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DVD-Video Reviews - July-Aug. 2003, Pt. 1 of 3

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Aida, by Giuseppe Verdi
Opera in Four Acts (2001)

Libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni
Teatro Giuseppe Verdi, Busseto
The King of Egypt: Paolo Pecchioli
Amneris: Kate Aldrich
Aida: Adina Aaron
Radamès: Scott Piper
Ramfis: Enrico Giuseppe Iori
Amonasro: Giuseppe Garra
Priestess: Micaela Carosi
Conducted by Massimiliano Stefanelli
Director and set designer: Franco Zeffirelli
Choir artistic director: Carlo Bergonzi

Studio: TDK Interactive
Video aspect ratio: 4:3
Disc format: 2 DVDs
Audio: PCM stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Italian
Length: 142 mins. (opera), 46 mins. (making of)
Rating: ***

This outstanding production of Verdi’s popular opera Aida could have benefitted from more experienced singers. As it stands, the young vocalists are quite tolerable, and the set designs, costumes, and lighting are breathtaking. The producers spared no expense in this 100th anniversary of Verdi’s death, creating gorgeous statuary, evocative backdrops, scintillating costumes, compelling choreography, and artistic lighting. Although the miniature stage of the Teatro Giuseppe Verdi in Busseto (the composer’s hometown) precludes large crowd scenes, this doesn’t seem to detract from the ceremoniousness of the opera.

The size of the pit orchestra (no more than fifteen musicians in all) is a boon to the novice vocalists, who can be heard clearly at all times. Scott Piper, the Egyptian prince Radamès, is an attractive singer. His rich, golden tones project well and his accent is flawless. However, he could develop more depth to enrich his lower notes. Adina Aaron as Aida exhibits good technique and a supple voice. Her exceptionally expressive Aida is earnest rather than seductive. However, she needs to rein in her somewhat inaccurate vibratos. Kate Aldrich, the Amneris of this production, is suitably controlled and imperious. Giuseppe Garra as Aida’s father, Amonasro, is mediocre and inadvertently comical. The best singer here is Enrico Giuseppe Iori, who as the priest Ramfis is forceful and experienced and whose voice doesn’t stray. The lush digital sound (DTS) compensates for the unimaginative conducting.

The “making of” documentary at the end of the second DVD features Zeffirelli coaching the singers in their acting. The maestro switches from Italian to English and then back again, depending on the singer’s language (both with English subtitles). And when they couple appropriate acting with their singing, he looks on delightedly. Purchase Here

-Dalia Geffen

The Art of Henryk Szeryng

BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61/BACH: Fugue from Sonata No. 1 in G Minor (two performances); Concerto No. 1 in A Minor (audio only)/PUGNANI: Largo Espressivo/BRAHMS: Hungarian Dance No. 17/MARROQUIN: Mexican Lullaby/SARASATE: Zapateado/SUK: Chanson d'amour

Jorge Mester conducts Symphony of Radio Canada/Charles Reiner, piano/Gabrile Bouillon conducts Pasdeloup Concert Association (1951 audio-only tape of Bach A Minor Concerto)
Studio: VAI DVD 4231
Video Format: 4:3 Color/Black & White
Audio: Mono
Length: 79 minutes

I have several, distinct memories of violinist Henryk Szeryng (1918 1988), including his North American premier of the Concerto in D (1927) by Reynaldo Hahn, which Szeryng performed in Atlanta with Louis Lane. Szeryng's surveys of the Bach unaccompanied sonatas and partitas, both for CBS and for DGG, set a very high standard for interpretation. And while detractors often bristled at Szeryng's ego, conductor Yoel Levi called him "the best-prepared musician I ever worked with." When Szeryng himself heard Nathan Milstein's recording of the Brahms Concerto with Eugen Jochum, he perked right up and exclaimed, "It's awfully good, isn't it?"

The VAI release gives us two concerts: from December 25, 1988 and February 1, 1960. The Beethoven Concerto is a studio, color recording with Jorge Mester; very polished like a fine gem. Szeryng plays the Joachim cadenza, and the integration of parts, the tympani, the clarinet, the horns and the soli are all finely honed, a small, salon-concept, but elegantly performed. Szeryng's burnished tome comes through equally well in the Fugue from Bach's First Sonata; we get to hear his ideas on this piece some 30 years earlier in 1960, with a slightly faster tempo, and seamless long lines. While the Pugnani reminded me of Mischa Elman, the Sarasate and the Brahms make real sparks fly, with Szeryng's feeling for the gypsy spirit urging a rougher, earthy intonation without losing any of the rhythmic plasticity. After such refined Beethoven, the Spanish and Mexican (Marroquin) pieces form a sobering, erotic tonic.

