARTINI: Concerto in D Minor/HUBAY: Czardas No. 3 for Violin and Orchestra/BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61: Allegro ma non troppo/PROKOFIEV: Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 94a
Wilfred Pelletier conducts Orchestra of Radio-Canada
Paul Scherman conducts Orchestra of Radio-Canada (Beethoven)
Arthur Balsam, piano
Studio: VAI DVD 4269
Video: 4:3, Color/B&W
Audio: PCM mono
Length: 72 mins.
Performances by legendary violinist Joseph Szigeti (1892-1973) from 1954-1960, in repertory he had made especially his own. His recorded LP performance of the Tartini Concerto with George Szell (CBS ML 4891) remains a chaste classic of its kind–well worthy to be restored to CD–and his unaffected playing with Pelletier is similar, with a minimum of fuss and bravura from Szigeti. Purists will chafe, from time to time, at the missed note or the slurred line that intrudes itself on Szigeti’s never-letter-playing technique. His tone, too, had that pervasive cut-gutty quality that made it sound harsh, even squeaky. The Beethoven, with Joachim’s cadenza, is the soul of patrician clarity and balance, without any attempt at heaven-storming. The effect is Apollinian, measured, soberly tender playing. Hubay’s Czardas is another Hungarian version of Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, a hearty gypsy piece in two sections, a la Liszt. Finally, from 1960, Prokofiev’s own violin arrangement (via Radio Canada) of his original flute sonata, which he reworked for David Oistrakh. Szigeti recorded this piece twice for disc, the latter on Mercury with Balsam. Szigeti plays with verve and style, although again with less than perfect tonal accuracy. Ensemble between Szigeti and Balsam is focused and sparklingly light, the Scherzo even witty. And despite some technical lapses in the last movement, Szigeti manages a kind of lyric peroration that makes the performance quite touching. The camera work is quite straightforward, even rather prosaic, but Szigeti is an artist whose lean figure and austere authority made his sound unique.
PORPORA: Salve Regina in F for Alto, Strings and Continuo/MOZART: Exsultate, jubilate in F, for Soprano, Organ and Orchestra, K. 165/HAYDN: Symphony No. 104 in D Major “London”
Angelika Kirschschlager, mezzo-soprano
Ruth Ziesak, soprano
Riccardo Muti conducts Filarmonica della Scala
Studio: EMI DVD 5 99403 9
Video: Color; 16:9 widescreen
Audio: Dolby Stereo, DTS surround, Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Length: 89 minutes
Recorded in the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples in May 2002, this EMI DVD is part of an extensive project conducted by Riccardo Muti entitled Music and Masterpieces, concerts led in historic sites housing outstanding works of art. The Theater of San Carlo in Naples is the oldest working theater in Europe, established in 1737 by King Charles of Bourbon and rebuilt after the fire of 1816, with huge, ornate friezes on Classical themes in the background behind the performers. With excellent, panoramic camera work by Vincenzo Bauduin, the entire concert has an old-world ethos that is visually as well as aurally opulent.
The Salve Regina of Nicolo Porpora (1686-1768) is a rather staid piece, a group of four movements dominantly marked Adagio and Affettuoso, requiring long, plaintive melismas on the part of the alto solo. The lush colors of both the theater and the individual string instruments, especially the burnished wood of the celli and basses, combine with the ceremonial music and Muti’s patrician stance to beguile even us who do not relish the sacred music of the Rococo. The Mozart motet, with its renowned spiritoso finale on the Alleluia, has an equally poised and bravura soloist in Ruth Ziesak, a lithe and undemonstrative coloratura. The Haydn London Symphony is so polished as to sound glib, with Muti’s utilizing minimal gestures to elicit the smoothest of sounds from the La Scala Philharmonic, a no-rough-edges reading in the manner of Karajan. The camera shot of Virgil holding Dante’s hand in the gigantic mural behind Haydn’s liquid sounds can be quite moving.
The bonus track on this DVD features musicologist Roberto De Simone taking us through the Musical Library to discuss the Neapolitan Music School – Porpora to Paisiello, to Rossini and Donizetti, with examples from scores and intelligent, literary commentary. The sheer volume of collected scores, the clear erudition of the narrator, and the obvious esteem in which he holds men like Cilea, who headed the Naples School, prove compelling in a way that transcends mere scholarship. One remark: that Donizetti did not accede to the directorship while Mercadante did, seems to evoke a moment of historical irony out of Mr. De Simone, whose devilish gleam in the eye is easily discernible.
