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DVD-Video Reviews - March 2003, Pt. 1 of 2

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The Art of Conducting

Celibidache/Furtwaengler/Kleiber/Mravinsky/Munch/Mengelberg/
Karajan/Talich/Cluytens/Scherchen
Director: Peter R Smith
Warner Music Vision DVD 0927 42668 2 (Distr. Teldec)
Video: NTSC 4:3; B&W and Color
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono & Stereo
Extras: None
Length: 115 min.
Rating: ****

This DVD is a sequel to the first Teldec issue, The Art of Conducting- Great Conductors of the Past; the subtitle here is Legendary Conductors of a Golden Era. The video focuses on six major figures, with brief glimpses of some others, each an embodiment of technique and strong musical personality. As tympanist Vic Firth comments at the opening, "If five conductors were to play the exact same piece of music, you would have five different expressions or maps of the same region." Peter Andry adds, "What the great conductors had in common was not only their musicianship, but their confidence in themselves." We get to see and hear strong examples of the discipline and confidence that mark several of the most influential orchestral leaders (1931-1991) in history.

The video opens with a brief black and white sequence of Karajan's leading the Berlin Philharmonic in a portion of the Strauss Ein Heldenleben. The liquid legato Karajan elicits will be heard again later, in the form of a different personality, the aged Evgeny Mravinsky, whose excerpts from Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich have the same facile molding of the musical line. At least we see Karajan's eyes are open in his few moments of rehearsal! Cut to a rare moment of Czech master Vaclav Talich, leading the Czech Philharmonic in 1954 in Dvorak's tone -poem The Wood Dove. No commentary is offered, but the deep colors and contours his phrasing are easy to perceive. Hermann Scherchen appears, sans baton, leading Kalinnikov for the 1951 Prague Spring Festival, all business in the second movement. Andre Cluytens gives clear rhythmic indications for a climactic moment in Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole. And finally, the last non commentary sequence has Mravinsky, Kleiber, and Mengelberg in snippets of pieces, some of which will be developed at length in the video proper.

The Mengelberg sequences are particularly noteworthy: shot in Paris, French technicians had to recreate the conditions of the Holland Concertgebouw before Mengelberg would agree to shoot. Mengelberg remains the master colorist and builder of a virtuoso ensemble. He plays Weber, Berlioz and Bizet with a directness and poise of style, given the essentially romantic character of his interpretations. Bernard Haitink comments (in Dutch) on his conversion to an appreciation of Mengelberg, in spite of Haitink's original antipathy to the latter's politics. Teldec does not provide any subtitled translations of foreign commentary, so I had to ask a Russian neighbor to help with Mravisnky's glib remarks on the character of Shostakovich. Both Daniel Barenboim and Yehudi Menuhin comment (in English) on Wilhelm Furtwaengler, the aristocrat of the German school. Furtwaengler leads a complete performance of Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel, very clearly delineated from a technical point of view: clear beat, clear entries, steady pulse. The makers of the original video interpolated a dancer's ballet into the performance, but it is over quickly and relatively unobtrusive.

Erich Kleiber consistently wins plaudits from commentator Peter Andry, especially for Kleiber's ability to lead clearly, and to transform the Berlin orchestra into a Viennese ensemble for a Strauss waltz. Kleiber manages some marvelous voicings for the finale of Beethoven's Ninth with the Czech Philharmonic, 1949. Vic Firth then reminisces on Charles Munch, here caught in a series of French staples, from Franck's Symphony to Debussy to Ravel and Berlioz. "When Munch did the March to the Scaffold from the Fantastic Symphony, we didn't march, we ran to get our heads chopped off." Firth manages to communicate the freshness of each Munch rehearsal, that even familiar pieces gained by each re-inspection of the scores. Violinist Alexandre Barantschiik makes the same case for Mravinsky: "even in Tchaikovsky, which he and the musicians all knew, it became exciting, a novelty. By the time I worked under Mravinsky, he had passed beyond music; he was a god."

When Barenboim speaks of Celibidache, it is with no less awe: "he combined the traits of the scientist, the gypsy, and the philosopher, with the range and the limitations of each. But he was among the greatest musicians of the century." We see young Celibidache in his famous Egmont Overture with the Berlin Philharmonic, outside the ruins of the Philharmonie. Then we cut to a color sequence from Munich, the 79-year old veteran leading Dvorak's New World in slow tempos rife with nuance. Evgeny Mravinsky is last of the full-scale personality portraits we see, with his leading Tchaikovsky's Fifth and the Shostakovich Fifth. Mravinsky cracks a rare smile when he briefly comments on Shostakovich's slightly exaggerated sense of drama. The Tchaikovsky flows like butter, no baton, just two ancient (Mravinsky is 80 in the sequence) hands molding, sometimes barely hinting, phrases and dynamics. As I watched and listened to this DVD, I would glance at the accompanying booklet and the stunning pictures of Mengelberg, Furtwaengler, Munch, Toscanini, and the lovely bas-relief of Erich Kleiber, made in token of esteem by the New York Philharmonic. These images say a great deal about these marvelous musicians, and this video makes a document that enshrines their art, well passing beyond any mere historical curiosity. Purchase Here

