DVD & Blu-ray Reviews
DVD Reviews Part 1 of 3
Published on February 1, 2005
***All Music Videos***Click on any cover to go directly to its review below
Narrator: Stockard Channing/Mignon Dunn, mezzo-soprano/ Manhattan School of Music Symphony Orchestra and Festival Chorus Barnard/Columbia Choir Children’s Festival Chorus of Manhattan School of Music/Glen Cortese, conductor
Besides the ongoing commentary and insights from esteemed biographers and musicians –Thomas Hampson, Henry-Louis de la Grange, Morten Solvik, Howard Gardner, Catherine Keller, and Stan Brakhage–the Special Features section takes on the historical and philosophical contexts of Mahler’s work in more significant detail, placing him within the history of ideas and German romantic idealism, with influences as diverse as Arnim and Brentano, Schopenhauer, Wagner, and Nietzsche. Howard Gardner credits Mahler with “spiritual and existential intelligence,” a desire to transcend the relatively constricted span of our life and to pose the big questions of Man’s purpose and his place in the universe. The Apollinian and Dionysian energies of artistic creation comprise the Nietzschean discussion; but so too do the issues raised in Zarathustra, that in the name of analysis and religious dogma, Man has systematically denied the value of living. Biographer Henry-Louis de la Grange is particularly willing to accord Mahler’s music as breaking fee of the merely aesthetic space of music to reach outward to the natural and supernatural realms. “Sooner or later,” Mahler notes, “all materialistic notions of the universe end at a point where our imaginations must engage.”
The value of the film lies not so much in the movement-by-movement analyses and speculative commentary, but in the idea that artists and thinkers speak to each other across the boundaries of time, that their visions transport a meaning and an impact far beyond their own contemporaries. To listen to Stan Brakhage, an independent filmmaker, rhapsodize on Mahler’s dream-state is to be privy to a kind of stellar dialogue between creators. The more scholastic aspects of the narrative are thorough and honest; for example, the fact that folklorists Arnim and Brentano belonged to an anti-Semitic literary clique, and that Mahler’s appropriation of their work represented something of a cultural coup for a Jewish transcendentalist. The rift between Richard Strauss and Mahler is likewise an open issue, with more credit to Strauss for having facilitated the first performances of Mahler’s difficult music. Then, to watch the young performers of the Manhattan School of Music under their able conductor Glen Cortese, we realize that the message of this grand music and its perhaps impossible aims continues to move and to engage the hearts and minds of a new generation of musicians and music-lovers.
PUCCINI: Tosca (2002)
Riccardo Muti conducts La Scala performers live
This live recording was made during a La Scala performance in March 2000 and Muti is La Scala’s principal conductor. The TV producers were not given permission to add any additional lighting suitable for video, so although the general image quality is quite high resolution, in several scenes the singers are hampered visually by dark and murky lighting. One of the striking elements of the visual design is the extreme raking of the set – elements of it seem to be falling over on the singers. Even the floor is raked; it must have been difficult for the singers to negotiate while performing. All three of the main parts are beautifully sung and powerful voices. Guleghina is one of the leading dramatic sopranos in the world today. Scarpia’s role is especially appropriate, though neither Guleghina nor Licitra quite look the heartthrobs they are supposed to be. The micing is excellent, with no one wandering off mic. There are a minimum of distracting floor and set noises as one hears on so many live opera videos. The DTS option provides a higher degree of surround realism than one gets with most operas on video. The scenes with the cathedral choir in the background as well as the opening of Act 3 with the many different bells of Rome heard in the distance are beautifully spatial sounding and often have a vertical component to them. Altogether a fine presentation that should reach a larger audience than most opera videos.
Richard Wagner, Tannhäuser
Orchester der Oper Zurich, cond. Franz Welser-Möst, Chor des Opernhauses Zurich; Tannhäuser: Peter Seiffert; Elisabeth: Solveig Kringelborn; Venus: Isabelle Kabatu
WAGNER: Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.
