DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Leonard Bernstein conducts STRAVINSKY & SIBELIUS (1966/2012)
Michael Tilson Thomas conducts RICHARD STRAUSS (2 DVDs) (1986/1994/2011)

Just two of the 46 historic DVDs offered by ICA Classics.

Published on October 29, 2012

Leonard Bernstein conducts STRAVINSKY & SIBELIUS (1966/2012)
Michael Tilson Thomas conducts RICHARD STRAUSS (2 DVDs) (1986/1994/2011)

Performers: both conducting The London Symphony
Studio: ICA Classics Legacy series ICAD 5082 [9/25/12] & ICAD 5031 [6/28/11] (2 DVDs) (Distr. by Naxos)
Video: 4:3 B&W (Bernstein); color (MTT)
Audio: English PCM mono (Bernstein); PCM stereo (MTT)
Subtitles: French, German
All regions
Extras: Bernstein: Introduction to ICA Classics, Bernstein discusses both works with Humphrey Burton (12:39); MTT: Intro & educational guides to Till Eulenspiegel (55:46), to Ein Heldenleben (27:43)
Length: Bernstein: Stravinsky: 36:06, Sibelius: 34:10; MTT: Till Eulenspiegel: 15:21, Ein Heldenleben: 27:43
Ratings: ****; *****

International Classical Artists is the first artist management agency to have launched their own AV label featuring both archive material from the BBC, WDR and BSO in their Legacy Series, as well as performances from their own artists recorded and filmed in various venues worldwide in their Live Series. The first of these DVDs comes from the first series and the second from the second. Including their CDs, the total ICA releases thus far comes to 74 titles of material recorded between 1953 and 2010. ICA’s production team originated in the past the DVD series The Art of Conducting, The Art of Piano and The Art of Violin, and they were also involved in documentaries on Richter, Fricsay, Mravinsky and Toscanini, as well as the BBC Legends CD archive label.

The Bernstein material was for a BBC series titled Symphonic Twilight. They were among the first examples of the superb abilities of Bernstein to not only compose and conduct the music, but to explain it to a TV audience in a way that was fascinating—whether one had any musical knowledge or not. The creator of the series, Humphrey Burton, asks Bernstein in the bonus interview why he included The Rite of Spring in a series titled Symphonic Twilight, and his response is most interesting. The very beginning of the video of the work has the camera static on Bernstein at the podium for so long that I was wondering if the musicians of the orchestra would ever be shown. As the work approaches its conclusion, Bernstein’s active physical antics at the podium are in the spotlight. The video images are good enough, but the mono sound—though cleaned up in what is called Enhanced Mono—still sounds pretty bad. Having heard Bernstein conduct his Rite of Spring a few years earlier, Stravinsky had responded “Wow!”

The first of the two MTT performances shows the young conductor doing his thing, highly influenced by the extroverted podium action of his mentor Bernstein. He gives a very long and detailed introduction and explanation to Till, also seemingly inspired by Bernstein’s superb talks on music. During the London Symphony’s performance of the entire work, supertitles occasionally appear with programmatic quotes that help connect the various parts of the score with the story of Till.

The later production of A Hero’s Life shows MTT as a more mature conductor and he has shortened his introduction to about half the length of the earlier one. His conducting style has also become a bit more tame. This is a wonderful presentation and explanation of what Strauss was trying to do in his Hero’s Life, illustrated with delightful little color sketches of Strauss, his wife and his critics that upset him so much. It should bring a whole new appreciation of the work and its composer, even to those who think they know it well already. The color  video is well done and the stereo sound—though a bit rough and peaky by today’s standards—is passable and doesn’t detract from the production’s impact.

—John Sunier

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