--Gary Lemco

The Doors – Soundstage Performances (2002)

Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: DD 5.1, DD 2.0, DD Mono
Extras: Photo Gallery, Bios, Multiple Interviews
Length: ~120 minutes
Rating: ****

Possibly the only thing preventing this release from garnering a higher rating is the quality of the sound and video. The quality of the recording is basically okay. There is hiss, buzzing, and other noise often associated with live rock recordings from 30 years ago—although I’m sure there are better than this. The picture ranges from extremely soft and fuzzy to fair. The Critique performance looks like an older videotape and shows signs of deterioration. There isn’t much in the way of surround although the DVD player showed the track was 5.1. If you can get by the technical issues, the material is simply excellent.

This disc comprises the Doors stage performances spanning the years 1967-1969. Before each section there are interviews with remaining band members. In addition, there is a lengthy interview from the PBS “Critique” show that sheds light on how the band makes music, their feelings on the audience, and some of the meaning behind the music. If one only has a cursory knowledge of the doors, then there is much new information to be gleaned from this DVD--The End is a love song? After the notorious Miami show, the band was barred from playing in most cities in the United States. They had to take refuge on the West Coast and performed for the aforementioned PBS show. This effectively put them back on the map. By many, Jim Morrison is thought to be a prophet and teacher. In the interview it is eerie as he talks about “the new generations music…It might rely heavily on electronics, tapes, [he] can kinda envision, maybe, one person with a lot of machines…singing or speaking and using machines.” A preview of things to come??

Throughout the band’s travels, political contact was inevitable, and, establishing a message for the people may have been unintentional, but the band was not without strong feelings for peace, unity, and brotherhood. The controversy surrounding the band ultimately helped forward the message and bring the band more success than they might have otherwise had. There are discussions specifically about: The End, Whiskey Bar/Alabama Song, Back Door Man, Texas Radio & The Big Beat (The WASP)/Love Me Two Times, When The Music’s Over, Unknown Soldier, Tell All The People, Wishful Sinful, Build Me A Woman, The Soft Parade. There are a couple versions of certain performed songs that are indicated by the number in parenthesis. Songs performed are: Whiskey Bar (2), Back Door Man (2), Love Me Two Times, When the Music’s Over, Unknown Soldier, Follow Me Down, Wishful Sinful, Build Me a Woman, The Soft Parade. Purchase Here


- Brian Bloom

POULENC: Stabat Mater; Litanies to the Black Virgin; Four Motets for a Time of Penitence (2002)

Choirs of St. John’s, Clare and Gonville & Caius Colleges, Cambridge/Judith Howarth, soprano/BBC Philharmonic/Christopher Robinson, Geoffrey Webber, Timothy Brown - conductors
Studio: BBC/Opus Arte
Video: 16:9 widescreen enhanced; Both NTSC & PAL
Audio: Dolby Digital 4.0
Subtitles: English
Extras: Virtual visit to shrine of the Black Madonna of Rocamadour, Documentary on the Black Madonna, Illustrated booklet with articles on Poulenc, Rocamadour and Black Madonnas in three languages, plus full texts in the sung languages with English translations
Length: 78 min.
Rating: ****

I would have to say this is the best classical music video I have seen in a very long time, and I’m not heavily into vocal music either. This is an example of the sort of classical music telecasts that are common in Europe but unseen here in the U.S. because they fail to attract a money-making audience. First, to the music itself: Poulenc was described by one critic as “part monk, part rascal.” Early in his career he played the rascal part, as part of the radical group Les Six, rejecting both German Romanticism and French Impressionism, hanging out with the Dadaists, Erik Satie, Cocteau and others. His music of this time is redolent of the cabaret and everything secular. Suddenly in l936 a close friend was killed in a car accident. Poulenc, a Catholic, journeyed to the sacred shrine of the Black Madonna of Rocamadour and was so profoundly affected by his experience that thereafter he created many glorious liturgical works the rest of his life - of which the Stabat Mater is the major one.

In the realm of choral liturgical music, requiems have been my thing since a relationship with a girl in grad school who collected nothing but requiem recordings. Stabat maters seemed wussy next to the Verdi and Berlioz Requiems! However, Poulenc keeps up the dramatic interest in his work quite well in spite of there being no Day of Judgement material in the liturgy. His sleek modern harmonies - more infused with popular-music voice-leadings than with Gregorian chant - give an almost cheery demeanor to support words such as Virgo virginum praeclara (Virgin of all virgins best). The sound pickup is one of the best I’ve heard of a live telecast, and it’s only 4.0- channel rather than 5.1, and all that’s required. The idea of having the U.S. NTSC format on one side of the disc and the European PAL on the other side is something I had not seen before.

