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

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Mostly Music

BRITTEN: The Turn of the Screw (2002)

Conductor: Stewart Bedford
Helen Field, Menai Davies, Richard Greager, Machiko Obata
Studio: BBC Opus Arte OA
Video: 4:3
Audio: PCM Stereo
Extras: Five minute plot summary.
Length: 108 minutes
Rating: ****

This is unsettling stuff. Benjamin Britten’s 1955 opera of Henry James’ 1898 novella concerns the demonic possession of two children by a formerly alive governess and butler. Or maybe it’s not. What first appears to be a stock ghost story about the struggle between good and evil takes on complex meanings through the medium of Britten’s eerie music. The opera is divided into sixteen scenes, fifteen variations on one nine-measure “Screw” theme , so called in part because of its powerful delineation of mounting tension. The theme suggests a feeling of unrest because it never reaches a home key. It just keeps ascending, implying that this “screw” could go on forever.

Britten’s music is compelling, the best operatic use of whole tone scales since Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Sometimes it’s sly and ironic, sometimes even satiric. Most oddly, in a piece allegedly about good and evil, it never takes sides, never pulls the listener toward the easy sentimental solution. In one scene Miles, the young boy, sounds like he’s playing an 18th Century sonata on the piano. Or is it? Britten makes it sound a little too perversely drained of joy, belying its Mozartean style. In another scene, the children exit playing the march “Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son,” but Britten punctuates their final words with a shivery atonal xylophone signaling the ghost at the window. The cast is excellent throughout, with special acting kudos to Helen Field as the Governess. Even Samuel Linay as Miles is a decent child soprano. While the performance is extraordinary, this DVD’s organization lacks a few elements. Once again, ArtHaus makes it difficult to find a particular scene. The scene selection menu is divided between Act I and Act II and that’s it. There is no way to access individual scenes except through the track advance key on your remote. There is an “extra,” a five minute introduction to the opera that is more plot summary than interpretation. However, this DVD is still worth buying if you are fond of Britten or want to pursue his operatic works. Purchase Here

--Peter Bates

Heifetz/Rubinstein/Piatigorsky Concert Videos

Program: BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58/MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64: Allegro molto appassionato/DEBUSSY: La Fille aux cheveux de lin/DINICU: Hora staccato/WALTON: Cello Concerto/CHOPIN: Polonaise in A-flat, Op. 53     

Artists: Jascha Heifetz, violin/Artur Rubinstein, piano/Gregor Piatigorsky, cello/Antal Dorati conducts London Philharmonic (Beethoven)/Sir Malcolm Sargent conducts BBC Symphony (Walton)/Donald Vorhees conducts Bell Telephone Hour Orchestra

Studio: EMI Classic DVD 7243 4 92841 9 7
Video: 4:3 B&W
Audio: PCM Mono
Extras: None
Total Time: 93:06
Rating: ****

EMI has assembled some classic performances by "the million dollar trio," as they were called when they played together for RCA; here Rubinstein, Heifetz, and Piatigorsky appear separately in concert 1949-1968. Heifetz performs with Donald Vorhees in kinescopes from 1949, and the visual quality is gritty, the sound in the Mendelssohn is glaring and harsh. Heifetz plays with suave sang froid, his demeanor implacable, his fingers impeccable. Most of the camera work are medium shots, but one overhead of Heifetz during the Dinicu is worth all the rest. Heifetz arranged the Debussy Prelude for violin and orchestra, and the effect is charming albeit brief.

The DVD opens with Artur Rubinstein, aged 80, playing the Beethoven G Major Concerto in 1967 with Dorati. His favorite Beethoven concerto, Rubinstein plays it as an Aeolian harp, no percussion, and his roulades are smooth as glass. He plays the Busoni edition of the Beethoven cadenza. While some of the finger work makes for strain, Rubinstein's long familiarity with the score renders it a meeting of kindred spirits, and Dorati seems amenable to accompany without dramatizing his own personality.

Gregor Piatigorsky plays the British premier of the Walton Concerto; he had played the world premier in Boston under Munch a month prior, in January 1957. Piatigorsky is absolutely secure in the solo part, and by the end of the third movement he achieves a cantilena that dazzles Sargent and the orchestra as well as the audience. The bonus track is Rubinstein's version of that eternal warhorse, Chopin's A-flat "Heroic" Polonaise.

My only quibble with an otherwise fascinating document is the constant need to navigate manually each separate piece of music by re-engaging my tracking device or button on my remote or player. Why EMI could not format the tracks to segue continuously through the individual programs I cannot guess--does one have to suffer for his art? Purchase Here

--Gary Lemco

Norma, by Vincenzo Bellini

Norma: Joan Sutherland
Adalgisa: Tatiana Troyanos
Pollione: Francisco Ortiz
Orchestra and Chorus of the Canadian Opera Company
Conducted by Richard Bonynge
Live performance of 1981, Sung in Italian with English subtitles
Stage production directed by Lotfi Mansouri
Studio: CBC, Toronto/VAI
Video: 4:3 Color
Audio: PCM mono
Length: 150 mins.
Rating: *

This production of Bellini’s popular opera Norma is, for the most part, lacking in zest and dynamism. Poor lighting, a grainy picture, and mediocre mono sound render the story of a Druid priestess and her Roman lover a dismal and disappointing affair. Oppressed by the Romans, the Gauls in this performance, with their heavy, pallid makeup and shadowy surroundings, look positively ghoulish.

