Mostly Music
DVD-Video Reviews - December 2002, Pt. 1 of 2
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Richard Wagner, Das Rheingold (2002)

Wotan: Donald McIntyre
Donner: Martin Egel
Froh: Siegfried Jerusalem
Loge: Heinz Zednik
Fasolt: Matti Salminen
Fafner: Fritz Hübner
Alberich: Hermann Becht
Mime: Helmut Pampuch
Fricka: Hanna Schwarz
Erda: Ortrun Wenkel
Woglinde: Norma Sharp
Wellgunde: Ilse Gramatzki
Flosshilde: Marga Schiml

Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
Conducted by Pierre Boulez

Production by Patrice Chéreau
Studio: DGG/Universal Music distr.
Video aspect ratio: 4:3
Disc format: DVD 9
Duration: 143 mins.
Sung in German, with English subtitles
Booklet with synopsis
Surround sound
Rating: ***

Long available on videotape, Das Rheingold can now be obtained on DVD either on its own or in a boxed set that includes the three other operas in the complete tetralogy of Der Ring des Nibelungen.

This Boulez/Chéreau production, taped in 1976 to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the Ring cycle’s first staging at Bayreuth, is famous for its innovative sets, nineteenth-century costumes, and sheer raw energy. From beginning to end, the opera’s finer points have been forfeited in favor of a blatantly aggressive and lascivious style, which may not suit everybody. However, most of the vocalists’ extraordinary ability to be in constant motion and to act in a heartfelt way while singing these demanding roles is to be highly commended. Hermann Becht’s Alberich is outstanding in this regard. In a gritty performance that brings many complex aspects of this opera into bas-relief, he bares his soul without sacrificing the quality of his singing. Similarly, the Rhinemaidens, while cavorting uninhibitedly, manage to sound almost perfectly beautiful.

Hanna Schwarz, by now a veteran Fricka, is young, fresh, and suitably regal. Siegfried Jerusalem’s Froh, the young and impetuous god, is pleasant and convincing, and the giants, who remarkably stand about twelve feet tall, are both pathetic and menacing, a rare accomplishment. The only weak point of this production is McIntyre’s Wotan, whose slight stage presence is matched by his feeble voice, even though he makes a valiant effort to exude power. Visually, this DVD version is an improvement on the videotape, and the surround sound is enchanting.

(The next issue of Audiophile Audition will feature a review of Die Walküre, the second opera in the set)

-Dalia Geffen

Great Violinists of The Bell Telephone Hour (1959-1964)

SAINT-SAENS: Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso/DEBUSSY: Girl with the Flaxen Hair/SARASATE: Gypsy Airs/TCHAIKOVSKY: 3rd Movement from Violin Concerto in D (two performances) /KREISLER: Caprice Viennois; Tambourin Chinois; Schoen Rosmarin/WIENIAWSKI: Romance from Violin Concerto No. 2/BRUCH: Violin Concerto in G Minor: Third Movement/PAGANINI: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 6: 2nd and 3rd Movements/BACH: "Double" Concerto in D Minor: 2nd and 3rd Movements/BONUS: Gregor Piatigorsky plays FAURE: Elegie & SAINT-SAENS: Allegro appassionata

Violinists: Isaac Stern; Zino FRancescatti; Michael Rabin; Erica Morini; Mischa Elman; Yehudi Menuhin; David and Igor Oistrakh; Ruggiero Ricci. Donald Vorhees, piano (Debussy) and conducting The Bell Telephone Orchestra

Studio: Bell Telephone Hour/VAI DVD 4215
Video: 4:3 normal screen
Audio: Mono
Extras: None
Length: 90 mins.
Rating: ****