Wolfgang Brendel, Viktor von Halem, Eike Wilm Schulte, Uwe Peper, Eva Johansson, Gösta Winbergh, Ute Waltier; Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin/Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
Sitting through this opera is much like reading a lengthy first-rate novel like Anna Karenina. At the end, you feel as if the actors have revealed so much of their passions and turmoils that you know them personally. David’s recitation of the niggling requirements of the master song and his musical demonstrating of each (“the rainbow and the nightingale tune”) are hilarious, particularly if you can hear Wagner railing against traditional forms between the lines. Of course Brendel-as-Sachs is both spectacular and understated in his role as the inwardly noble man who rages against the madness around him in the great aria “Wahn, Wahn, uberall Wahn.” His regret at knowing he cannot have the fulsome Eva is palpable. I wish I could go on more about this stunning production, but I’d like to watch it one more time before it’s consigned to the archives.
Produced and Directed by Peter Rosen
Ostensibly, the film is an historic account of the life of Aram Khachaturian, a gifted, nationalist composer whose immense popularity with the Russian people did not prevent his being labeled “an enemy of the people” by the 1948 Party Congress of Musicians, whose ax-man Tikhon Khrennikov has several important parts in the course of this film. But the documentary is really a kind of Dantesque journey, a tale of early success, middle years of fallen grace and sorrow, and then a final period of redemption and spiritual rebirth. Both Khachaturian and Josef Stalin were born in Tblisi, Georgia; and Khachaturian at first embraced the “greatest social experiment in the 20th Century” –Communism–whole-heartedly, until the premature death of Lenin put the political power into the hands of the madman who would crush the very spirit of individualism in the best and most talented members of his society.
Stalin originally supported Khachaturian, whose deeply Armenian roots inform all of his music with a combination of melodic charm and rhythmic energy immediately captivating. Besides, as Prokofiev embraces France as his second home and Shostakovich the German tradition of Wagner and Mahler, so Khachaturian has a natural penchant for American jazz and its virile optimism. The Piano Concerto (1936) marked Khachaturian’s international acceptance into the world community, and we get a photographic glimpse of the fervent William Kapell, the American pianist who gave some 40 performances of the piece during the War years, 1941-1945. The film juxtaposes archival footage and stills of Khachaturian’s youth along with wonderfully evocative shots of the Georgian landscape and soil which colors his every musical impulse. The visuals of the Bolshoi’s production of Gayaneh, along with the Symphony No. 1, impart the glorious acceptance Khachaturian enjoyed at the height of his popularity.
Then the fateful attacks ensue: first the musical criticism of his “formalism,” along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich; then, the more damaging charge of “Anti-People” composer, again along with the other two composers of first rank. Khachaturian’s musical and political idealism, gleaned under Miaskovsky and Lenin, is shattered. Khrennikov admits that his announcement at the Musicians’ Congress is the “most tragic moment of my career,” but Khachaturian calls it “a stab in the back.” Khrennikov will read Khachaturian’s eulogy at the funeral in 1958.
The redemption begins with Khachaturian’s trip to America, but it culminates in his ballet Spartacus. Ironically, Khrennikov rejects the premise of the ballet on the grounds that it is anachronistic and counterrevolutionary; until Khachaturian points out that Karl Marx wrote that his idol in the spirit of rebellion against tyranny was in fact the Thracian slave Spartacus. Dancer Vassiliev calls the ballet a kind of requiem from Khachaturian, an encapsulation of everything the composer held dear musically and morally. Cellist Rostropovich adds considerable personal detail of the composer’s despair and later triumph. Solomon Volkov provides historical and personal background as well, filling out the contexts of political intrigue. But the true sustainers of the man’s spirit were his lovely wife, Nina (whom he had met in Miaskovsky’s master-class) and the Armenian people themselves, who blessed his name and naively enjoyed the fact that the Turkish slaughter in 1915 had passed him by. Khachaturian remarks, via Begosian, that he witnessed plenty of slaughter by the Party leadership.
There are innumerable nuances and touches to this film ineffable for a review to capture. We see the formation of the famous Sabre Dance, even a piano performance by Khachaturian (to match Hollywood’s by Oscar Levant). Young girls bring Khachaturian flowers and wish him long life in the name of Mother Russia. The special feature on the Making of Khachaturian reveals the grueling red tape that thwarted the filmmakers. Was Khachaturian a mere puppet to extol the virtues of Communism? Or was he, like Shostakovich, a dissident whose music embraced the humane values that must transcend politics? Plenty of food for thought, with visuals and kaleidoscopic music to match.
