DVD Video Reviews Part 1, February 2002

click on any cover to go to its review

The Cliburn - Playing on the Edge (2001)

As seen on PBS, this documentary from Emmy-winner Rosen goes behind the scenes of the most famous piano competition in the world, which occurs every fourth year in Ft. Worth, Texas, the home of Van Cliburn. The personal lives of a several of the competitors from around the world are shown, beginning with their greeting at the airport by the families with which they will stay. Some of the pianists shown early on soon disappear as the filmmakers obviously chose to concentrate on those that looked/sounded most likely to walk away with the big prizes at the end. These included the Russian Olga Kern, who has a very strong and emphatic approach to the keyboard, two male Russian pianists - Maxim Philippov and Stanislav Ioudenitch also competed, as did Antonio Pompa-Baldi from Italy. Ioudenitch is shown in a number of rather nit-picking situations, such as measuring exactly the height of his piano bench for stagehands to adjust to his specifications. He also wears heavy gloves prior to performance, as did Glenn Gould. However, it all pays off because when the awards are given out Ioudenitch shares the Gold Medals with Kern.

The musical excerpts in the documentary are always identified, and the solo pieces at the beginning are contrasted with piano concerto rehearsals in the second half. James Conlon is the conductor of the Ft. Worth Symphony for these and for the complete concert presentations of the two major piano concertos on the other part of the disc. He is also interviewed speaking about the special needs of and differences between the various pianists. The Rachmaninoff 3 with Pompa-Baldi as the soloist is a most exciting performance. [Last month I reviewed two of the Harmonia mundi CDs that resulted from the Gold Awards.]

- John Sunier

A "La Mer Shootout" on the next two music DVDs, would you believe?...

DEBUSSY: La Mer; DE FALLA: The Three-Cornered Hat suite; BOULEZ: Notations I-IV - Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim (2000)

This video was recorded during an appearance by the Chicago Symphony at the Cologne Music Triennale, one of the most important music festivals in the world. The camera work and sound by West German broadcast people is superb and the 5.1 surround really does make a difference in putting the viewer right in the strikingly-built concert hall.

The Boulez work opening the program is...well...Boulez as expected. I will say that the combination of the visuals and the 5.1 surround enabled me to keep up my interest through all of the fairly short movements of the work. That doesn't mean I have to every see/hear it again though. The soprano vocal part is included in the Falla ballet music; a nice touch - but it would be even nicer had the text been included - either onscreen or in the note booklet with the DVD. La Mer is the big work here and receives an atmospheric, full color & tone interpretation that Barenboim propels forward at all times like an ocean wave whose forward progression is inevitable. The 20-minute interview is quite interesting and would be good exposure for almost anyone, even if they lacked any musical knowledge.

- John Sunier

DEBUSSY: La Mer, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, RAVEL: Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2 - Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan

This is part of a major series of videos the late Karajan had made with his orchestra in the l980s. His procedure surpassed what any symphonic performance videos had done previously. Several days were taped with the same program repeated but the cameras on different sides at different times to avoid them being seen in the final edited version. I hadn't seen an example before this one, and while the presentation is very precise and neat in a Germanic sort of way, the visuals are not as interesting as some of the recent symphony presentations on video.

Karajan displays a surprisingly fluid conducting style; I don't know but perhaps he reserves this for the French repertory. His arm motions often appear as though he is working with a huge ball of taffy in front of him. He supports himself at the podium with a sort of bicycle seat that he rests back against, giving the impression that he may tip over at any time if he swings his arms overmuch. The most notable thing about his conducting style is the complete absence of the display of any sort of emotion on his face. No matter what's coming down old stoneface retains complete control, looking like he's embalmed already. Karajan's approach might be fine for most German composers but too stiff and bloodless for the French. This La Mer doesn't seem nearly as wet as Barenboim's. Of course the almost 20-year difference in production is also a factor here. The individual shots don't have the variety and imaginative angles more modern video productions of symphony orchestras boast in an effort to make this difficult subject more visually interesting. The images themselves are good but not as advanced in clarity as those in the Barenboim DVD, and the limitation of two-channel sound - even if it is higher-res 48K PCM - doesn't match the listener envelopment of the 5.1 DD surround on the Barenboim DVD. We've got two of the world's greatest orchestras here and they are playing in top-level venues, but I tend to feel the more recent La Mer wins the A/B test - plus you get the 20-minute interview.

- John Sunier

Live At Open Theater East ­ The Keith Jarrett Trio (1993)

This DVD contains concert footage from the Open Theater East in the summer of 1993. It starts off with a little warm up/instrument tuning section, and then the concert begins. The disc contains a 5.1 track as well as a stereo track, but after comparing them both, the stereo track was clearly better in fidelity. Occasional crowd sound in the surrounds is really the only difference in terms placement, so if you can do without, then you will be better off. The location of the instruments in the soundstage remains fixed even though the camera pops around in all different positions-front, back, and on the different performers. Usually, at least in the case of many of the rock concert DVDs, I haven't been too aware of this, but in this case I was. Perhaps it was due to the proximity of the camera to the performers, which was often so close as to create the perspective of being only a few feet away!

The picture quality is clear, colorful, and the concert is well lit. As I noted before, there are many extreme closeups on each performer, often taking place from different directions. The picture has the look of video. If you are a jazz fan, then you will enjoy this performance a good deal.

