DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

19 DVD Reviews, Pt. 1 – Music Videos


Published on May 1, 2005

May 2005    Part 1 of 2     [Pt. 2]


Berlioz: The Trojans Barbirolli cond. Brahms, Delius, Walton Lenya & May sing Weill & Brecht Conductors of the Third Reich
Astor Piazzolla DVD Dianne Reeves music video Zappa's Baby Snakes Frank Sinatra TV show

Chopin piano music videoChopin Piano Music (2005)

Preludes Op. 28 played by Alfredo Perl
Etudes Op. 10 & 25 played by Freddy Kempt
Sonata In B Flat Minor played by Angela Hewitt

Studio: BBC/Opus Arte (distr. by Naxos)
Video: 16:9 widescreen, color
Audio: DTS 5.0, PCM Stereo (no DD)
Length: 138 minute
Rating: *****

This has got to be the most successful presentation I have ever witnessed, both visually and sonically, of solo piano music on a music DVD. Hewitt was the only pianist familiar to me but the other two are of equal capability. This is a complete program as one would get on a multi-disc set of Chopin works – all 24 Preludes in succession, all dozen of each opus number of Etudes and the entire B flat minor Sonata. The sound is superb, whether selecting the PCM or the DTS options. Note that there is no Dolby Digital; this is occurring on a number of music videos lately due to the fact that just about as many people have DTS decoding now as have DD decoding. There is not the huge difference in fidelity between the DTS and the PCM stereo as often the case when comparing to DD. And the added realism of actually being in the rooms where the pianos are located is astounding effective in the five-channel DTS option.

The visual presentation is what will impress anyone about this DVD. Instead of a boring concert hall, the three different pianists play in three different evocative settings. The Preludes are set in a classic historical house in Edinburgh, the Etudes in the Chateau de Neuville in Gambais, France, and Angela Hewitt plays on the empty stage of the Wimbledon Theatre in London (and on a rich-sounding Fazioli piano). The first two pianists are shown walking thru adjoining rooms into the room housing their Steinways and getting seated at the keyboard. The lighting is different for each selection and often is Rembrandtesque, with low light situations that make one feel it is dusk. The framing is constantly varied, with moving camera, occasionally not even showing the face of the pianist. Angela Hewitt plays on an almost dark stage with very dramatic lighting effects and the camera moving all around her. Simply gorgeous. Like no video presentation of classical piano you have ever soon. Very highly recommended!

- John Sunier

The Trojans at Carthage - operaBERLIOZ: Les Troyens

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, cond. Sir John Eliot Gardiner – Choeur du Théâtre du Châtelet, Monteverdi Choir -
Stage director: Yannis Kokkos
Didon: Susan Graham; Cassandre/Clio: Anna Caterina Antonacci; Anna: Renata Pokupic; Enée: Gregory Kunde; Chorèbe: Ludovic Tézier
Studio: BBC/Opus Arte OA 0900 D, 3 DVDs, all regions
Video: Enhanced for 16:9 widescreen, color
Audio: PCM Stereo, DTS Stereo
Extras: Interviews with Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Yannis Kokos, Susan Graham, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Gregory Kunde, and others; Booklet with photos
Length: 5 hours, 12 mins.
Rating: ****

A full-screen DVD set with stunning clarity and great lighting, this production of Berlioz’s long, penultimate opera Les Troyens lavishes attention on production values, yielding gorgeous sets. A beautiful mirroring screen shows a staircase to heaven, seemingly at a diagonal, giving the illusion of characters magically walking up and down the steps. Later on, the grotesque head of the Trojan horse is superimposed on a translucent screen. The appearance of Hector’s ghost in Act 2 (sung powerfully by Fernand Bernadi) is a scene of shivering import. The entire production imparts a sense of grandeur, a subliminal awareness of the large geographic expanse separating Troy from Carthage.

In Act 1, the chorus members, whose faces are beautifully illuminated, are dressed as World War I soldiers; their anachronistic costumes may be taken as a hint of ancient Troy’s proximity to Gallipoli, which played a strategic role in World War I. The architecture of Troy is downright Hellenistic, which brings with it an emotional resonance, however inaccurate this may be. The singers give their all to this exceptional production, mostly with great success. Antonacci as Cassandra is impressively overwrought in her prophetic distress. Tézier’s Chorèbe, Cassandra’s phlegmatic lover, is a sweet, nutty baritone with a rolling vibrato. In Act 1 the juxtaposition of the highly strung Cassandra and the placid and trusting Chorèbe is excellent. In Act 2, Antonacci is more resonant, since here Cassandra has resigned herself to the Trojans’ fate. In a touching scene, she holds her jacket in her arms like the baby she will never have.

