DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique – Keeping Score series, Blu-ray (2009)

Another documentary and full-length performance in the San Francisco Symphony series

Published on November 25, 2009

BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique – Keeping Score series, Blu-ray (2009)

BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique – Keeping Score series, Blu-ray (2009)

Performers: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony
Documentary + Complete concert performance
Producers/Directors: David Kennard & Joan Saffa; live performance: Gary Halvorson
Studio: SFS Media Blu-ray [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]
Video: 16:9 1080i HD color
Audio: Dolby Digital HD 5.1, 7.1, 2.0
Extras: Documentary
Subtitles (Doc.): Closed-caption English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese
Length: 1 hour 56 minutes
Rating: *****

This is one of three Blu-rays issued by the San Francisco Symphony (also on standard DVD), following up on their earlier release of four similar DVDs devoted to the analysis and performance of well-known works of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Copland. The other two in the current series are on Ives and Shostakovich. Each has a one-hour documentary on the particular composer and work, hosted by Michael Tilson Thomas and featuring orchestra members, plus a complete performance of the entire work. All are also telecast in HD on PBS stations nationally.

MTT was mentored by Leonard Bernstein and continues with the Keeping Score series the award-winning special concerts and telecasts which made Bernstein such a singular communicator of things musical to the general public.  But now the recent developments in video and audio make possible an even better presentation in every way.  The documentaries are done in the style of the best PBS series, with MTT visiting, in this video, the actual home of Berlioz while speaking about his childhood, youth and career. He shows how he took a melody he had written under the influence of a very youthful love and later used it as a main theme in his Symphonie fantastique. He compares Berlioz to Descartes, the latter having said “I think, therefore I am.” Berlioz said “I feel, therefore I am,” and thus epitomizes the Romantic period composer.

In the video of the complete symphony the presentation of classical music on the screen is taken ahead yet another step technically.  It goes beyond the practice of shooting the orchestral musicians miming to a prerecorded track, and continuing day after day with cameras moved from one side of the hall to the other – as per Herbert von Karajan’s video system.  Instead, everything is done live, with three remote-controlled cameras on the stage, so that height and flying shots can be gotten without disturbing the players or live audience.  There are also several manned cameras in action.  But the most interesting departure is that the video editing is all done on the spot, live, as the orchestra performs.  The director gives rapid fire cues to cut from one camera to another in keeping with the excitement of the live performance, as various instruments take solos and themes are tossed from one section of the orchestra to another.   And the result does have a different sort of excitement that is missing from many otherwise perfect-looking videos of symphony orchestra performances.

What a fascinating comparison this MTT presentation on Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique is to the one which Bernstein did on the same work in the 60s (available on a Sony Classical CD).  As I recall, that one revolved around the idea of Berlioz “poisoning himself” with opium and having the fantastic visions described in the music.  MTT’s approach is even further along the continuum away from what most people would expect as music appreciation. The Blu-ray transfer and hi-res surround are beyond criticism.

 - John Sunier




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