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DVD-Video Reviews - April 2003, Pt. 1 of 3

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Mostly Music
WAGNER: Götterdämmerung

Brünnhilde: Gwyneth Jones
Siegfried: Manfred Jung
Gunther: Franz Mazura
Hagen: Fritz Hübner
Alberich: Hermann Becht
Gutrune: Jeannine Altmeyer
Waltraute: Gwendolyn Killebrew
Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
Conductor: Pierre Boulez
Production: Patrice Chéreau
Video director: Brian Large

Distributed by Philips
Video aspect ratio: 4:3
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Subtitles: English and French
Disc format: 2 x DVD 9
Extras: None
Length: 249 mins.
Rating: ***1/2

The longest opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle, Götterdämmerung restores the ring to its primeval, natural state deep inside the Rhine River, thus concluding the chain of events that its theft had set in motion. Some of the problems that beset this production (see my previous reviews of the first three operas) are still apparent, but there is much enjoyment to be had and many wonders to behold. As before, the sound is gorgeous, and the conducting, although prosaic, is effective, particularly in the chorus scenes. The chorus is fiery and energetic, and the camera angles are superb.

Jung as the impetuous Siegfried is at his best here. In Act 1 his innocence and veracity contrast beautifully with the cynicism of the corrupt Gibichungs. And in Act 3 his voice rings out beautifully. His death scene is full of pathos. Jones’s intonation problems have not diminished, but in Act 1 she sounds fresh and vigorous until a certain shrillness creeps in. During her Immolation Scene, she runs out of breath and her words become incomprehensible. Mazura as Gunther is in fine voice, his aristocratic demeanor befitting his station in life. Gunther’s brotherly embrace with Siegfried, who looks like a wild woodsman, is a study in contrasts.

Hübner’s voice is insufficiently dark and lacks the sinister power of evil, which makes for a rather tame Hagen. Consequently, Hagen’s Watch is somewhat robbed of its creepiness (as a contrast, watch Matti Salminen in Levine’s Ring cycle), but Hübner partly compensates for his vocal deficiencies—and his difficulties in reaching the low notes—with his excellent acting. His body language and facial expressions betray Hagen’s treacherous nature (“stiff and cold,” by his own admission) quite effectively. Altmeyer as Gutrune seems nervous and uncomfortable in her white cocktail dress, possibly because the role doesn’t give this soprano much to do. The Rhine maidens in Act 3 are enchanting. Purchase Here

-- Dalia Geffen

Libetta in Lecce

BEETHOVEN: Sonata No 18 in E-flat, Op. 31, No. 3/DELIBES: Passepied/CHAMINADE: Les Sylvains/SCHUBERT (arr. Godowsky): Ballet Music from Rosamunde/RAVEL: La Valse/CHOPIN: Souvenir de Paganini; Mazurka in A Minor; Tarantelle, Op. 43; Polonaise in A-flat/BRAHMS:Paganini Variations, Op. 35/DEBUSSY: Clair de Lune/SAINT-SAENS (arr. Godowsky): The Swan
Studio: VAI DVD 4225
Video: 4:3 Color
Audio: Dolby Digital Stereo
Length: 110 minutes
Rating: ****

This recital from Lecce, Italy took place March 22, 2002 at the Paisiello Theatre and celebrates the artistry of Francesco Libetta (b. 1968), Italy's answer to the romantic image of the late Dino Ciani, along with something of the intellectual breadth of Pietro Scarpini. The concert of varied music is interspersed with commentary by scholars and artists on Libetta's vision and inwardness at the keyboard. "The Dance" provides a loose rubric for the concert, even including Beethoven's knotty figures in the E-flat Sonata from Op. 31, which in its Menuetto achieves exalted moments of meditation and cloying humor.

Libetta is a fleet virtuoso, and his polish and quicksilver demeanor recall the glistening moments from Van Cliburn. Libetta's playing touches more deeply, however, and his capacity for colors suggests that intensive development and introspection might produce another Michelangeli. Much of the artistry revealed here is lovely and fluent, easy and naturally graceful. The Ravel solo transcription of La Valse has all kinds of applications at the palette that convince you that you have heard the orchestra rather than a single piano. The little Passepied of Delibes, a mere bagatelle, manages to evince some real character.