Sutherland is long past her prime and sings this taxing role almost by rote, especially in the opening scenes. Her high notes are often inaccurate, and her low tones are troubling in their lack of vocal support. In Act 2, she frequently seems out of breath. Ortiz as Pollione has a pleasant, well-modulated voice, but his acting is clunky and insipid. The amazing Troyanos, who died prematurely, is the only artist here to inject some interest into this otherwise somnambulent production. She sounds fresh and vigorous, even if not always accurate, and evinces some passion. Diaz, as Norma’s father, Oroveso, is commanding and regal.

Bonynge’s conducting has its lyrical moments, but it often drags and seems to move on its own trajectory, leaving the singers to fend for themselves. To add insult to injury, the subtitles omit entire sentences. This performance will be of interest only to hard-core Troyanos fans. The rest can safely skip it. Purchase Here

-Dalia Geffen

Movie Music Man: A Portrait of Lalo Schifrin (1993)

With Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Grady Tate, Julia Migenes
Studio: RM Associates/Image Entertainment
Video: 4:3
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, DD 2.0
Extras: Booklet of notes and Schifrin interview quotes
Length: 60 min.
Rating: ****

This is another excellent TV program on music created for viewing in the UK (by Channel Four TV in this case) but not seen by U.S. TV viewers. You can buy this DVD of course; not much chance that the average DVD rental shop will stock it. So it least with some effort and expense we can sample the great classical and jazz TV presentations which are no longer a part of American television but are widely seen and appreciated in Europe. Grouse, grouse...

Schifrin has done a great deal more in his career than just the Mission Impossible music. He’s at home conducting, performing at a jazz festival, or scoring films. The sections with the symphony orchestra and soloists such as Dizzy seen here were recorded at one of the Midem Festivals in Europe - the gathering place for record label people from all over the world. The film cleverly uses sections of the symphony concert here and there to illustrate points which Schifrin makes in his interview which extends thru most of the film. For example, he begins talking about his work on the film The Fox, he illustrates the opening theme playing on his piano, then we see the opening credits for the original film with his music heard off the soundtrack, lastly it segues to the symphony orchestra performing a medley from the film score. The 5.1 reproduction of the symphony orchestra and Schifrin’s piano solos are excellent.

In addition to the film music the symphony concert includes the Second Suite from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe as well as the Bolero, the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 sung by Julia Migenes, and Dizzy playing Schifrin’s Here It Tis with the symphony. The Gillespie selection illustrates the meeting of jazz and the classical symphony, which has been a pursuit of Schifrin’s for decades. (Recordings of some of this material are available on his own record label, Aleph.) Other Schifrin film scores played and discussed include Cool Hand Luke, and Bullitt. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

The Quintessential Peggy Lee (1984)

Studio: NVC Arts/Kultur
Video: 4:3
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Extras: none
Length: 84 min.
Rating: **

The smoky voice of Peggy Lee was a standard fixture of the 50s and 60s; her interpretations of tunes such as Fever and Why Don’t You Do Right? eclipse all others. This l984 gala concert appearance was with the New Jersey Symphony and such sidemen as Jay Leonhart on bass and Mark Sherman on the vibes and percussion, and Michael Renzi was the pianist as well as music director. There are 27 songs in total - more than you’d get on a double CD set. They range from material she used to warble with the Benny Goodman Band to more recent songs of the 80s. Some of the highlights for me (in addition to the two classics already mentioned) were The Folks Who Live on the Hill, Is That All There Is?, Hey Big Spender, and a clever medley of I’m a Woman and the orchestra’s treatment of The Stripper. Image and sonics were both good though 5.1 surround would have involved the viewer a bit more in the evening’s performances. However, Lee was obviously not in very good health at this appearance; she looks extremely pale and although she never had a powerful voice she sounds here like she’s running at half speed for most of the video. Purchase Here

- John Henry

World of Rhythm - live (1983)

With Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Billy Cobham
Studio: TDK
Video: 4:3
Audio: PCM stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1
Extras: Bios of all three performers, booklet of notes in three languages
Length: 90 min.
Rating: ****

Taped live in Lugano Switzerland, this DVD with Herbie Hancock’s Trio is just one of a series of jazz and pop music videos recently released by TDK. Stanley Dorfman was the director and both the visuals and sound are exemplary (except for one little thing you can see in the picture below this review). Hancock was one of the most successful of the jazzmen who brought rock n’ roll into modern jazz to create fusion. Although this concert is strictly acoustic in nature, the fusion element is strong in many of the selections - even the three unaccompanied piano solos Hancock plays in the middle. And by the way, the piano sound is terrific here - especially if you eschew the DTS and DD options and go for the two-channel purist PCM. I found feeding it thru Dolby Pro-Logic II provided a cleaner and better surround than either of the other data-reduced options.

