DVD & Blu-ray Reviews
DVD Video Reviews Part 1 Music Videos
Published on April 1, 2005
BEETHOVEN: Overture Coriolan in C Minor, Op. 62/MOZART: Symphony No./ 33 in B-flat Major, K. 319/BRAHMS: Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98
Carlos Kleiber conducts Bavarian State Symphony Orchestra
Studio: DGG DVD B0003841-09 (Distrib. Universal)
Video: Color 4:3
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 and PCM Stereo
Recorded in concert 21 October 1996, the legendary Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004) delivers three polished and enthusiastic performances of exquisite beauty, wherein the Brahms Fourth receives perhaps the most athletically affectionate reading I have ever seen, as well as heard. Kleiber had become increasingly reclusive by 1996, his stage fright and innate perfectionism having conspired to make any appearance before an orchestra a cause celebre. What we see in the performances seems an almost effortless but deeply communicative relationship between Kleiber and his Munich orchestra, where a minimum of gesture in the left hand is compensated for by facial and bodily tics and indications, supplemented by a supple elastic baton technique that has already anticipated every nuance and agogic detail.
The deep focus of the camerawork only accentuates the wonderful luster of the interpretations. Kleiber occasionally relaxes his hold on the orchestra, even placing his left hand in his pocket while the baton hand and arm barely move. So mesmerized has been the audience throughout the Coriolan Overture, that long after the final beat there is no sound of audience response. The Mozart might appear to play itself, except that its alternately stately and tripping figures have been molded and balanced to perfection. Kleiber’s face, his mouth especially, both speak the phrases and savor them simultaneously. Kleiber, who in 1996 looked much like actor Rutger Hauer, radiates bountiful charm at all he surveys; he might be Wordsworth in the midst of his daffodils. The Brahms Fourth enjoys a sculpted vision, poised and architecturally solid. Kleiber lingers over transitions, letting us hear every modulation of color from horn, flute, clarinet and oboe. The finale, with its tenuous relationship between the pearls and the necklace, the theme and its individually colored variants, builds to an inexorable peroration that simply resonates in the hall even in the ensuing silence, until Kleiber reluctantly accepts the adulation of the Bavarians who have witnessed the proceedings.
Montserrat Caballe Concert – Bel Canto
GRANADOS: Goyescas: la maja y el ruisenor; DONIZETTI: Roberto Devereux: Vivi ingrato; Anna Bolena: Al dolce guidami; BELLINI: Il Pirata: Col sorriso d&Mac226;innocenza. . .Oh, sole!
Carlo Felice Cillario conducts the ORTF Philharmonic
Studio: VAI DVD 4308
Video: 4:3 Black & White
Audio: PCM Mono
Filmed October 15, 1966 at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, this short video captures diva Montserrat Caballe (b. 1933) in four arias, each of which demonstrates her easy coloratura, a lyrico-dramatic finesse that made her for many the successor to Maria Callas. As noted for her cancellations as was pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Caballe did appear in Atlanta for the one experience I had of her voluptuous, liquid voice housed in a rather stolid stage presence; but she canceled our scheduled interview, claiming poor health (a common complaint).
With washed-out image content drained by age, the video-camera sits squarely in the middle of the screen, only periodically referring to an instrumental solo, like the flute in Anna Bolena, for larger reference. We see Caballe’s standing, erect and immobile, permitting only the voice to carry the expression of the drama she vocalizes. When she asks, “Am I in my rooms. . .or in my tomb?” from Il Pirata, her voice dips and achieves broad low notes in a heartbeat. She can shift registration without strain, and she uses chest voice to project an anxious moment, as when she inquires, “Who grieves?” from Anna Bolena. The Bellini aria is the longest, having the contour of a Rossini overture: a slow prelude and vivace conclusion.
The blanched video production finds occasional mortality in the audio too, with some pitch dropouts from the orchestra. The Barcelona native finds happy realization of her compatriot Granados in the lovely ensemble outpourings for The Maiden and the Nightingale. Conductor Cillario waits patiently for audience and orchestra alike to settle down before assuming his downbeat. At the top of her vocal form, Caballe is the mistress of this repertory, and her tessitura is large, her melismas astounding; but given the poor visual and audio quality and the program’s brevity, this DVD may find only a few devotees to purchase it.