Speaking of the visuals, the BBC-TV camerawork is also worthy of praise right along with Mother Mary. Cameras are on cranes and dollies, roaming around the atmospheric ancient cathedral and zeroing in on closeups of the faces of the enthusiastic singers. The interior is full of interesting architectural details to zoom to, and between the many sections of the Stabat Mater closeups of sections of some of Marc Chagall’s famous stained-glass windows are shown. The access to the two encores to the main work are a bit of a task to accomplish. One has to go to the Chapters option and then select either of the two pieces separately - the program doesn’t continue thru automatically. The “virtual visit” is a creative subjective camera hike up the many stone steps to the shrine of the Madonna, and the special documentary features leading experts on the subject talking about the history and mystical lore of the Black Madonnas in general and the one at Rocamadour specifically. The statue may date back as far as the 8th century and its black coloration comes from the darkened walnut out of which it was made plus oxidation from the silver plating that at one time covered it. The booklet is 32 pages in three languages. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Jiri Kylian’s Black & White Ballets (1997)

The Nederlands Dans Theater
Studio: RM Assoc./Image Entertainment
Video: 16:9 widescreen enhanced
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo
Extras: None
Length: 98 min.
Rating: *** 1/2

Kylian is one of the most daring choreographers working in today’s dance world. He uses arresting visual images, inventive and original movements, and seems to move his dancers so tightly in sync with the music that they appear to be creating it themselves by their movements. There are six short works in this program: two to music by Mozart, one by Bach - featuring Gidon Kremer as violin soloist, two by Webern - one being one of the Pieces for Orchestra and the other one of his string quartets, and lastly a very dramatic work titled Fallen Angels to Steve Reich’s Drumming Part 1. The English Chamber Orchestra is heard in the second Mozart ballet titled Petite Mort, and it is one of the piano concertos. It’s good to have the 16:9 format so that all the dancers can be seen and their feet are not cropped off in closer shots as can occur when using the image expanding feature on 4:3 standard screen sources. Humor is part of many of Kylian’s settings, and he seems hung up on a bevy of giant hoop-skirt-bodice forms which dancers hide in, wear, or are terrorized by. The stereo sound is excellent, and as indicated, takes on a greater importance than with most ballet music since the correlation of the music being heard to the movement onstage is so amazingly specific. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Les McCann and his Magic Band Live in New Orleans (1991)

Les McCann - piano/B3; Bobby Bryant, sax; Curtis Robinson, Jr. - bass; Tony St. James - drums
Studio: Leisure Jazz/Image Entertainment
Video: 4:3 full screen
Audio: Dolby digital stereo
Extras: None
Length: 58 min.
Rating: ****

McCann’s thing was his gospel-tinged jazz approach popular in the 60s. Like many black musicians, he was heavily influenced by the music of the Baptist church. He’s still around and his Magic Band shows an expansion into new and varied areas of the music. This set of a half-dozen tunes displays a swinging quartet at their best. McCann does some of the vocals, especially strong on his blues about the lady driving the blue VW. Sound pickup is good enough and the pedal notes of the B3 rock the joint.
Tunes: I’m All Strung Out on You, Bat Yam, Just Like Magic, Someday We’ll Meet Again, I Got Me a Lady - She Drives a Little Blue Volkswagen Car, Compared to What? Purchase Here

- John Henry

The Best of Bulgarian Animation (2000)

From the Sofia Animation Studio
Studio: Rembrandt Films/Image Entertainment
Video: 4:3
Audio: Dolby Digital mono, mostly English-dubbed soundtracks
Extras: None
Length: 50 min.
Rating: *** 1/2

Another in a series of DVDs compiling some of the best of Eastern Europe’s animation. The Sofia studio has been working since l948 with a special identifiable style depending on humorous storytelling. All of the 11 short animations are suitable for children. In fact the first two, Baby Dreams, are from a 12-part series featuring a mischievous baby who dreams he has wild adventures in the adult world, primarily causing havoc to all concerned except himself. His first adventure is at the airport and the second at the automobile factory. Another popular Bulgarian series is the Three Fools, and there are five shorts featuring this combination of Laurel & Hardy, the Three Stooges and Dumb and Dumber. Beach tells of frogs battling ducks over a lovely beach, but the style of the art looks so much like an encore to Yellow Submarine that one expects to hear a Beatles tune on the soundtrack. Speaking of soundtracks, some of the toons have a rather slapdash English soundtrack replacing the original Bulgarian; I would have preferred the original with a few subtitles. The best international animation requires no dialog, only sounds, and thus can communicate beautifully with anyone no matter what their language. This is true of the hilarious expose of human stupidity called De Facto, in which the leaders of a village rush around trying to find someone to blame for the collapse of a newly-built apartment building. Purchase Here

- John Sunier


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