In Act 3, which opens in Carthage, Susan Graham as the imperious Dido has an agile and warm voice with good stage presence. Pokupic as Dido’s sister, Anna, is less convincing. And Kunde, with his weak tenor and thin timbre, is disappointing. He is far from the heroic Aeneas he is meant to portray. His duet with Graham, however, is magical, with gorgeous lighting. Iopas’s Narbal in Act 4 is sweet and expressive. Gardiner conducts skillfully and dramatically, making interesting comments in the bonus tracks. The strongest suit of this high-minded production celebrating Berlioz’s 200th birthday is the visual effects – including the camera work, and the weakest is the choreography in Act 4.

-Dalia Geffen

Barbirolli cond. BSOSir John Barbirolli conducts Boston Symphony Orchestra

Program: An Elizabethan Suite (arr. Barbirolli); DELIUS: The Walk to the Paradise Garden; WALTON: Partita for Orchestra; BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73
Studio: VAI DVD 4304
Video: 4:3 Black&White
Audio: Mono PCM
Length: 94 minutes
Rating: ****

From 1957 through 1979, WGBH-TV co-produced more than 175 Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts to be distributed to public television stations. Recorded on two-inch videotape and 16mm kinescopes, more than 100 programs remain in the Archives of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and WGBH Educational Foundation. Due to the fragility and deteriorating condition of the originals, the programs proved inaccessible prior to the reformatting process that has now made them available to the DVD audience.

Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970) appears in a telecast from Sanders Theatre, Harvard University, 3 February 1959, with music dear to his heart and intellect. These are his first appearances with the BSO, having made his debut in this program 30-31 January. Sporting a long baton, Barbirolli reveals the fluid stick technique that elicits fluid reponse from the BSO players. The shimmering moments from his arrangement of The King’s Hunt section of An Elizabethan Suite is a lovely case in point, with the dynamics at ppp and Barbirolli’s coaxing nuances through facial expression. The Delius Walk to the Paradise Garden from A Village Romeo and Juliet has a grand sweep and leisure, with Barbirolli’s relishing big gestures, and the camera panning throughout the various string, harp and woodwind choirs, with an occasional double exposure of the conductor and the harp in the frame.

Walton’s three-part Partita for Orchestra had as its impetus a commission from George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, so if this is not its premier at the BSO it has to be among the early performances. The brass section simply shines throughout the energetic antics of this piece, and so the camera gives it full exposure, occasionally drawing back to provide a long shot of Barbirolli’s leading the full orchestra in one of several explosive moments. At the conclusion of the Partita, Barbirolli graciously accepts applause, tipping his hand in a salute to the full orchestra, who tap their bows appreciatively.

The Brahms D Major Symphony, a Barbirolli staple, has both tension and sympathy between conductor and orchestra, with loving cello warmth and winsome playing from the principal flute, Doriot Anthony Dwyer. The camera angle overhead is above Barbirolli’s favored cello section. Driving energy to the recapitulation in the first movement has us looking at oboe, flute, and then full string and tympani complement, savoring a muscular interpretation that does not lack for tender intimacy. The final bars elicit glowing figures from horns James Stagliano, Charles Yancich, and Harry Shapiro, along with Roger Voisin’s trumpet. The Adagio is molded along plastic and energized lines, with startling punctuations from the brass, the camera zooming in on the horn, bassoon, and oboe; note that the secondary theme has a marked marcato character that I found noteworthy. After a lithe Allegretto grazioso (in which there are not so much pitch drop-outs as dynamic swoops in sound-level), the Allegro con spirito fianle has Barbirolli at his most aristocratic, feet planted apart, head, neck, and shoulders all invoking the orchestra to ever-more passionate outbursts and achieving a rousing peroration that brings down exciting, unanimous applause.

–Gary Lemco

Lenya & May sing WeillLotte Lenya and Gisela May – Theater Music of Brecht & Weill

Studio: Creative Arts TV/VAI
Video: 4:3 Color/B&W, no region code
Audio: PCM mono
Length: 77 minutes
Rating: ****

This program will be absolutely fascinating to fans of Brecht and Weill’s theater music and the unique Lotte Lenya. Others may not think it warrants a four-star rating. The sources are various arts programs from early network television, back when commercial channels actually produced excellent music programs – even though they shunted them to times such as early Sunday mornings. That’s when the superb CBS Camera Three aired in1958, and Lenya just moves thru an empty theater seating area and simple sets singing the songs written for her by husband Kurt Weill. There’s a small ensemble off-camera accompanying her. The source is a contrasty kinescope but it’s great to see Lenya and hear her emotional, definitely non-operatic voice – which sounds as lived-in as did Billie Holiday’s, but in a different manner. She does five songs, some in English and some in the original German. Unfortunately, English subtitles are not one of the extras provided; it is obvious the meager Camera Three budget didn’t allow for anything like that.