Track Listing:

In Your Own Sweet Way
Butch And Butch
Basin Street Blues
If I Were A Bell
I Fall In Love Too Easily
Bye Bye Blackbird
The Cure
I Thought About You

- Brian Bloom

Electric Light Orchestra ­ "Out of the Blue" Tour
Live At Wembley/Discovery (1979/1989)

This DVD contains a live concert that took place in 1979 at Wembley stadium as well as music videos from the Discovery album. On the live concert, the picture is quite fuzzy, noisy, and didn't look much better than videotape. The audio had a constricted quality to it-almost like a worn needle playing a record. The concert video had a very retro/70s look and feel to it. There were lots of lights (of course the band IS called Electric Light Orchestra), which is no surprise. The graphics used during the concert are very dated as well. There was a glow of color around certain objects, especially when they were farther away, that did not seem to be intended.

The Discovery videos were much better in both video and audio quality. The image had greater clarity and more vibrant colors that were in contrast with the dull-looking colors present in the live concert. Not all of the songs are of equal video quality, but overall there were not so bad. The sound was thin in parts, but much better than in the concert. The material ranges from seeing the band playing on stage with different lighting effects to ELO-inspired cartoon graphics that made the overall presentation more interesting.

Songs included in main concert:

Standing In The Rain
Night In The City
Turn To Stone
Telephone Line
Wild West Hero
Sweet Talkin' Woman
Mr. Blue Sky
Do Ya
Livin' Thing
Roll Over Beethoven

Songs in Discovery are:

Shine A Little Love
Need Her Love
Diary Of Horace Wimp
Last Train To London
Midnight Blue
On The Run
Don't Bring Me Down

- Brian Bloom

Paco de Lucia - Light and Shade, a Portrait (1995)

Paco de Lucia has been a brilliant individualist in the world of guitarist. Starting out as a flamenco performer who really wanted to be a cantador (flamenco singer) he felt too shy for that and settled on the Spanish guitar instead. It wasn't long before he began to incorporate other musical influences into his flamenco playing, and today breaks all genre boundaries by performing jazz, classical, folk - you name it. De Lucia is probably best known to jazz fans for his collaborations with jazz guitarists Al Demiola and John McLaughlin, in their two striking live trio improvisation concerts given in San Francisco about 20 years apart. In the documentary he describes his strongly physical/psychic bad reaction to the idea of jazz improvisation, which was completely foreign to him. From his exciting exchanges with the other two top guitarists who have done this all their lives, it's obvious he has the hang of improv by now.

The performer's childhood lessons from his father are described, and his close performing association with a famous young flamenco singer who tragically died early on. He speaks to the camera at length (in Spanish) about his career, ideas about flamenco music, and the challenges of performing in many different situations. Musical excerpts include a variety of solo and ensemble performances, including a very exciting version with de Lucia soloing in the Concierto de Aranjuez of Rodrigo. Some of the early musical excerpts are from his appearance on European TV programs, but the black and white quality and sound is excellent. While this DVD lacks widescreen and surround options, the subject and music is so fascinating that almost anyone would be mesmerized. This is the sort of thing that should be on public television in the U.S. If that institution was doing a better job of it, but I don't believe it has been.

- John Sunier

Jean Michel Jarre - Oxygene Moscow

Jarre is a sort of Cristo of music. His various live public performance events are modern versions of the musical extravaganzas that composers like Gottschalk mounted in the l9th century. The challenges of fighting against the many regulations, institutions and concerns that are thrown up to block his almost outlandish productions seems to be welcomed and enjoyed by Jarre. Actress Charlotte Rampling, who appears to be very close to the composer, speaks in the documentary about his megalomaniac approach without which these concerts wouldn't happen. Notes, plans and video footage of some of the previous events are shown, including one at the Place de la Concord in Paris, another in China, in Auckland New Zealand, and a planned one for Mexico's pyramids which was to coincide with a rare eclipse but fell through at the last minute. Jarre has a special predilection for projecting various meta-images on the sides of public buildings along with his music. One I hadn't heard about took place in Houston with the cooperation of NASA. One of the astronauts played jazz saxophone and was to have performed in the concert by link from outer space while aboard the Challenger shuttle. Tragically, that was the one that blew up, but the concert went ahead as a tribute to the astronauts, using an earthbound saxophonist in Jarre's concerto.

The Moscow event was commissioned to help celebrate the 850th anniversary of the city. Jarre describes modern Moscow as something like the Wild West and he actually enjoyed the challenges of dealing with officials, the mafia, and the simplest things not working out as expected. The spectacular took place in front of Moscow University, with laser graphics projected onto the buildings and into the night sky, synchronized with a huge score that employed a giant chorus - including the Ex-Red Army Choir and Bolshoi Kids Choir plus the Young Bolshoi Dancers and a puppet theater that used giant inflatable puppets moving to the music. Plus fireworks, video projections, fighter planes flying overhead, you name it. Bolshoi, Bolshoi. One quiet and strongly emotional adagio was introduced by Jarre as a tribute to Princess Diana, who had been killed shortly before the Moscow event.

I hadn't listened to any Jarre in some time and found the music fairly interesting, though viewing this entire DVD plus the documentary at one sitting might prove excessive. I find his music similar in many ways to that of another composer-performer who likes to think Really Big - Vangelis. Unlike the Greek musician (and unlike his own father) I don't believe Jean Michel has done any film soundtracks. Since the surround sound added so greatly to this DVD, how about the Dreyfus label bringing out a remixed DVD-Audio of Oxygene and Equinox on one disc?

- John Sunier

Continue on to Part 2 of DVD Reviews


Return to Home Page for FEB. 2002

Back to Top of This Page

To Index of Reviews for Month