Charles Reiner accompanies Szeryng in the salon pieces - an old, trusted pair of hands. I recall an RCA LP I owned called "Sol Hurok Presents," which had Szeryng and Reiner's playing Wieniawski's Scherzo-tarantelle in blazing colors. Both video projects show us a rapt, natural technician in thorough command of his instrument. Always an intelligent maker of smart music, Szeryng on his good days is as brilliant a violinist as has ever lived. He and his teacher Bouillon perform in a 1951 audio (that also found its way onto a Lys CD) of the Bach A Minor Concerto, a fine plum of a bonus for this solid tribute. Purchase Here

--Gary Lemco


Animusic (2001)

Director: Wayne Lytle
Studio: Animusic
Video: 4:3
Audio: Dolby Digital Stereo
Extras: Director’s commentary, Over 250 production stills, 3 Solo-Cam angles - each showing a single instrument from a fixed viewpoint
Length: 33 min., plus 78 min. for all the solo-cams
Rating: *****

This amazing visual music experience is described as a computer animation video album. It is made up of seven separate computer animations of a variety of imagined instruments playing themselves in an imagined space, without performers anywhere. The animation is exquisitely detailed and fascinating in its rendering of the self playing instruments, and the camera glides around, showing them from many different interesting angles. But the coolest aspect of this production is the synchronization between the music - which is also computerized using MIDI files - and the animated instruments. The correlation is uncannily accurate because of special software which generates the movements of the various animated instruments in perfect sync with the initially-created music tracks. The result is an integrated and dynamic marriage of the sounds being heard with the imagined instruments you see playing the sounds.

For example, in one of the animations hundreds of little balls shoot out of various tubes, sail across the space and then bounce off strings stretched on another instrument. Each one generates a musical tone that is perfectly synced with hitting the string and the strings are all different lengths, resulting in various pitches. Plus the strings vibrate in the cyclical pattern appropriate to the frequency being heard, just as if you were observing a real string being plucked up close. I suppose this could have been done using actual acoustic music to generate the proper movements of the animated instruments, but somehow having both the music and the images synthesized seems to make for a more unified musical vision. Most are fairly up-tempo, but Aqua Harp is more laid back and simpler in design visually - almost New Age in intent. The director’s comments on each animation are quite worthwhile listening and will increase your appreciation for what is seen and heard. As one viewer observed, “a masterpieces of music and animation.” In its own way this independent direct-to-DVD production is just as much fun as Animatrix; in fact they would make a great DVD duo!

Yes, you techies - Animusic is only standard-size screen and Dolby Digital stereo instead of 16x9 and DTS 5.1, but since there are no human beings onscreen you can easily expand the image to widescreen (if your monitor so allows) and running the stereo audio thru Dolby Pro Logic II (if your preamp or receiver so allows) achieves a clean and enveloping surround field to make this an even more amazing home theater experience. Tracks: Future Retro, Stick Figures, Aqua Harp, Drum Machine, Pipe Dream, Acoustic Curves, Harmonic Voltage. [If you have trouble finding this one, visit their website at www.animusic.com]

- John Sunier


MAHLER: Symphony No. In C Sharp Minor; THOMAS ADES: Asyla (2003) [Video DVD + DVD-A]

Sir Simon Rattle conducts The Berlin Philharmonic
Studio: EMI Classics
Video: 16 x 9 on video, 4:3 on DVD-A
Audio: PCM Stereo at 48K, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1 on video disc; Choice of 48K/24 stereo or 48K/24 5.1 on DVD A
Extras: Video interview of Rattle with Nicholas Kenyon
Length: Video = 125 min.; DVD-A = 69 min.
Rating: ****

This double-disc set seems to be a first, and perhaps the ultimate solution to offering the best-quality video of a musical performance, along with the best-quality surround audio. Many music videos still do not have DTS soundtracks, and providing such with this video means you have a top-quality presentation in both image and sound. Yet for the audio perfectionist with the proper player, the separate DVD-A disc does offer a very hearable enhancement. The cover says the DVD-A is a bonus disc so it appears there is no increase in price for this option.