Several performers have continued the Lenya tradition, of which the hottest at the moment is of course Ute Lemper, but none sound as much like the original as the Lenya herself. Gisela May made a good try in l972 on another network arts program and this time the source is in color and with a bit more lavish sets and even a second singer in one number. She sings five Weill songs, followed by five with the composer Brecht used after Weill left for the U.S. – Paul Dessau. She ends with a song by Tucholsky and Heymann in the same general style of highly political and satirical lyrics to “people’s music” – simplified melodies and harmonies – but not lacking in a catchy quality and appropriate to the lyrics.

The last items on the program are two songs by yet another would-be Lenya: Jewish folk song specialist Martha Schlamme. She has a rather odd solution to the lack of English subtltles on the Bilbao-Song: She stands in the crook of the grand piano and tells us verbally the entire lyrics of all the verses. Fine, we think, that’s a creative way to present the piece since the usual approach to it is a sort of “sprech stimme” anyway. But then she goes on to really sing the entire thing! Since we already heard Lenya do that song an hour ago, this may be Bilbao-de-trop. On the second Schlamme song, Weill’s Tango-Ballade from The Three Penny Opera, folk singer Will Holt joins her and the lyrics are in English – communicating a good impression of Brecht’s cynical take on the war between the sexes.

Songs: Lenya: Alabama-Song, Surabaya Johnny, Bilbao-Song, Pirate Jenny, Ballad of the Drowned Girl; May: Moritat, Pirate Jenny, Alabama-Song, Surabaya Johnny, In Potsdam Under the Oak Trees; Solomon Song, Song of Mother Courage, Song of the Great Capitulation, Song of the Eighth Elephant, Kleines Lied, The Guards Regiment; Schlamme: Bilbao-Song, Tango-Ballade.

- John Sunier

As long as we seem to be in a Germanic vein, how about going for the jugular?…

Conductors of the Third ReichGreat Conductors of the Third Reich – Art in the Service of Evil

Furtwängler/Böhm/BlechKarajan/Knappertbusch/Krauss/Schillings
The Berlin Philharmonic and Bayreuth Orchestra
Studio: Bel Canto Society
Video: 4:3 B&W
Audio: PCM mono
Extras: 20-p. booklet “Music in the Third Reich” and bios of the conductors
Length: 53 minutes
Rating:**1/2

I came across an article by the CEO of Bel Canto about his achieving improved sound quality on his restoration CDs and DVDs thru the use of very high end A-to-D converters and offering the more data-intensive PCM option on DVDs rather than the data-reduced Dolby Digital. That led me to the online Bel Canto catalog. When I saw this DVD listed I was dumbfounded. And saw that one of our writers – Gary Lemco – had rave reviewed it in the past. But more so to see another review excerpt from a fellow reviewer who had taken over editorship of a publication I had edited many years ago. Her excerpt spoke solely of how highly glorious all the music-making was, with no mention (as made by the other reviewers) of the horror of these conductors turning their art into part of the Nazi propaganda machine.

I found it difficult as an audiophile to appreciate the high standards of music making. First, nearly everything is an excerpt. Second, there are two repeats of the beginning of the Ode to Joy section of Beethoven’s Ninth with different conductors (one on a stage emblazoned with huge swastikas, which is chilling in the extreme considering the words being sung!). Third, the sound is fairly impressive on some of the excerpts and thoroughly awful on others such as the Beethoven Ninths. I have heard some painful distortions involved with audio all my life, but the big climaxes here surpass anything my ears have ever been subject to. Even the worst sound on early Soviet sound films isn’t as poor as this. The excerpts are designed to show that in Nazi propaganda Beethoven was promoted as a supreme German nationalist who shared the Nazi ideals. Many of the top Nazi leaders were failed artists themselves and they made their version of the arts an important part of their political vision.

This is not really a documentary but little clips of film and stills assembled into a grab-bag. Some of the other music excerpts include The William Tell Overture (with Karajan – who joined the Nazi party not once but twice to further his career), Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and a bit of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger at Bayreuth. There is newsreel footage of Hitler arriving at Bayreuth and being sucked up to by the Wagner family and fans, also of Karajan conducting the Prussian State Orchestra in occupied Paris intercut with shot of the Nazi tanks rolling down the Champs-Elysee. But perhaps the most chilling is the footage of Goebels smiling an evil smile at the conclusion of the music Furtwängler has conducted, and then going down to the edge of the stage to shake the conductor’s hand.