Carter is amazing, as usual - showing how much more the doublebass can do than just providing a walking-along low end support sound. He takes a solo on Willow Weep for Me in which he ends up becoming his own accompanist. The huge rack of percussion instruments behind Cobham provides both an attractive variety of exotic sounds and also an attractive sculptural form in some of the video views of the trio. The director has spared little to make this video as visually compelling as it is musically. Just one little fly in the ointment - the stage lighting choices somehow resulted in Hancock's hands looking like gangrene was setting in on all his fingers! (Here's a still frame from the DVD:)
Selections are: Toys, First Trip, Speak Like a Child, Little Waltz, Willow Weep for Me, Dolphin Dance, Ili’s Treasure, Princess, Eye of the Hurricane, Walking. Purchase Here

- John Henry

Koyaanisqatsi - Life Out of Balance (1983)

Directed by Godfrey Reggio; Music by Philip Glass
Studio: MGM
Video: 1.85:1 widescreen enhanced
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Extras: New interview with director and composer; theatrical trailers for the Qatsi trilogy
Length: 1 hr. 27 min.
Rating: *****

On many lists of the greatest films, Koyaanisqatsi remains the best known of a special genre of non-dramatic (but astonishingly dramatic in its own way) films which meld amazing images with compelling music, but without a plot or spoken narration. Shot by cinematographer Ron Fricke in glorious 70mm with occasional use of time-lapse and speeded-up motion, the imagery is often breath taking - whether due to the beauty of scenes of nature, or to shots of devastation or destruction. The frenzy of city life and work today is brought home with speeded cinematography, and Philip Glass’ evocative score fits the images like a glove. The interview with Reggio is fascinating, as he reveals he lived in a monastery from age 14 to 28. There is certainly a meditative and spiritual quality about all of his films. Even someone who feels that owning feature DVDs is not to their taste might want to own this one, because repeated viewing is so satisfying and it seems rather different each time it is viewed. The image quality is clearly better than the average 35mm transfer to DVD, but this would be a good early subject for the coming hi-def DVD format.

Since the music is such an important part of Koyaanisqatsi, I thought it would be interesting to do an A/B comparison of this DVD video to the DVD-Audio sound on the Nonesuch label which I reviewed some months ago. I recall being frustrated auditioning that disc because it provides only a still on the screen from each section of the film, accompanying the 5.1 hi-res version of the Philip Glass soundtrack. I synced up the start of the film in both versions on two of my players and was able to switch back and forth during play. The first thing I discovered was that the two mixes were entirely different - it wasn’t just that the DVD-A had greater resolution. Also, there were occasional sound effects on the video DVD (such as wind and traffic sounds) that were not on the DVD-A. The video version ran longer on most sections than the DVD-A so sync was lost toward the end of each.

The bass vocal at the beginning of the score was much stronger on the DVD-V. However, the DVD-A generally had more information on the surrounds and various solo instrument had more clarity and impact, standing out from the rest of the orchestral textures. But the DD 5.1 mix was still good, and if one wasn’t able to do the A/B comparison with the DVD-A nothing would be missed. My personal favorite - both visually and musically - is the Clouds section. I found the brass here extremely strident on the DD 5.1 mix but much more mellow on the DVD-A version, making it more enjoyable listening. Yet the clouds just sat there and didn’t move...Grouse, grouse... Purchase Here

- John Sunier

The Conversation (1974)

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Harrison Ford
Studio: Paramount
Video: 16:9 widescreen enhanced
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French mono
Subtitles: English
Extras: Featurette - “Closeup on the Conversation;” Commentary by Coppola; Commentary by Editor Walter Murch; Orig. theatrical trailer
Length: 113 min.
Rating: ****

This is the only DVD in this first section not tightly connected with music in some way -though Hackman’s character does play sax with music-minus-one jazz records for relaxation. However, The Conversation is strongly connected with sound, and in fact was nominated for best sound as well as best picture in l974. The story revolves around Hackman as a surveillance expert who uses all the specially-designed audio gear of the period to record conversations of the subjects he has been hired to spy on. The opening scene shot in San Francisco’s Union Square is a classic, as Hackman and his crew follow a young couple and attempt to record their conversation. You hear on the soundtrack the distortion and artifacts that occur when the equipment loses the sound it is tracking and it must be switched to another transducer to get the rest of the conversation. Hackman’s studio is full of open reel tape decks - great nostalgia for older audio buffs.

Hackman hears something disturbing on the tapes about killing someone, and for the first time becomes concerned about what he is doing for such a high fee. It is later revealed that he used to work in New York but suddenly moved to San Francisco when a previous surveillance situation went sour. One scene was shot at an actual sales convention of people in the surveillance business. A very young Harrison Ford has a small role in the film. Hackman’s character falls deeper into a web of secrecy, paranoia and double crossings. Always strongly concerned about his own privacy and security, he soon finds himself bugged by the person who originally hired him, and the unforgettable final scene has him tearing apart his apartment down to the floorboards and studs searching for the bugs without finding them. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

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