SHCHEDRIN: The Little Humpbacked Horse
Maya Plisetskaya, The Queen-Maiden Vladimir Vasiliev, Ivan Alexander Radunsky, The King Anna Scherbinina, The Little Humpbacked Horse Soloists, Corps de ballet and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theater/Algis Zhuraitis
Director Zoya Tulubyeva assists the danced plot-line with a spoken narrative (in English), while the opulent set designs borrow clearly from aspects of Stravinsky’s The Firebird and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Plisetskaya does not make an appearance until 35 minutes into the narrative; but from then on, she and the limber Vassiliev dominate the show. There are a number of obligatory divertissement, like a gypsy band and dancers in the capital city, but the lack of any melodic contour for their music undercuts their impact. Anna Scherbinina plays the eponymous Humpbacked Horse with gentle coyness and lithe delicacy, certainly as if she were courting the child in us all. Her character provides the magic in the story, allowing Ivan to pursue the Queen-Maiden to her distant kingdom, to travel under the sea to recover the Queen-Maiden’s ring, and to survive the boiling water that transforms Ivan but turns the King into a royal stew.
Along with Plisetskaya’s incredible technique, like standing en point forever and still managing to execute all kinds of lifts and pirouettes, the youthful Vassiliev demonstrates his own strengths and acrobatic ability, with a real flair for the sheepishly comic touches in his characterization. Radunsky’s King is all buffa, over-the-top mugging and pratfalls, a parody of Buster Keaton and Oliver Hardy. Other effects belong to the director, like the animation used for the firebirds, and the prancing costumed pair who are the two older companions to the Humpbacked Horse. The Bolshoi ensemble is impeccable as per expectation, since the entire grand ballet is mounted in traditional style familiar to Tchaikovsky and Glazounov. Sweet, sentimental, and eminently decorative, the video is a delightful hour and a half.
The Art of Igor Markevitch = ROSSINI: La Cenerentola Overture/MOZART: Arias from Il Re Pastore and Cose fan Tutti/BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 “Pastoral”/BRAHMS: Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53; Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98
Irmgaard Seefried, soprano/Maureen Forrester, contralto/Orchestre de Radio-Canada
By contrast the telecast of 7 February 1957 finds Markevitch’s countenance and demeanor years younger, with a touch of the youth and debonair fire that motivated his own urge to composition. The Alto Rhapsody with Forrester is quite dark, rhythmically focused, with powerful accents in the cellos and basses. The tempo is brisk, no dawdling, and Forrester incants the Goethe winter journey of the spirit with voluble force and hearty enunciation. A somewhat metronomic account of the Brahms Fourth, but with excellent ensemble in the winds and horns. Extreme care is lavished on the transitions between architectural sections; the strings and tympani caress each other prior to the recapitulation in the opening Allegro non troppo. The Radio-Canada recorded sound is a bit strident; and given the literalist approach of the conception, the lushness of the Brahms aura is lost. But watching Markevitch build a crescendo while meticulously marking the counterpoint in the opening movement is awesome. A nice touch in the Andante is the camera’s backing up to highlight Markevitch’s long shadow, then superimposing his image upon the orchestra. The Allegro giocoso really moves; nothing German here. The conductor’s eyes say it all. No personnel listed, but great work from the tympani. The last movement balances the long passacaglia with its discreet sections, the necklace never lost for the pearls. Here it is the romantic Markevitch we hear, the ostinato rhythmic pattern’s having to yield to the touches of rubato Markevitch allows. Markevitch is in full devotions, even closing his eyes at one point (prior to the flute entry) a la Karajan. For the last three variations and coda, we can see and feel the young lion at the podium, an athletic and sinewy conductor whom only failing health would eventually subdue. Great Brahms!