Recorded during a live concert in Philharmonie Hall in Berlin the performance conveys the excitement of such a production. With recent improvements in recording gear, preserving a live event is not such as hit and miss situation as it sometimes was in the past. More and more new classical discs (out of the greatly-reduced number of such recordings today) are being recorded live. The informal interview with Rattle is most informative and interesting if you can avoid being distracted by his patented unruly curly hairdo. He speaks about his initial trepidation at working with the Berlin players previously under the baton of Karajan. But he found them exciting to lead, comparing the star status of each of them to the scene in Being John Malkovitch where everyone in the place was John Malkovitch. I was especially taken by his discussion of Mahler’s pioneering effort in taking the Viennese waltz and deconstructing it in the Fifth. He mentioned this had never been done before but then appeared in Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier Waltz and Ravel’s La Valse. He characterized all the works as “gigantic dances of death,” but stressed that the players required first the proper feeling for “Viennese Swing,” which is so prominent in this symphony. Rattle had conducted Mahler’s Fifth early in his career but admits he didn’t really understand it then but now feels he does and that it seemed perfect for the video launch of his collaboration with the Berlin musicians. He also alluded to its general popularity due to its use in the soundtrack of the film Death in Venice.

This is a magnificent performance and recording. Rattle takes the famous Adagio of the work faster than some past versions, he feels it is like a human song. He builds well to the full-on climax in the last movement, observing that this symphony is the last of Mahler’s which came to a totally positive conclusion in mood. The DTS option with the video is quite close to the quality of the DVD-A disc, and with the great images on the 16 x 9 screen one doesn’t miss the improved multichannel sound until you do comparisons and focus on it. The DVD-A does have deeper bass extension, more impact and clarity and more of a sense of the Berlin’s halls acoustics. I did wonder why it was only 48K instead of the maximum permitted for DVD-A 5.1 - 96K. (Some DVD-As are even using only 44.1K.)

Almost neglected the opening piece here, but understandably. The only reason I can surmise for pairing it up with the Mahler is that it has some cowbells in it. The 32-year-old composer’s serialized 20-minute work abounds in subtle percussion sounds such as the striking of a tam-tam which is then lowered into a bucket of water. There’s more interesting visual stuff to show in this work than the Mahler, but the musical interest is low. The audience is shown more clearly in this concert video than in most I’ve viewed, and they seemed nonplussed at the end, applauding politely. I sympathized. Purchase Here

- John Sunier


VANGELIS: Mythodea - Music For The NASA Mission: 2002 Mars Odyssey (2001)

Studio: Sony Music Entertainment
Video: 4:3
Audio: PCM Stereo or Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English where required
Extras: The Making of Mythodea (video), Mythodea music video, The Mars Odyssey (text), Man’s Fascination with The Red Planet (text), Vangelis commentary (text), Artist Biographies
Length: 76 min.
Rating: ****

Another almost inconceivably mammoth outdoor production a la Yanni, Kitaro, Jean Michel Jarre and John Tesh. And another good fund-raiser for PBS. At least Vangelis didn’t bring in any jet planes buzzing the performance area or fireworks, as did Jarre in his Moscow extravaganza. The original idea of the live performance at the Temple of Zeus in Athens was already massive when the people at NASA got excited about somehow linking to it the upcoming Mars Odyssey mission due to the ancient Greek’s fascination with the night sky and having named the planet Mars. The ill-fated Mars mission, by the way, blasted off to its doom in April of 2001, and Mythodea was performed in June of that year. (Next year the Mars Rovers are supposed to land on the red planet.)

Vangelis epic score was designed to capture part of the spirit of Martian exploration. He’s to be commended that he didn’t use any rocket takeoff sound effects or images. There is a huge chorus and a huge orchestra, plus the composer at a huge compliment of keyboards and various buttons. The visual is clearly given as much consideration as the musical: There is a long dramatic line of tympanis with the players all dressed as ancient Greeks. The chorus is also in Grecian costume. In the third of the six movements soprano soloists Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman come out, also in appropriate costumes - Battle’s has wings on the arms that she can sweep about at appropriate times. The music is primordial and mystical, sometimes sounding a bit like Carl Orff and at other times like Vangelis’ music for the PBS astronomy series with Carl Sagan. The two soprano voices soar out over the chorus. A strikingly lovely long-lined melody is traded off duet-style by Norman and Battle in the Sixth movement.