This is a colorful (literally!) assemblage of world-class violin performers from various appearances on The Bell Telephone Hour. [Far from high resolution but certainly saturated early videotapes...Ed.] Perhaps someone will do the same for The Voice of Firestone series. When I say "colorful," I am thinking of the interesting, if not gaudy, stage and upholstery effects the producers garnered for say, Isaac Stern's performance of Saint-Saens' Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, where the reds and dark hues make it looks like he's wooing members of a bordello, or enacting a scene from a movie by Visconti. The arrangements become more chaste as we get further into the program, but the house lights must have been grueling: we can see David Oistrakh and Michael Rabin palpably sweating under the close scrutiny of the camera. Erica Morini never opens her eyes throughout the Bruch Concerto movement, though her performance (I wish her collaboration with Fricsay would come back) is impeccable. Mischa Elman (1891-1967) is the elder statesman of the group: he is past his prime, certainly, but he plays Wieniawski and Kreisler's Schoen Rosmarin with an old world charm mostly absent today. I saw him around this time (1962) play both the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky Concertos at Lewisohn Stadium (for one dollar) with Alfredo Antonini. Zino Francescatti and Yehudi Menuhin are smooth as silk; Menuhin, too, is a bit out of his technical range in Paganini, but he plays with flair and high nobility of line. The inclusion of two performances of the Tchaikovsky (with Rabin and Ricci) only certifies the basically conservative cast of the programming for the show, which rarely took in pieces beyond 1940, and none from the Second Viennese School. Even Bloch and Bartok were rarities in these concerts. For the Oistrakhs, it was their TV debut for American audiences; David had made his New York debut January 1, 1960 with Mitropoulos. Donald Vorhees proves a more than competent accompanist, both on the piano with Francescatti or leading two very different approaches to the Tchaikovsky, where Ricci keeps everyone leaping for the next set of notes. This is "Memory Lane" for classical buffs, visually and aurally. The Piatigorsky sequence, watching this giant ply lovely sounds out his burnished instrument, is a joy, too, especially in the Saint-Saens, which he never recorded commercially. Fascinating rhythms!

--Gary Lemco

James Taylor-Pull Over

Studio: Columbia Music Video
Video: Very Wide Screen
Audio: 5.1 Dolby Digital and PCM Stereo
Extras: Behind the scenes video, Biography and Discography
Running Time: approximately 119 minutes
Rating: ****

This is a very good concert video recorded in 2001. It contains 23 full length songs done by the artist. There are many of his greatest hit songs, plus some songs from his new album October Road. The video quality is exceptional. When you get a close-up, you can see every detail of his face. The selection of music is very good. The songs include Everyday, Carolina in My Mind, Fire and Rain, You’ve Got a Friend, How Sweet It Is, Mexico and Sweet Baby James. The sound is that of a good CD, above average for a DVD. My only slight quibble with the sound is that a little more presence in Jame’s voice would be nice. The surround is well done and only has ambience. There is an interesting bongo solo by Lois Conte on band 11. The PCM stereo track is definitely inferior to the sound on the 5.1 soundtrack. It is much duller sounding and has less detail. I find the behind the scenes of the making of the October Road album, as only of limited interest. This is a great concert to just sit back and enjoy. This DVD definitely shows the high value of a DVD concert compared with a CD concert, for about the same money.

- Clay Swartz

BERLIOZ: Requiem, Grande Messe des morts (1989)

Keith Lewis, tenor/The Bavarian Radio Sym. Chorus/Bavarian Radio Sym. Orch./Sir Colin Davis
Studio: Bayerischer Rundfunk/Image Entertainment
Video: 4:3 full screen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, DD 2.0 stereo
Subtitles: English
Extras: None
Length: 102 min.
Rating: ****

This is not only one of the grandest and strangest requiems of them all, but one of the most interesting visually - with its 16 tympani and four off-stage brass choirs - plus it’s the prime example at least in the Romantic period of music composed specifically for surround sound performance. I was excited about the recent Vanguard multichannel SACD reissue of their Berlioz Requiem conducted by Maurice Abravanel, but unfortunately some annoying distortions - either on the original tape or that occurred during its long storage - decreased enjoyment of that.