- Gary Lemco
It’s Guitarists Galore on our next two DVDs…
Biréli Lagrene & Friends – Live – Jazz at Vienne (2004)
Bireli Lagrene, guitar with Gipsy Project & Friends
Studio: Dreyfus Jazz/Koch Entertainment
Video: 4:3 fullscreen color
Audio: Says 2.0 stereo but is really mono
Extras: Backstage in Vienna video, Interview with Bireli, Informal solos by Bireli, “Live in Montreux l981” – 3 tunes played by 13-year-old Bireli
Length: 3 hours 55 minutes!
Never mind that the audio is just mono – it’s not bad – and any Django fan like myself will wig out over this nearly four-hour immersion in the best of today’s gypsy jazz! I believe Vienne is the French town where is held the annual gypsy jazz guitar festival in honor of the great Django Reinhardt; there’s no notes with the DVD about this however.
Bireli is himself a Sinti gypsy and was known as “the infant Django” after his amazing debut at the Montreux Jazz Festival in l981, which is preserved in an excellent-quality video as a bonus on this DVD. When he is introduced you can hear some booing in the audience – they probably heard it was to be a 13-year-old guitarist. Well, once he started hesitatingly playing there was no more booing! His style was astonisingly similar to Django’s. One of the three selections he plays was his original tune for Montreux and he closed with Django’s rousing gypsy jazz counterpart ot Honegger’s “Pacific 231” – “Mystery Pacific.” Lagrene has recorded several sucessful albums by age 15. In the 80s he turned to fusion jazz but in the 90s returned to gypsy jazz, infusing it with a new more modern sound. He has lately been performing and recording with his band Gypsy Project, which consists of two other guitarists, a bassist and violinist Florin Niculescu.
This group performs onstage for the first 13 selections of the lengthy concert. Then a whole bunch of nine other guitarist take to the stage and we have a guitar band, plus violinist Martin Weiss and famed jazz accordionist Richard Galliano, who plays a button accordion. Sylvain Luc is one of the guitarists with whose work I was acquainted. Another is named David Reinhardt, but no details are given on his connection with Django. This grouping in various guises does 29 more tunes, including some for just a solo guitarist or a guitar duo. Some of my favorite solos were by Galliano, who adds a new sound to gypsy jazz that wasn’t heard in Django’s day. There are a couple tunes at the end where all the players have completely left the stage but the appreciative audience keeps applauding until they finally return for some more. Mixed in with the Django standards are new tunes such as Made in France, Waltz for Nicky and Vienne Song.There were two video screens on each side of the large stage. The outdoor concert began while the sun was still up and evening comes on during it. The length and rapt attention of the audience made me think of hours-long East Indian raga concerts. When nearly all dozen guitarists are playing at once the effect is truly thrilling, even with the limited mono sound. This is one jazz festival I would love to attend.
Tracks – Whew!: Coquette, Blues Clair, Embraceable You, Troublant Bolero, What Is This Thing Called Love, When Day is Done, Djangology, Si Tu Savais, Festival 48, Flobi, Sweet Georgia Brown, Viper’s Dream, Belleville, My One and Only Love, Dinah, I’ll See You in my Dreams, Made in France, Nuages, Tears, Waltz for Nicky, J’Attendrai, Them There Eyes, There Will never Be Another You, Les Yeux Noirs, I Can’t Give You Anythying But Love, Vienne Song, I’ve Found a New Baby, Night and Day, Swing Gitan, Daphne, Donna Lee, Minor Swing.
- John Henry
Jan Akkerman (2003)
Studio: Alpha Centauri Entertainment
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame, 1.85:1 Letterboxed
Audio: DTS 5.1, DD 5.1, DD 2.0
Extras: Interview (35 min)
Length: 78 minutes
Jan Akkerman has a 50-year career with the guitar and has played with notables like Charlie Byrd, BB King, and even Ice-T! He’s been playing since he was 5 years old and also plays keyboards and saxophone. The insert in the DVD case charts his history from playing with local bands in Amsterdam to his playing with studio bands on to his work with the band “Focus.” In 1976 he left the band and teamed up with a few musicians to record “Eli”—a different direction for Jan. He did more solo work and performed around Europe. By the early 80s he was drifting towards blues and getting heavier into rock ’n’ roll. He hadn’t released a worldwide album since 1979 and in 1990, after a stint at the Night of the Guitar project he released a new record. He was asked to go on tour with Sting, but he turned it down. Instead, he began performing with the Charlie Byrd Trio in 1991 and 1992. Throughout the 90s he played with a wide variety of artists and in 2000 he played with the Rosenberg trio—an important association that eventually brought him back to the acoustic guitar.