The extras are interesting, though it was a letdown to find that some of the titles were merely a few paragraphs of text rather than something more AV-ish. The Making of Mythodea footage shot during the planning stages, construction and rehearsals has only some of the music on the soundtrack but lacks any narration describing exactly what is going on. With a bit of editing and explanation it could have been a more pertinent bonus. In some of the huge climaxes I wish there had been a DTS option because things began to sound a bit compressed and opaque. Regardless, this certainly is a spectacular music video.
Purchase Here

- John Sunier


Herbie Hancock - Future2Future, Live (2002)

Studio: MX Entertainment
Video: 4:3, plus MX multiangle options
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Extras: 1983 Music video on Rockit, Interview with Herbie Hancock talking about the band members, Discography with bonus audio samples, Full band bios and solo highlites, Band and Related weblinks
Length: 1 hours, 44 min.

Another live video, this one recorded at a club performance in LA’s Knitting Factory with the keyboardist’s sextet which also includes Terri Lyne Carrington on drums & vocals; Darrell Diaz on keyboards & vocals; DJ Dish on turntable; Matthew Garrison on bass and Wallace Roney on trumpet plus Hancock himself on various electronic keyboards and acoustic piano. Hancock returns here to his electric funk sound of the 1970s with some 21st Century updates such as the turntablist. It’s a great opportunity to see up close what it is a turntablist really does. The camera gets close enough that I could see it was a Tito Puente LP that DJ Dish was destroying on his turntable to provide some semi-interesting percussive effects. He also does a scratch-duet battle with Hancock on one number.

This is one of the first music DVDs to offer the multiangle feature. At times thru the performance there appear two thumbnail-size screens right under the main image - which doesn’t fill the screen top to bottom. You use the left and right navigation buttons plus Enter to select either small screen and put its image up on the main screen. The music seems to be an amalgam of New Age, electronica, ambient, funk, hip-hop and poetry & jazz. As to the latter, Hancock himself read some statements which didn’t make much sense to me over the music. There was even an old-fashioned Fillmore-style light show behind the performers - though obviously done with video now. To my ears there was an absolute minimum of melodic and harmonic development going on here, but that seems to be the point of electronic funk. If you like that you’ll love this video. Another problem was that it took a total of five attempts before I could finally access the DTS 5.1 tracks here... more navigation frustration. Tracks: Wisdom, Kebero, This is DJ Disk, Dolphin Dance, Virtual Hornets, The Essence, Butterfly, Tony Williams, Rockit, Chameleon. Purchase Here If you can’t find the DVD, visit www.mxentertainment.com

- John Henry

The Essential Clash (2003)

Starring: The Clash
Studio: Sony Legacy
Video: 4:3
Audio: DD 5.1, PCM Stereo
Extras: Hell W10 Featurette, Music Video Library, Live Performance Footage, Promo Footage, Discographies, Interactive Menus
Length: 103 minutes
Rating: ***

If you’re a fan of the Clash, then this video collection will be a revelation. It not only contains all their music videos, but also offers the extremely rare short film “Hell W10”, a Clash-as-gangsters romp that tells a sordid tale of London’s dark underbelly, all newly set to Clash music. This cool little piece of filmmaking that was lost more than a decade ago was only recently discovered at a London flea market, and is a real hoot to watch.

There are really cool interactive menus throughout, and all the features can be heard in either PCM Stereo or DD 5.1 sound. The discography is also useful, and prominent tunes from the band play throughout while you’re surfing through the album menus. Especially interesting is the promo footage of the band – the video quality is really great here. Unfortunately, the video quality of all the music videos is poor, which is a real shame; I don’t know if the archival quality of the videos was really that bad, or if Sony just didn’t spend the bucks to bring them up to scratch. Too bad, because otherwise I’d give this one five stars. A must-have for all Clash fans. Purchase Here

– Tom Gibbs


Want to chat about video DVDs with other enthusiasts and read more DVD reviews? Check out the leading DVD Talk Forum - www.dvdtalk.com And if Music DVD-Vs are your thing, check out Music DVD World at www.musicdvdworld.com
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