This video started out promising an excellent combination of a well produced video and the excitement of 5.1 surround (even though only Dolby Digital) soundtrack to envelope the listener/viewer. Plus the superb reputation Davis has as a Berlioz specialist, and his fine recording of this some years ago on the Philips label. The setting is the magnificent Regensburg Cathedral, and after the final notes of the Requiem the climactic pealing of the cathedral bells is heard for some minutes. The chorus is first rate and the entire performance carried out in perfect keeping with the grandiose ideas Berlioz had in the creation of the work.
However... Comes the first blasts of the offstage brass choirs- usually placed in the rear of the hall or on the sides in the upper balconies - and where does the sound come from? The frontal speakers - not the surrounds at all! I see the problem of not wanting to show the brass players in front while you hear them from behind, but the spatial aspects of this work are one of its prime calling cards - surely there would be a way to handle it. How about only showing the brass players after they play each brass passage, while they are dumping the condensation out of their instruments? I think I’ve discovered the reason for this, and its not the visual considerations: Mentioned nowhere else but in find print on the back sleeve credits it says “Lexicon and Logic 7 are registered trademarks of Lexicon, Inc.” Well. I believe the original video had only a stereo soundtrack and a Lexicon processor was used to create a 5.1 surround mix out of the original two channels. That’s why no brass at your ass.

- John Sunier

STEPHEN SONDHEIM’s Sweeney Todd, in concert (2001)

Patti Lupone, George Hearn and other soloists
San Francisco Symphony and Chorus/Rob Fisher
Studio: Image Entertainment
Video: 4:3 full screen
Audio: DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 stereo
Extras: “Making Of” Featurette
Length: 132 min.
Rating: ****

Sweeney Todd - more a serious operetta than a typical Broadway musical - is considered Sondheim’s masterpiece. One of the critics in the interesting featurette included opines that Sondheim is even greater as a master of musical theater than was Puccini. The original production starred Angela Langsbury and premiered in l979, winning 8 Tony Awards. In 2000 a semi-staged concert version was performed by the New York Philharmonic with a cast of Broadway’s best. The next year this massive production (it has 41 separate sections), along with Sondheim, came to San Francisco’s Louis M. Davies Symphony Hall. Hearn filled in at the last moment for the original Sweeney - Bryn Terfel. It was also later telecast on PBS.

Don’t expect the singers to just be standing in front of the orchestra singing out. This is a very imaginative production, with ramps here and there in the orchestra and with many of the performers using costumes and props. The richer and more dense symphonic backing brings the work into an operatic area. Of course some of the stage action is highly stylized - it has to be - for example, the representation of Sweeney’s slitting the throats of his customers who only came in to get their hair cut. The gruesome thriller - which story dates back to the l9th century - is elevated to a powerful and gripping drama of romance and revenge in Victorian England. Lupone and Hearn are superb as are most of the other soloists. The fact that this was videotaped during a sold out live performance at Davies Hall is a testament to the technical expertise and hard work of all concerned. It must have been something like the days of doing a big musical review on live network television. Yet the lighting, camera work and 5.1 surround is always excellent with no disturbing lapses. For me, this takes its place next to Bernstein’s operetta Candide as a near-exhausting but magnificent pinnacle of music and theatrical art.

- John Sunier

Kronos on Stage (1998-99)

Performing: Black Angels, by George Crumb
and Ghost Opera by Tan Dun
With Wu Man, pipa
Studio: RM Assoc./Image Entertainment
Video: 1.78:1 widescreen enhanced to 16:9
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 & 2.0
Extras: None
Length: 56 min.
Rating: **

These two performances which greatly extend the sound-making and theatrical expression possible with the string quartet were videotaped during live performance at the University of Iowa though there is no indication of the live audience. The cellist is the quartet is their original member Joan Jeanrenaud, who shortly after left the ensemble. Crumb’s work was a musical response to the Vietnam War and is full of yelled and whispered texts, outbursts, wild fiddling, performance moving around the stage, and other expressions of the horror and grief of war. Tan Dun’s piece is a fitting companion with its chanting of texts, playing other instruments including gongs dipped into water, and the addition of pipa player Man. Some of the images and sounds involving water bowls are quite fascinating. However, there is absolutely no introduction to or discussion of this mystifying and to many probably forbidding music-making. With all the data space easily available on a DVD for extras, the lack of some sort of hand-holding presentation for the majority of us viewers is unforgivable. There are again credits for Lexicon and Logic 7, so I would surmise that again this video master had only a stereo track which was upgraded to 5.1 surround using the Lexicon processing.