This disc is divided into two sections—one acoustic (amplified) and the other electric. Jeroen Rietbergen handles the keyboards, Wilbrand Meischke is on bass, and Ton Kijkman plays drums. The Leverkusen concert took place in Germany and starts already in progress. This one is really more of a rock show although there is an acoustic section. Here, the viewer can really see how varied a guitarist Akkerman is. In between songs there is an interview section (aside from the separate interview that is included on the DVD). The Viersen show took place on the day that the World Trade Center was attacked and Akkerman shares his feeling on how things were different during that performance and made it memorable. The venue was filled with 1200 people and the show was sold-out. The material is an upbeat mix between blues, jazz, and rock, but the last song is a beautiful slower tune.
The interview is lengthy and covers some of Akkerman’s influences on guitar as well as discussing different styles of music as they relate to the guitar. There is a discussion of European music that some may find interesting from Jan who appears to associate himself more with American music. Acoustic vs. electric and soloing is covered, and Jan makes an effort to explain what it feels like to be on stage playing and working with an audience. About 20 minutes in you can hear a vintage performance with Paco de Lucia and at about 30 minutes in there is a vintage solo performance of Jan playing a lute.
The sound on this disc is excellent. The surround mix gives the listener a feeling of a large acoustic space and the instruments are almost larger than life. The stage is filled with bright lighting–blues, reds, and greens. There are lots of close-ups of Jan’s guitar so you can see his licks up close. The cuts are fairly long and leisurely, so the viewer doesn’t feel hurried.
Songs, Part 1 Viersen: Streetwalker; Zebra; My Pleasure; Am I Losing You
Songs, Part 2 Leverkusen: My Pleasure, including Sylvia; Am I Losing You; Central Station; Heavy Treasure; Pietons & Hocus Pocus (No Yodel); Tommy. For more info you can visit www.janakkerman.com.
Now here’s a pair of Ellington videos…
Swing Era Series: Duke Ellington in Hollywood
Featuring Billie Holiday and Mae West
Studio: Music Video Distributors (MVD)
Video: 4:3 full screen B&W
Audio: mono PCM
Ellington never stopped recording from 1926 to the end of his life, but he and his band also appeared in many filmed presentations. This compilation brings together various shorts such as the “soundies” of the 40s, some medium-length films and scenes from various feature Hollywood films in which the Duke appeared. The closing one is probably the oddest, three musical excerpts from the movie Belle of the Nineties, starring Mae West, with the band led by Ellington in tunes such as Memphis Blues – which don’t quite jell. Two of the major Ellington works of the period are preserved on film here: Black and Tan Fantasy, and Symphony in Black. Musically they are terrific, but the sometimes dated, cliched and racist images and story lines are painful to see. “Jungle Interlude” qualifies as one of these, although that was a theme of many of the shows at the Cotton Club and several of Ellington’s compositions. On the other hand, one of the most successful marriages of screen images and music is the setting the studio gave a tune not even composed by Ellington – Stormy Weather. It’s actually a very creative little art film, and is prefaced by the band blowing their best on the classic Rockin’ in Rhythm. Both the video and audio quality is quite good considering the age of the sources. I’ve had some of these clips on VHS tapes in the past with much inferior picture and sound.
- John Henry
Duke Ellington – Live at the Tivoli Gardens, Parts 1 & 2 (1971)
Studio: Storyville Records/Image Entertainment
Video: 4:3 full screen color
Audio: Dolby Digital mono
Length: 140 minutes
Rating: *** 1/2
These two concerts for the Danish audiences show Ellington and the band still in top form, though the Duke was 72 at the time. He still shines as the band’s pianist, and I don’t recall in other videos seeing him dancing around onstage and reacting with the various soloists as much as this. It almost reminded me of the videos of Bob Wills – but not to the bizarre and distracting level of those. You really get your money’s worth in music with these concerts, though there is considerable repetition from one to the other. The big Ellington medley they play near the end of both parts is identical. Yet it’s interesting to compare solos, there is some freedom of expression here, unlike some bands. It’s great to have the closeups of famous jazz masters in action such as Cootie Williams, Harry Carney, Paul Gonsalves, Russell Procope and especially Ben Webster – who had played in Ellington’s band in the early 1940s and is sitting in for these appearances.