For the big piece, the muscular and punishing contours of the Brahms Paganini Variations, Libetta brings brains as well as plenty of fingers. Libetta is very careful to give shape to phrase lengths, always suggesting a dialogue or dialectic--this is particularly true in his Beethoven Sonata. Grueling octaves, shifts of registration, awkward chords in thirds and sixths, huge spans of an eleventh or thirteenth, Libetta passes off with flair and heroic abandon. So, the "Heroic" Polonaise assumes the pomp and glamour it warrants under the hands of a believer. The Mazurka dedicated to Emile Gaillard, like the Delibes, has that music-box piquancy that Michelangeli perfected in the music of Galuppi. For sylvan grace and pearly legato, we have Chaminade, Debussy and Saint-Saens, fluidly enticing us to the world of dreams. The Chopin showpieces, the somber Tarantella and the circus-piece Souvenir de Paganini (on The Carnival of Venice), place the mantle of Horowitz on an Italian artist of discrimination and exemplary digital prowess

The visual aspects of the recital are somewhat somber, given the darkness of the hall, and the use of constant medium shots front on to the stage. Occasionally, we get a side shot of Libetta's profile at the keyboard, a bit of audience response, once or twice we see the interior of the piano's sounding board. Lecce is a small, rural town with its one amphitheater and its one star, Francesco Libetta, whom the interviewed townspeople treat with deference and nervous awe. The commentary by musicologist Pastore proved the most interesting, with his analogies to Chaliapin and Mitropoulos. Buy the recital for the fingers. Purchase Here

--Gary Lemco

Muddy Waters- Can’t Be Satisfied (2002)

Studio: Wellspring
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: DD 5.1, DD Stereo
Extras: Outtakes (5)
Length: 54 minutes
Rating: ****

This documentary on the great blues legend Muddy Waters is based upon the book by Robert Gordon: Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters. To help fill in life of the man who was called the “godfather of the blues,” there are countless interviews with historians, acquaintances, and musicians like B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Keith Richards, and Bonnie Raitt. Also, there are tons of still pictures, vintage videos, and previews of some of the historical sites in Muddy’s life. Some would credit him with the invention of rock ‘n’ roll. When asked about his choice of profession, Muddy said that he had two choices--to be a preacher or a musician—and since he wasn’t much of a churchgoer there was no way he was going to be a preacher. His music is based on his own experiences allowing his performances come to life. His musical start came early in life. He grew up on a farm in Mississippi and it was his grandmother who used to call young Kenny “Muddy”—the name stuck.

Around seventeen years of age, Waters acquired an old guitar and learned to play. In 1941, Alan Lomax came down from Washington looking to record another blues legend, Robert Johnson. As luck would have it, he recorded Muddy Waters. It was time for Waters to move to Chicago where the city was going 24 hours a day. He got a job in a paper factory and used to play house parties. Meanwhile, a Polish immigrant, Leonard Chess, opened a tavern where many of the locals would come to listen to blues. Eventually, Leonard was to start the infamous Chess Records. Members of the band at the time describe Muddy’s passion and freedom to sing about sex. This, in turn, greatly affected the young white musicians of the time like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and the Rolling Stones. This began the transformation of the blues to rock ‘n’ roll.

Waters attempted the transformation as well and produced an “electric” album. It was hugely popular. A short time later he was hit with several tragedies—a car accident, and many deaths of close personal friends and his wife. This sets him in a direction to return to his roots and spend time with his many kids. A bit later blues began to make a comeback and so did Muddy Waters. This documentary manages to bring Waters back from the grave, and it is so well done and packed with information that it is highly recommended. Purchase Here

-Brian Bloom

Piano Legends (1986)

Hosted by Chick Corea
Studio: VAI
Video: 4:3, B&W & color
Audio: PCM mono & stereo
Extras: None
Length: 63 min.
Rating: ****

Every jazz buff in the world will be familiar with the 23 famous jazz pianists living and long-dead seen in this educational and entertaining video. Chick Corea, who is certainly one of them, does a perfect job of hosting, which includes some demos of his own and a closing tune behind the credits. Some of the older clips are black and white and some TV kinescopes, but others are in color. The film archives of a jazz film collector were used for the selections seen in the DVD. Every period of jazz is covered from the early ragtime period and Fats Waller style to the far-out contemporary pianistic attacks of such as Cecil Taylor. This would be an ideal introduction to the history of jazz piano for someone who knows absolutely nothing about it.