The note booklet is in some ways more interesting than the video. It gives a concise description of the situation with Furtwängler including actual quotes of his strong anti-semitic, antidemocratic statements. It was surprising to read that one conductor – Leo Blech – remained as one of the leading conductors in the Third Reich although Jewish. But only until 1937, when he fled.

- John Sunier

Piazzolla PortraitAstor Piazzolla in Portrait (2005)

Studio: BBC/Opus Arte (Distr. by Naxos)
Video: 4:3 & 16:9 color & B&W, all regions
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo
Extras: “Piazzolla: The Man and His Music” – 54 min. of interviews with his son, widow, Richard Alliano and other performers; Bonus track of rehearsal of Milonga del Angel
Length: 213 minutes
Rating: *****

I’ve wondered for years why a feature film hasn’t been done on the life of Piazzolla; this seems to be the best we have for now and it’s very good. (I also continue to wonder why one still hasn’t been done on the life of Django Reinhardt.) The lengthy timing is due to there being two separate films here: Tango Maestro is a documentary written, filmed and narrated by Mike Dibb, 106 minutes length. Then Tango Nuevo is a record of Piazzolla’s last recorded studio performance, playing six of his complete classics with his final quintet. The film by Dibbs includes selections from 30 years of filmed performances by Piazzolla’s groups. It explores the turbulent and complex life of the great Argentine composer/performer. He speaks directly about some of the highlights in his life. One was his concentration on a more modern and unique style of tango, which resulted from his one session with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. She wasn’t impressed by the copycat music he was writing which was redolent of Ravel, Stravinsky and Bartok, and told him to go back to the tango milieu with which he was familiar and make his mark in that style.

So Piazzolla, who had played bandoneon in Carlos Gardel’s band as a teenager, returned to his tango heritage and formed his band New Tango, which brought new sounds of contemporary jazz, classical and rock, flamenco and other influences into the tradition-bound and sentimental tango form. His music still retained the gutsy even violent basic nature of the original tango of the Buenos Aires bordellos, with its dance movements imitating knife fights and sex. But it was so much more complex that it became listening music more than dance accompaniment – something like what happened to big bands like Ellington. His music is not used by most tango instructors or dancers – the rhythms are much too weird. Piazzolla encountered tremendous opposition in his own country, where many thought he had ruined their tango culture. But one of the interviews is with the leader of a Paris dance company who creates ballets using Piazzolla’s music.

Piazzolla’s colorful private life is investigated, with interviews with past lovers and a couple of his children who had on and off relationships with him after he moved out of the New York apartment where they lived with their mother. They had moved there to escape the dictatorship in Argentina, but his son (who performed with Piazzolla in one of the quintets) was shocked that his father later was friendly with and performed for the regime.

Contributions to the documentary come from such admirers of his music as Yo-Yo Ma, Daniel Barenboim, Gary Burton and the Kronos Quartet. There are clips from two feature films for which Piazzolla wrote the music. (I would love to see The Exile of Gardel, but the web DVD listings show it as out of print.) The many Argentine and other performers who worked with him also fill in aspects of Piazzolla’s life and nature. One of his closest friends was the fine French jazz accordionist Richard Galliano, who shared Piazzolla’s Italian heritage. The musical performances are exciting, and show the dedication and seriousness of Piazzolla when onstage. (I was fortunate to see him perform a couple years before he died.) His music has started a worldwide tango craze – actually the second tango craze since the one in the 30s. There are now tango groupies everywhere and elements of tango are creeping into every sort of composition – as witness the Kronos Quartet’s appearance in this documentary. Even on a CD just received here for review – works for pipe organ by Guy Bouvet combining tango with ancient ecclesiastical modes!

- John Sunier

Dianne Reeves in MontrealDianne Reeves: Live In Montreal (2000)

Dianne Reeves, vocals with Otmaro Ruiz, keyboards,
Reginald Veal, bass, Roscoe Bryant, Drums and
Munyungo Jackson, Percussion
Studio: Image Entertainment
Video: 1.33:1 fullscreen, color
Audio: DD 5.1 surround, DTS 5.1 surround, 2.0 stereo
Extras: Video interview
Length: 111 minutes
Rating: **

Dianne Reeves has developed quite a bit of notoriety over the years for her offbeat takes on jazz standards and her jazzification of many songs from other genres; this DVD video of her performance at the 2000 Montreal Jazz Festival documents her musical journey down the road less traveled. The Overture starts out in a distinctly Afro-Cuban direction, and much of the music follows that bent throughout. My personal highlight was the only piece that really came even close to resembling an actual standard, the bass and vocals only take on Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo – bassist Reginald Veal is just superb here. If only that truly inspired moment were more typical of what is offered here!

