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DVD Video Reviews for June 2002, Pt. 1

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MOZART: Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail (Abdunction From the Seraglio) (complete opera) (1980/2001)

From the opening scuffle between well-scrubbed Belmonte and oafish Osmin, this production of Mozart's Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail delivers most of the goods, yet is occasionally marred by flaws in direction and organization. (I'll get to that soon.) Conducted by the great Karl Böhm when he was 72, this production shows the master's touch: restrained during the overture and lively during scenes of comic drama. As a comic but sad character, Osmin rivals Monostatos in The Magic Flute. Bass Martti Talvela is nearly perfect for the role: threatening, pompous, nimble (for his size), and ultimately pathetic. His scene with Reri Grist's Blonde, a tiny woman with a small but expressive voice, is a well blocked side-splitter. As Belmonte, Franscisco Araiza suffers the same problem as most singers with this role. How does one inject personality into this essentially bland role? Araiza only partly succeeds. His honeyed tenor voice, so popular in lied recordings twenty years ago, is his strongest asset. Never once does he roll his eyes in exasperation or lose his temper, frustrated by the slippery turns of his fate. As Constanze, Edita Gruberova sings her arias in the olden style: half to the audience, half to her co-singers, such as in her vocally astounding "Ach ich liebte, war so glücklich," addressed to the Pasha Selim. Here are some highpoints on this DVD: Blonde's joyous "Welche Wonne, welche Lust," which Reri Grist transforms into an infectious prancing outburst, accentuated by those cute harem pants; Pedrillo's and Osmin's quintessential drinking and dancing song "Vivat Bacchus;" Osmin's gloating "Ha, wie will ich triumphieren," in which Talvela impressively soars from top E to bottom D; and the choral finale, which redeems the earnest but bland vaudeville that preceded it (with the exception of Osmin's hilarious "execution" outburst).

I wish this DVD had a better index than simply menu divisions at Act I, II, and III. At least the booklet lists the notable arias and their corresponding tracks. Note that this live recording is twenty-two years old. Back then, producers thought it clever to record in front of a live audience, capturing every second of applause and every curtain call, along with dry coughs and wet sneezes. (Happily, today's filmed stage productions are getting away from that misguided notion.) I also wish the lighting were more contrasty during the night scenes and bluish, not greenish. To summarize, this is a passable production Die Entführung--it presses the right buttons and has excellent moments, but don't expect it to abduct you.

--Peter Bates

My Cinema for the Ears:
The musique concrete of Francis Dhomont and Paul Lansky (2002)

I didn't expect to like My Cinema for the Ears. The description seemed precious and ill-defined: "An impressionistic, wryly humorous look at nature and the creative process." It didn't help that it began unassumingly, with shots of the Stanstead, Canada's countryside accompanied by Vivaldi's "Spring" segment from The Four Seasons. So what else is new? Plenty. Not long after that inauspicious introduction, Aumüller introduces veteran electronic composer Francis Dhomont at work, assembling his music to Vivaldi's poetry. He needs a "faithful dog," so he goes out into the countryside with his analog recording equipment and finds one. The humor creeps in as he encounters an uncooperative sheep dog, a curious farmer, and bees. Aumüller shows brief glimpses of Dhomont's computer technology at work, yet not in a dry expository sense, but more as a link in the process. Dhomont is then quoted as saying that Debussy wanted to paint music, which is not exactly true but it leads into a charming sequence composed of Aumüller 's poetic images and Dhomont's music. He says "we have more in common with the filmmaker than with traditional musicians," because of the dependence on media and the way that concrete composers intervene by cutting, mixing, etc. At the 19 minute mark a fragment of the piece Water Music (En cuerdas) plays, a hypnotic composition that becomes more concrete with Aumüller's brilliant use of sped-up and close-up imagery. Soon Dhomont is discussing work methods with American musique concrète composer Paul Lansky.