The pianists seen performing are: Chick Corea, Willie The Lion Smith, Meade Lux Lewis, Earl Fatha Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Thomas Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Marian McPartland, Teddy Wilson, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Mal Waldron, John Lewis, Lennie Tristano, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Cecil Taylor. Purchase Here

- John Henry

Andre Previn - The Kindness of Strangers (1998)

Studio: RM Associates/Image Entertainment
Video: 16:9 enhanced widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo
Extras: None
Length: 90 min.
Rating: ****

Director Tony Palmer has assembled a most interesting documentary on the 50-year career of pianist-composer-arranger-conductor Andre Previn. It follows his life from a refugee from the Nazi takeover in Berlin in the l930s to his stint in Hollywood composing, arranging and conducting film scores that won four Oscars, to his alternate early career as a jazz pianist (to which he has recently returned - recording for Telarc Jazz), his performing in chamber music ensembles, conducting workshops, and finally to his current position as chief conductor of both the London Symphony and the LA Philharmonic. His several marriages (including to Dory Previn and Mia Farrow) are quickly dealt with via a few newspaper headlines, but the final section of the film covers Previn’s composing, rehearsing and mounting his first opera, A Streetcar Named Desire, for the San Francisco Opera. Those involved in the massive production - as well as Previn himself - talk candidly about the ups and downs in the making of the opera. One hint of the tremendous costs involved in mounting an opera is a stage director revealing that they discovered in rehearsal there was no need or use for a $100,000 stage turntable they had purchased for part of the set. Previn himself is revealed as a no-nonsense, approachable person who teaches that the first thing anyone wanting to be a conductor has to understand is that he/she are not filling some “exalted position” but just doing their job. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

MORTON SUBOTNICK: Vol. 1: Electronic Works in Surround Sound (2001)

Studio: Mode Records
Video: 4:3, also computer interactive video animation on CD-ROM
Audio: DVD-Audio (24bit/48K surround), DTS 5.1, DD 5.1
Extras: Over 90 min. of interviews with the composer and John Schaefer, a panel with Joan La Barbara and Melody Sumner Carnahan, and in discussion with his son Steven Subotnick who did the animation (first two video, third audio only); Separate Interactive DVD-ROM of the work Gestures - allows you to reinterpret the materials using the computer mouse as an input tool
Length: Music = about 72 min.; DVD-ROM = depends
Rating: **** (depends) [Music is also available on CD]

It was difficult to decide just where to put this review. It was among the 100 initial DVD-Audio releases, but it also features lots of video interviews plus interactive video animation. Plus it comes in a standard DVD video case. Subotnick is one the country’s foremost electronic music composers and an experimenter in the combining of various instruments with media as well as interactive computer systems for music. This pair of discs marks a number of firsts. It is the first recording of both the work Gestures and the Opening for A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur - for which only the second half - Dance has been previously released on a stereo CD. The first of three Subotnick works - Touch - dates from l969 and was created on four-channel tape and then issued on a Columbia SQ LP with its problematic loss of separation between the front and back channels. So this is its first opportunity to be properly heard via four discrete hi-res channels, as originally created. Lastly, the interactive DVD ROM is a first: it combines Subotnick’s piece created for interactive 5.1 channel surround with vocalisms by his wife Joan La Barbara, animated images created by his son, surrealist/poetic stories read by Melody Sumner Carnahan, and ‘gestures” created by the user via moving his/her computer mouse around.