The one fly in the ointment here is a rather loose and non-professional level of both the video images and audio quality. The camera is sometimes too far away from the stage to see much of the action and other times showing musicians who aren’t doing much when someone else is playing a great solo. But the sound is the most annoying – both Ellington himself and various soloists being completely off- mic for parts or all of their solos. This seems to be worse in Part 1 and you can find the same tunes played in Part 2 with better image and sound results – perhaps the tech people were learning as they went…Still, true Ellington fans will want to have this video testament.
- John Henry
The Legendary Nat “King” Cole (2004)
Studio: Efor Films
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame B&W and Color
Audio: DD 2.0 (but mostly mono)
Extras: Clips (Nature Boy, It’s Only A Paper Moon, I’m Sitting On Top of the World, For Sentimental Reasons, Breezy and the Bass, Sweet Loraine, Route 66, A Christmas Song, I Want to be Happy, Do I Love You Because You Are Beautiful, Anything Goes, Mona Lisa, These Foolish Things, How High The Moon, Dream), Clips from the Nat “King” Cole Show w/ guests (Sammy Davis Jr., The Oscar Peterson Trio, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Mercer, Ella Fitzgerald), Movie Performances (Blue Gardenia, My Flaming Heart)
Length: 44 minutes (not including extras)
Rating: *** *
This DVD is a biography of the late, great, Nat “King” Cole. Cole was born in 1919 and from an early age (after his parents moved to Chicago) began to play the organ in church. He won many local talent shows as a youngster and by the age of 16 he played at the “Battle Of Rhythms” against Earl Hines and won! He made some of his first recordings at the Panama Club and after the failure of a traveling show (where he met his first wife) he stayed in California and played solo piano at beer joints. He was “discovered” by the owner of the Swanee Inn and started what was to be a two week stint that lasted for six months as the Nat “King” Cole Trio. Even though Nat had sung in the past, it wasn’t until 1939, when he performed vocals on “Sweet Loraine” that this became an essential part of the act. In 1940, he turned down a chance to join Lionel Hampton’s band and instead went into the studio to make commercial recordings for Decca.
His career really began to skyrocket and, in 1943, with the help of his new manager, he signed a seven-year contract with Capitol Records. He is the most successful artist they have ever had. In 1948, he married again to Maria Ellington who would stay with him till his death. During his career, like any other famous black person of the day, he had troubles with racism. He did his best to battle discrimination whenever he could—an example was a case he won against some of the hotels he was allowed to play at, but could not stay. He was also charitable and gave to various causes. His association with Nelson Riddle was a buoying force in his career and he recorded one of his biggest hits, “Mona Lisa” (as well as “Unforgettable”).
Unfortunately, due to bad financial advice, the IRS came after him in 1951 saying he owed $146,000 in back taxes. With support from family and the record company, he was able to keep his house and get back on his feet. He branched out to film and performed in a dozen and even starred in two. During the 1940s, Cole became the first black entertainer to have his own radio program, and in the 1950s he became the first African American to host his own television show. It was a great success in that it attracted all the best musicians of the day who were willing to give up a large fee (sometimes up to $30,000) and receive only the $150 union fee for their appearance. Even though the show was so popular, it never received any product sponsorship, so it ended after only a year. Nat quipped: “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.” He was distressed by the cancellation of the show, but continued to perform until, in late 1964, he developed lung cancer. He lived another few months and died in February 1965 leaving behind him a legacy of unreleased music.
Nat “King” Cole is considered one of the greatest singers of all time, and his soft, seductive, emotion-filled voice is hard to categorize. As a pianist he is compared with greats like Art Tatum and Bud Powell. Many may be familiar with his music, but not really know what kind of man he was. After viewing his performances on his show and see him speak publicly, it is clear he was a talent in many ways.
My only complaint of this DVD is that it is too short, so that the material only superficially covers certain areas of Cole’s life and his musical career. The amount of extra material is the big draw—there are over 20 musical performances ranging from all parts of Cole’s career. Some of these are shortened in the main part of the DVD, so it is nice to see them all the way through along with the additional material. Recommended.