As more of these segments transpire-interview, compositional fragment, interview again--it becomes apparent what this film is showing us. These musicians mine everything in nature, the city, and social interactions (like parties) as sources for music. A thumping trip over a suspension bridge: why not digitally alter that rhythmic sound and distort it so that it's both unrecognizable and a fascinating musical figure? Attend a social event and record snatches of conversation. "Loudspeakers are windows into an imaginary space," says Lansky, with Aumüller skillfully illustrating his point. The DVD comes with four excellent audio tracks, featuring pieces by Dhomont and Lansky. Oddly, they aren't sequenced, so you have to play each one separately. Also, your DVD player's pause button may refuse to work, like mine, although I had better luck on my DVD-ROM player. Despite this technological fluke in the middle of a DVD about audio technology, this art/documentary film is memorable and worth having.

--Peter Bates

Il Giardino Armonico (1999)

The Baroque instrumental sextet Il Giardino Armonico is in the forefront of early music ensembles who, while based in recent musicological findings, season their "authentic" performance style with colorful and dramatic elements that make the sometimes soporific selections come alive with an entirely fresh appeal. Their super-enthusiastic recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons made most of the others sound like Baroque wallpaper music. The ensemble consists of flute, two violins, cello, lute and harpsichord. Early Italian music is the focus of the group, and the video was shot in five different locations around Sicily - a couple of them appearing to be ruins left from WW II.

Their program is fascinating and should hold the interest of viewers not deeply into early music. The various members introduce each selection in informal non-pedantic ways, often with a sense of humor. The German director of the video pulled out all the stops to make this the most dramatic classical music video I have ever seen. Different costumes for selections are the norm, and for one the players hairdos and especially that of the flute soloist appear to have been inspired by Tom Hulce's wigs in Amadeus. Unusual colors, reversals, negatives and similar visual tricks are used. Some of the shots linking selections appear to be light-struck 8mm footage from travel shots that someone in the ensemble took, often out of focus and with cockeyed framing. But for Gen X/MTV viewers this is probably nothing very unusual at all. It all seems to work in spite of looking like Ken Russell directed. It succeeds mightily in offering an imaginative alternative to the usual straight video record of a live concert in a hall.

- John Sunier

20th Century Music for Two Pianos (2000)

Being a great fan of the duo-piano form, I would probably like almost anything on DVD or CD with that combination, but this production is one of the classiest I've seen or heard. All four works are by 20th century composers but at least three of them are familiar to general audiences and yet probably are never heard in two-piano versions. Stravinsky did his own transcriptions for both one and two pianos of his famous ballet score, and he even did a special one for player piano. The role of pianos as the percussion instruments they really are comes to the fore in this work. I heard it live not long ago with a small ensemble and percussionist, but the two pianos alone conveyed more of the rhythms of the wild modern dance than actual percussion had done.

For the Ives one of the two lengthy concert grands is magically replaced by a standard-size grand - one obviously tuned beforehand to the quarter-tone tuning prescribed by Ives. Interesting and not hard on the ears but to most listeners used to the standard tuning system quarter-tone music will still sound simply out of tune. The Paratore brothers did their own two-piano arrangements of the Gershwin works and one hardly misses the orchestra they are so virtuosic. As with most piano music videos, the stereo PCM option offers the cleanest sonics with the most concise transients and doesn't "plug up" during big climaxes with both pianists grandly flailing away. The musical analysis text at the bottom of the screen is a most helpful mujsic appreciation tool.

- John Sunier

Valéry Gergiev in Rehearsal & Performance (1997)
with The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra

Gergiev is one of the most exciting of the younger crop of Russian conductors. He came to public attention with the Kirov Opera of St. Petersburg and is now principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic. He is known for his white-hot interpretations of the Russian symphonic repertory, and especially the music of Prokofiev. The first half of this video is an extended rehearsal of that composer's Scythian Suite, but interspersed with interviews with the conductor, and Oleg Prokofiev - the composer's son. Both speak excellent English and talk about the composer and his composition based on folk tales from the same region wherein hail both men. Photos and film footage of Prokofiev playing the piano and composing are included, and even a clip from the Eisenstein film Alexander Nevsky for which the composer created a landmark score.

Gergiev is as compelling a music educator as conductor. He has a very dynamic and passionate personality and explains the music in ways that would still retain the interest of the musically unwashed. And he is of movie star level in his appearance. Just his talk about achieving proper dynamic range in the music is absolutely fascinating, especially when illustrated with excerpts from the rehearsal in which they are working on that very thing. Hearing the complete performance of the Scythian Suite following the rehearsal documentary is most satisfying. This work always seemed rather noisy/atonal Prokofiev to my ears, even in the exciting Paray recording on Mercury Living Presence. Now with the musical and cultural background supplied by Gergiev it takes on a whole new level of interest and appreciation. The concert video is very well shot and edited and the 5.1 surround sound is exceptionally natural and enveloping. Alexander Toradze is piano soloist in the Stravinsky concerto.