First, I began with the extras, feeling that would fill me in on the music to maximize my appreciation of it. The interview with John Schaefer of WNYC is shot with a stationary video camera as they do an on-air interview about the music. The second video is a sort of rehearsal for and discussion of Gestures by the participants. The last interview is audio only with a single still photo, as Steven explains what he was trying to accomplish in the images that accompany the work. The Schaefer interview has some broad interest but the other two get awfully detailed and technical, especially if you haven’t heard the works as yet.

So let’s touch on Touch. I had the SQ LP and recall it had some interesting effects even with the tremendous loss of separation between the four channels. Well now for the first time we’re hearing what Subotnick intended back in l969. You don’t absolutely require a DVD-Audio player to experience it - the DTS 5.1 (in the case of Touch just 4.0) is excellent and only a little less hi-res than the MLP-encoded tracks, but the Dolby Digital versions betrays some processing going on. Although the effect is less noticeable than if this were real acoustic music. Very subtle low-level sound effects which would never have been audible on the LP, can now be clearly discerned. Rather than depending on the DVD-A player to automatically mix down the multichannel tracks to stereo, Subotnick made two-channel mixes of all three works.

David Ranada characterized Touch as sounding like a chorus of R2D2s and that’s pretty apt. Your surrounds and your entire system will get quite a workout; there’s a tremendous dynamic range, so don’t blow out any of your tweeters! Nevertheless, to my ears it’s all awfully electronic and a half hour of it is a bit much for me. I preferred his first work created especially for LP - Silver Apples of the Moon. A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur was commissioned for the launch of a new JB Lansing speaker factory and played in the open air on the site. Electronic music composers have been working in four channels for many years and this one is mixed to that format thought the original was eight channels. The second half of the work was issued on a stereo CD but this disc includes the opening half which sets up the context for the concluding Dance section. (It was impossible to go directly to the second half of either of the two works that had second halves, because the programmers of this DVD-A neglected to have a chapter break for either section. More DVD-A navigation frustration I’m getting well used to by now...)

Subotnick composes on the Buchla synthesizer, which has a distinctive sound, and thus all his works seem to use similar timbres. This one has a greater variety of effects than Touch and like most of his work has a sort of off-hand, quizzical quality - you never know what to expect next. (I should own up that I much prefer musique concrete to pure electronic music - I find it can often convey emotional content, which l haven’t heard yet from electronic music.)

Gestures is heard in its non-interactive straight-thru version running 16 minutes on the DVD disc. Created for 5.1 surround, it features the vocal sounds of Joan La Barbara and four stories by Sumner Carnahan: The Wind, The Condition, After Life, and The Dragon. They are surrealistically quirky in keeping with the music.
But it is via the DVD-ROM that Subotnick gets to explore the interactive potential of electronic music and images, which he had tried to do years ago but was handicapped by the primitive technology then available. This version of Gestures requires downloading two sizeable folders to your computer desktop; then you study the page of “How To Gesture” instructions.

The piece starts with an image on the screen that could be either a large floating rectangular astroid or a sheet of some sort of ancient once-crumpled-up parchment paper. If you move your mouse over the image while holding down the button and then release the button, you will hear a certain batch of sounds that will supplant the pre-programmed music and story-telling. But if you move the mouse without depressing the button, the original music will continue but various sound groups found in different physical areas of the screen will be superimposed over it. The sounds at the bottom of the screen are low and rumbly in pitch while those near the top are high pitched. There are 24 distinct Gestures, and each has five different soundtracks playing. You re-mix these by moving the cursor around. When you hold down the button, the different gestures selected depend on the speed of your mouse movement and any changes in direction. For example, moving the mouse very slowly and in a straight line gets you gesture No. 1; moving it wildly and rapidly with jerky motions, gets you gesture No. 24. The images that appear are all very abstract - some reminded me of the trippy visuals near the conclusion of 2001. My rating above says “depends” because techy, computer-wise new music fans will probably go ape over this, especially with the DVD-ROM. But the rest of us...well...beep beep beep (fade out)... Purchase Here

- John Sunier

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