- John Sunier

Carmen; The Cheat; Burlesque on Carmen (1915, 1997)

Directors: Cecil B. DeMille & Charles Chaplin
Studio: Lasky-Paramount/Chaplin/Image Entertainment
Video: 4:3 full screen, tinted B&W
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo (new chamber orchestra scores)
Extras: Bonus Chaplin featurette
Length: 147 min.
Rating: ****

These two early DeMille silents demonstrate he was already a master at juggling big crowd scenes and spectacle. Carmen is an odd film in that it stars the Met Opera’s leading soprano of the period, Geraldine Farrar, in the same role she sang on the Met’s stage. But it's a silent movie! She does make a rather sexy Carmen and within the stylized exaggerations of silent film dramatics she does a fairly good job of telling the story of the naughty gypsy femme fatale with only a few intertitles for dialog. DeMille’s budget was obviously nothing like he commanded later in his career but the story moves ahead smoothly and even inevitably. The recorded accompaniment consists of arrangements of music from the Bizet opera.

Immediately after viewing this one-hour feature one must click over to Chaplin’s half-hour parody of not just Carmen, but of this very same DeMille movie! Much of it is hilarious, and it often looks like he got hold of some of the same sets and props used in the DeMille version. It was a bit surprising to see the final scene played straight with Chaplin (as “Darn Hosiery” - Don José) stabbing Carmen outside the bull ring gates and then stabbing himself and falling over her. However, when the toreador comes out and sees them Chaplin gets up, pulls his Carmen up and shows her the rubber knife. They laugh and that’s the iris out. The Cheat shows DeMille’s interest in telling a sexy story with exotic angles to it. The star is actually Sessue Hayakawa, playing an Asian ivory trader who in return for bailing the heroine out of a financial hurdle makes her “his” by branding her on the shoulder with his ivory branding iron. She later wins an acquittal from her husband’s attempted murder charge in court by brazenly baring her shoulder to show the brand to all present. The image quality of all the films is quite good and the newer soundtracks add to the experience.

- John Sunier

Gil Evans and His Orchestra (1983, 2002)

Studio: TDK Recording Media Europe/Dist. by Naxos
Video: 4:3 full screen
Audio: DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, PCM stereo
Extras: Gil Evans Biography
Length: 57 min.
Rating: ****

Taped live during a concert in l983 in Lugano Switzerland, this is the first of the new series of music DVDs issued by TDK. It offers a close look at one of the masters of large-ensemble jazz. It was about this same time Evans began working with Miles Davis on the several masterpieces they created together. There are no verbal introductions and there are no subtitles identifying the selections the band plays. They just dovetail from one tune to another, but the enclosed booklet does identify them in order. The two Gershwin selections in a row are such fresh and unique arrangements. Among the top players in the Evans orchestra were drummer Billy Cobham, saxist Michael Brecker and trumpeter Randy Brecker, Herb Geller on alto sax and Mike Mainieri on vibes. The DTS surround quality is tops and the videography is creative and you can really see what’s going on closeup - unlike some such live music videos that are dark and murky. This is a genius at work! Tunes: Hotel Me, Friday the 13th, Copenhagen Sights, Stone Free, Waltz, Variations on the misery, Orange was the color of her dress then blue silk, The Honey Man, Gone, Eleven.

- John Henry

Cirque Du Soleil Presents Quidam (1999)

Studio: Granada Media/Columbia TriStar
Video: 1.78:1 widescreen enhanced
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 & 2.0
Subtitles: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, French
Extras: Promos for other shows, production notes
Length: 90 min.
Rating: ****

Not being a great fan of jugglers and high-wire stunts I had never seen a live Cirque performance or watched any of their PBS specials. After viewing this disc - which a couple of Cirque/home theater fans had told me was the very best of the ensemble’s DVDs - I’m now open to going to see them next time they’re in the area. TIME described them as beyond circus and beyond theater. Well, that may be a bit beyond but they certainly do put together an evening of mysteriously fascinating visions for the eyes as well as the mind. It helps to read the short plot idea on the back cover before seeing the show: The world has lost meaning for a young girl who has already seen everything there is to see. She throws a tantrum and suddenly finds herself in the alternate universe of Quidam, joined by a friendly companion, and is shown all sorts of unexpected and sometimes even terrifyingly wonderful things. The sensual aerial contortionist in colorful silk was my favorite but everything is unusual and presented in novel and compelling fashion. By the way, the musical score is a far cry from the usual circus band corn, and the lighting contributes greatly to the showcase quality of the presentation.

- John Sunier

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