- John Sunier

Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, Live at the Quick (2002)

Here's crossover in music, up front and real. The most enjoyable music-making imaginable out of the standard classical or jazz mold. Fleck is probably the world's best-known banjoist. He mixes bluegrass, jazz, classical, blues, and every sort of world music into a heady mix that appeals to a very wide age range of listeners - and in the audience of this live video, dancers too. The basic Flecktones consist (besides Fleck on various acoustic and electric banjos and guitar) of: Jeff Coffin on various saxes and other reeds, Victor Wooten on electric bass and floor synthesizer, and his brother - known as Future Man - on acoustic drums & percussion as well as various electronic percussion of his own invention.

For this video and a special tour, Fleck invited Andy Narell and his steel drums, Paul McCandless and his various reeds, tabla player Sandip Burman, Paul Hanson on bassoon, and Tuvan throat singer Congar ol'Ondar. Bet you've never seen/heard a concert with the musical variety of this one. It's difficult to describe exactly what they're doing, but it obviously communicates with their live audience and I'm sure with anyone watching this DVD. Fleck seems to be just a mild-mannered musician unimpressed with himself - only impressed with the great musicians he gets to jam with. What a kick!

Tunes: Earth Jam, Lover's Leap, Zona Mona, Qvombo Summit, Hall of Mirrors, Scratch & Sniff, Amazing Grace, Big Country, Alash River Song, A Moment So Close, Prelude from Bach's Violin Partita No. 3, Hoedown, Ah shu Deklo.

- John Sunier

Bride of the Wind (2001)

This feature came and went in the theaters so rapidly I missed it. While I found it very enjoyable I can imagine why it didn't do as well in the U.S. as in Europe. Wynter is a gorgeous woman who may remind one of Kate Winslet, and Pryce makes a superb Mahler. When he sickens and dies only part-way thru the film, one realizes that this not a movie bio of Mahler a la Ken Russell's wild romp, but that multiple-muse-Alma is the main subject here. The publicity describes it as the saga of a woman for whom genius was the ultimate aphrodisiac, and I couldn't have said it better. Tom Lehrer wrote a song about Alma Mahler's many famous lovers. Following much-older Mahler's death, they numbered hot-blooded painter Oscar Kokoschka, architect Walter Gropius and lastly novelist Franz Werfel. Alma was also a pianist and composer, which caused problems in her relationship with Mahler, who demanded she give them up for his music. She was a woman not without faults, but way ahead of her time. The settings and costumes are of the highest order; it's interesting to note how the ornateness of clothing and hats disappeared with the coming of the First World War. An important film for any lover of good music and history - two things too few people put attention on today.

- John Sunier

Sound & Vision Home Theater Tune-Up (2002)

This video guide to setting up your home theater system comes from the same sources as the Avia setup DVD. The difference is that this one is aimed at less technically-sophisticated users and covers more ground from the very beginning of first hooking up your system to discussion of upgrades you may next want to consider. Sound & Vision's David Ranada and Guy Kuo of Ovation Software were involved in the script, casting and selection of user-friendly test images and signals. An attractive young couple are the hosts, taking the viewer thru eight various chapters. After the basics of home theater, they discuss and demonstrate installation, tuning up both video and audio, and operating the finished system. Some of their gimmicks are a bit corny but for the uninitiated they probably function to make all the admitted complexities of home theater a bit more approachable. The DVD received an Innovations 2002 Award at the January CES. Image and sound quality are tops - as would befit a video from Sound & Vision. I found the audio and video test sections easier to access than those on the Avia and Video Essentials DVDs, and they test all the important parameters of home theater operation for the more sophisticated end user. They aided me in discovering a couple things that I hadn't learned with previous set up DVDs: that one of my subwoofers was out of phase with my main speakers and that the screen image was cropped off a bit on the bottom and one side. Now if I could just get my wife to sit thru the basics chapter...

- John Sunier

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