Unfortunately, the disc is somewhat lacking, both in sound and video quality. The vocals have a rather disembodied quality to them, and seem to float about the soundstage, regardless of which audio track you choose. I’ve encountered similar problems on other music video dvds, but choosing the stereo or PCM track usually solves the problem. No luck here – the stereo track is just as bad, and no wonder the others suffer as they do. The video quality seems very dated – the colors are much too saturated, and Dianne Reeves seems almost superimposed on the background – I don’t think this was their intention. Overall, and unless you’re a really big fan, I’d pass on this one, or maybe check it out as a rental.

Tracks: Overture; Morning Has Broken; Afro Blue; Mood Indigo; Yesterday; Summertime; Nine; In Your Eyes; River; Testify; Endangered Species; Mista; Love for Sale.

– Tom Gibbs

Baby SnakesBaby Snakes (1979)

Starring: Frank Zappa
Studio: Eagle Eye Media
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: DD 5.1, DD 2.0
Extras: Baby Snakes Trailer, Commercial Spot (2), Roxy Trailer
Length: 164 minutes
Rating: ***1/2 (Zappa fans), * (everyone else)

Take a trip as Agent “Musique Fann” to infiltrate the mind of the evil FZ. This disc is written, produced, directed, and music composed by Frank Zappa. Animation sequences are done by Bruce Bickford and music is performed by Terry Bozzio, Roy Estrada, Adrian Belew, Ed Mann, Patrick O’Hearn, Tommy Mars, Peter Wolf, and Frank Zappa. In the beginning of the disc are cartoon images, acid-trip style claymation, and shots of the band scoring the claymation sequences. It is clear that Zappa has a huge axe to grind with Warner Bros., which he manages to mention every chance he gets. There is even a warning at the beginning of the DVD to suggest that the powers that be may be alarmed at the material presented. The film is about “people who do stuff that is not normal.” At points there is weirdness including a talking police car and scenes with a female blow-up doll. From the middle on, there is more music interspersed with the claymation. The music is progressive/alternative rock ala Jeff Beck—in other words, guitar-based rock of the late 70s.

In the middle of the live performance, Zappa brings up members of the audience to do all sorts of crazy things—it’s like a circus—and watch out for the poodle story! Along with the disc is a cool booklet that has a small file with information about the disc, Frank Zappa, and pictures—it reads like a dossier. It also has reviews, the infamous “No-D” glasses with a description of their use, and a section by FZ discussing the composition. There is nice use of surround sound on the 5.1 mix, and if you can tolerate all the weirdness the music isn’t bad. I still have trouble getting the “Baaaaaaby Snakes” hook out of my head. Enter at your own risk.

-Brian Bloom

Frank Sinatra TV ShowThe Frank Sinatra Show with guest star: Ella Fitzgerald (1959)

Also: Juliet Prowse, Peter Lawford, Hermione Gingold, The Hi-Los, Red Norvo
Studio: ABC TV/MVD Distributors
Video: 4:3 B&W kinescope
Audio: PCM mono
Length: 85 minutes
Rating: ****

What a wonderful bit of video nostalgia, especially for those of us long enough in the tooth to have seen the original! This was a variety show on ABC-TV sponsored by Timex – and yes, we get to see John Cameron Swaze’s folksy commercials for the watches too. This particular show was from Palm Springs, and live of course, as was most of prime time TV then. Unfortunately, though It Never Rains In Sunny California (Spike Jones), it did that day and they were forced to do the show indoors, improvising in sometimes hilarious fashion with simple props such as chairs and umbrellas. Sinatra was promoting his movie Can-Can with Juliet Prowse, so they do some tunes together. Hermione Gingold is a kick even if the patter she shares with Sinatra and Lawford is pretty lame, and it’s a treat to hear the clever a capella stylings of the Hi-Los male quartet again.

The great Ella only performs three songs: Here’s That Rainy Day, together with Sinatra and vibist Red Norvo; Can’t We Be Friends with Sinatra; and a lovely solo version of Gershwin’s He Loves, She Loves. The Gershwin/Love continues to the end of the show, with the Hi-Los singing Love Walked In, Sinatra singing Love Is Here to Stay, and the entire cast doing Love Is Sweeping the Country for the grand finale. It is a kinescope but the image quality is not that bad and the sound is serviceable.

- John Sunier

On to Part 2 of this month’s DVD reviews

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