Apap Masala – Gilles Apap in India (2003)
Studio: Ideale Audience International
Video: 4:3 color
Audio: PCM stereo (concert); Dolby Digital 2.0 (documentary)
Subtitles: English, French, German
Extras: Video portraits of the musicians; Interview with Indian violinist N. Rajam
Length: 175 for all materials
This is a two-part presentation on the iconoclastic French violinist who has lived in California for some time. Both were directed by filmmaker Max Jourdan. The first is a 58-minute documentary profile and coverage of his journey to India to perform a mix of Western and Indian music; the second a 102-minute live concert given on the banks of the Ganges and featuring Apap with the Madras String Quartet with several leading Hindustani and Carnatic musicians. Apap was born in Algeria, came to America to study at the Curtis Institute, and was praised by and performed with Yehudi Menuhin. He is currently concertmaster of the Santa Barbara Symphony. His own performances frequently mix many varieties of classical, folk and ethnic music, and the journey to India in this film is just one part of his wide-ranging musical world. He is known for his thoroughly informal performance style, and is probably the only performer to feature on his web site not only his good reviews but also the bad ones.
The documentary visits Apap in various environments, including a truck stop where an impromptu fiddling session leaves the owner and his wife nonplussed. He is heard performing with some bluegrass musicians, and with an Indian female violinist also living in California. The latter session takes place at his rustic log cabin in the hills outside Santa Barbara. Later in the documentary we travel to Benares where Apap meets and plays with three gurus of Indian music. In a quiet courtyard he plays Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin. There is a scene in a Bollywood movie studio where Indian musicians are recording the soundtrack for one of the many musical films shot there. Later the violinist rounds out a string quintet by joining the Madras Quartet to play some Mozart.
The concert is a sort of East Meets West Meets Gilles Apap. It includes excerpts from Bach’s works the Partita in E Major, and Sonatas in G Minor and C Major, some traditional Irish jigs and tunes, and Indian ragas performed by Apap, the Madras Quartet and the Indian musicians. Fascinating cross-cultural music-making – both musically and visually. I’ve found mixes of Indian classical music with Western elements more interesting and varied listening than the typical lengthy raga forms for sitar, tabla and drone or violin, tabla and drone. That can get a bit repetitious for Western ears since we don’t focus as strongly on the multitude of subtle ornamental variations to the melody and rhythm which are central to the form, as opposed to harmony and development. It could be a challenge for some viewers to make it thru this very long concert which is just an excerpt of what a typical all-night-long Indian concert might be. There are several ragas played strictly by Indian musicians without Apap, including a talented boy and a female violinist who produces some amazing low-pitched moaning sounds. The emphasis on violins tends to get a bit tiring – I would welcome one raga on the more standard sitar or veena.
While it shouldn’t dissuade anyone from purchase of this colorful concert/documentary, I should point out to budding videophiles that this DVD opens with one of the best examples of egregious edge enhancement I’ve ever witnessed. Apap wanders into the frame in a distant shot playing his violin. He is on a sand dune somewhere and the video edge enhancement is turned up so far that one might wonder if we’re not getting a new Mel Gibson religious epic – it’s a veritable halo around Apap. Such artificial post-”sharpening” does not in fact increase apparent resolution – just the opposite.
– John Sunier
STRAVINSKY: The Soldier’s Tale (1980)
Animation by R. O. Blechman, Performance by Los Angeles Chamber Orch./Gerard Schwarz
Voices: Max Von Sydow, Dusan Makavejev, Galina Panova, Andre Gregory (narrator)
Studio: PBS/Koch Lorber Films
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, English
Extras: Commentary by R.O. Blechman, 30 minutes of rare footage from Blechman’s archive
Length: 51 minutes
Stravinsky’s musical fable for narrator and chamber group has been presented in many different versions, but this creation for public TV’s Great Performances has to be one of the most beautiful artistically. It won an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animated Programming. The story asks whether when one is faced with the devil’s temptation can he make a deal and still win? Charming artwork does a great deal more than just illustrate the story’s progress. The music uses jazz rhythms, tango, waltz and ragtime elements. The commentary option is most interesting, as Bleckman talks about the many other animators who he retained to do sections of the film. It is surprising how well the work of all the other animation hands fits into the final continuity. Gregory (of My Dinner with Andre) makes a superb narrator with just the right ironic tone. I had this on an old Beta videotape and of course the new DVD reissue is 100% improved visually and sonically, plus adding all the bonus features which were not on the tape.
– John Sunier