RICHARD STRAUSS: An Alpine Symphony in Images (2004)
Concept/still photography/production: Tobias Melle
The Alpine Symphony is one of the most programmatic of Richard Strauss works. The many short sections of the work are labeled with the stages of setting out in the early morning on a mountain hike and returning back down at sunset. We cross forests, interesting rock formations, alpine meadows, and glaciers on our way to the summit. Arriving at the pinnacle offers the chance of panoramic views. On the way back down we are enveloped in a thunderstorm with flashes of lightning, not that different from Beethoven’s in his Pastoral Symphony. Melle’s photos follow the music rather exactly. Some are very striking and others quite ordinary. Occasionally the brief juxtaposition of two images with a dissolve between them offers a feeling of animation and movement. The setting of the photographs is the Berchtesgaden Alps (where Hitler had his vacation home). It’s an interesting visual adaptation of the music which offers a relaxing and meditative relationship with the Strauss tone poem, and may even be recalled the next time you hear the work without the accompanying images. The performance by the Zurich orchestra is first rate and the DTS option preserves a clean and natural-sounding surround that makes the viewing of the photos a more complete experience.
Swing Era – Duke Ellington & Lionel Hampton
“Soundies” and shorts by two legendary bandleaders
These short music videos were made in the 1940s by the two jazz greats, and sometimes shown between feature films in regular theaters. I had some of them on VHS tape and I can’t say the images are much better here – some have become so contrasty that it is difficult to see the musicians. However, the sound is improved and most cleaner than it was on the tape. Ellington is always smiling brilliantly at the camera – no doubt urged to do so by the director. But his bandmembers look generally glumb, providing quite a contrast. The film short near the end of Ellington’s dozen tracks stages a recording session with a big speaker out on the sidewalk, where jitterbuggers tear up the pavement with their highly athletic moves – beats out any breakdancer today.
Vibe pioneer Hampton gets ten soundies and I wasn’t aware he did so many vocals – sometimes not even touching his vibes during a tune. Air Mail Special is one of the standout tracks that Hamp had done with Benny Goodman’s band. The picture quality is pretty bad on some of these – as though they were video kinescopes rather than on 35mm film originally. But it’s great to see the various Ellington soloists and to hear both these bands do their thing for the cameras.
Branford Marsalis Quartet Performs
Marsalis, sax; Joey Calderazzo, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Jeff “Twain” Watts, drums
Kansas – Sail On (The 30th Anniversary Collection)
Studio: Epic E3K 92661
The DVD has a nice mix of material. The early songs are recorded in 1974 and 1975 and the sound and picture quality isn’t the best. In between tracks are commentaries by band members reminiscing about the early performance and their music career. Some of the videos have to be seen to be believed—they evoke laughter at times. The music is as expected, but the effects are hilarious! Along with an explosive natural cloud background, there are bright colored auras around the band members and beams of light coming out of the performers on Point Of Know Return. On Dust in the Wind the band looks like they just left a wedding, sat down on a stage with a fog machine as we look on through an eye glass. These two are of better quality than the early concert footage. The others have rather mediocre video quality (on purpose?) although the sound is fine. With the later tracks there is a clear transition due to the times and the videos are more like mini films (like many 80s videos). The last 3 tracks were recorded in the summer of 2002 live, so the quality is pretty good. The band is getting older, but they can still rock pretty hard.
As far as material goes, even a diehard fan should be satisfied. Between the commentary by the band and the liner notes, you’ll have a solid idea as to exactly who Kansas is. As a compilation of the talent and music of Kansas, Sail On is a wonderful set.
Songs included (CDs): Can I Tell You; Journey From Mariabronn; Song For America; Lamplight Symphony; Icarus (Borne On Wings Of Steel); The Pinnacle; Child Of Innocence; Carry On Wayward Son; Cheyenne Anthem; Miracles Out Of Nowhere; What’s On My Mind; Point Of Know Return; Portrait (He Knew); Dust In The Wind; Lightning’s Hand; Sparks Of The Tempest; Paradox (Live); People Of The South Wind; Hold On; Got To Rock On; Play The Game Tonight; Fight Fire With Fire; All I Wanted; Rainmaker; Desperate Times; Eleanor Rigby; Icarus II.
Songs on DVD (from Rock Concert): Can I Tell You; Journey From Mariabronn; Death Of Moterh Nature Suite; Icarus (Borne On Wings Of Steel); The Pinnacle.
Songs on DVD (videos): Point Of Know Return; Dust In The Wind; On The Other Side; People Of The South Wind; Reason To Be; Away From You; Fight Fire With Fire; All I Wanted.
Songs on DVD (from Device Voice Drum): The Preacher; Miracles Out Of Nowhere; Carry On Wayward Son.