DVD-Video Reviews - October 2002, Pt. 1 of 3


We'll get underway this month with all our music video DVDs first in this part =

Piano Grand! A Smithsonian Celebration (2000)

Various artists
Studio: Maryland Public TV/ Columbia Music Video
Video: 16:9 widescreen enhanced
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1; PCM stereo
Extras: None
Length: 1 hr. 56 min.
Rating: *****

This is another PBS pledge break concert. It is done in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institute. It is a concert to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the creation of the piano. Artists from classical music, jazz and pop perform on the disc. Artist include: Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Jerry Lee Lewis, Diana Krall, Cyrus Chestnut, Robert Levin, Eliane Elias, Katia and Marielle Labque, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Billy Joel, Markus Roberts, Dave Brubeck, and Hyung-Ki Joo. The concert was taped in HDTV and Billy Joel is the MC. This is the number 3 concert DVD on my top 10 list of concert DVDs. The concert shows the tremendous range that the piano has musically. The concert took place on four stages, with over a dozen grand pianos. Billy Joel performs “Baby Grand” and “Piano Man”. Jerry Lee Lewis performs “Whole lot of Shaking” and “Great Balls of Fire”. The highlight of the concert for me was watching the Labeque sisters doing works for piano two hands. They are so animated in their performance. It would not be nearly the same listening to the also-available CD version of this concert. I immediately tried to find a music DVD featuring just them but did not have any success. Video quality is near reference. The PCM stereo sound is better than the 5.1 surround. The piano has better dynamics and is crisper sounding. The 5.1 sound is more spacious sounding however. On some cuts the accompanying instruments are better on 5.1 sound.

- Clay Swartz

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) (1992)

Chorus and Orchestra of the Ludwigsburger Festspiele
Music Director: Wolfgang Gönnenwein
Tamino: Deon van der Walt
Pamina: Ulrike Sonntag
Sarastro: Cornelius Hauptmann
Queen of the Night: Andrea Frey
Papageno: Thomas Mohr
Papagena: Patricia Rozario
Sung in German, with English subtitles
Live from the Ludwigsburger Schlosstheater, 1992

Studio: Arthaus Musik/Distr. NaxosSound format: PCM stereo
Picture format: 4:3 fullscreen
Running time: 147 min.
Rating: **

Mozart’s charming and highly entertaining opera includes so many attractive features that even this cold, sterile, and minimalist production has a few things to recommend it. First off, the sound is good, the conducting brisk, and the lighting excellent. In addition, much effort was lavished on the visual effects. This approach works well with the naïve, schematic animals, which are a delight. But the singers’ brightly colored and sometimes astonishing costumes often seem inappropriate. For instance, the three leggy and willowy ladies look like Amazons dressed in Space Age costumes, a far cry from Ingmar Bergman’s warm and maternal women who save Tamino from the dragon (here a very green creature that does not run).

The most attractive singer in this ensemble is Mohr, whose Papageno is convincingly comical and whose voice sounds attractive and virile. Van der Walt’s Tamino, dressed in knee-high black boots and holding his flute like a sword, is ardent. He sweetly sings “Dis Bildnis” to a lighted picture on a darkened stage, as though it were a giant Palm Pilot. Frey’s Queen of the Night is stiff, her coloratura strained. Her puffy skirt and red eye shadow descending to her cheeks reminded me of the dancing flowers in Fantasia. Sonntag is a thin-voiced and nervous Pamina, and Hauptmann as Sarastro is stiff-shouldered, hollow-voiced, and unpaternal; he exudes all the warmth of a clam and seems more pompous than wise.

For viewers who are unfamiliar with this opera, I highly recommend Bergman’s much more satisfying movie version in Swedish.

-Dalia Geffen

Etta James and the Roots Band (2001)
Burnin’ Down the House

Studio: Eagle Eye Media/Pioneer Entertainment
Video: 4:3 full screen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 & Dolby Digital Stereo
Extras: None
Length: 90 min.
Rating: ***

James is shown as a much more versatile singer than the impression I had of her talents prior to seeing the video. This long set covers just about everything - blues, funk, sultry jazz, romantic ballads, rock. She is seated throughout the set with the band close around her, but this is far from a sit-down performance. The band is also plenty versatile and can swing madly when required. There is nice comraderie among the band members and the surround sound is impactful and involving. While I still prefer Randy Newman’s original, James has great fun with You Can Leave Your Hat On. The image suffers from a strange artifact I haven’t seen before and was surprised to find on a Pioneer DVD, which previously have all been on the highest level production-wise: When the camera is still everything is OK - not hi-res but watchable. However, when the camera moves - which is quite frequently - there are serious pixellation products.

Tunes: Come to Mama, I Just Want to Make Love to You, Born to be Wild, I’d Rather Go Blind, All the Way Down, Breaking Up Somebody’s Home, At Last, You Can Leave Your Hat On, Something’s Got a Hold on Me, Your Good Thing Is About to End, Rock Me Baby, Love & Happiness, Take Me to the River, My Funny Valentine, Sugar on the Floor

- John Henry

Anna Russell, The First Farewell Concert (1984)

Studio: Maryland Public TV/Video Artists International
Video: 4:3 full screen
Audio: Dolby Digital mono
Extras: None
Length: 85 min.
Rating: ****

Our second video this time from the busy Maryland PBS station was and is available as a VHS tape. While this version is far from hi-res it is still a major improvement in both image and sound over the VHS, to which I directly compared it. I’m sure she’s no longer performing, but Anna Russell was, according to TIME magazine “the crown princess of musical parody.” She was sort of a female, singing Victor Borge, except that she imparted a great deal of actual music education along with her wonderful parodies. The best example of this is her nearly half-hour-long dissection of Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle, which gets the biggest laughs from those of us who realize that everything she is explaining is perfectly true and not exaggeration.

Beginning her career as a struggling classical soprano in Australia, she hit some sour notes and found that the audience broke up. She quickly took the hint and became an instant stage success with a nearly 50-year career. Part of the humor is her voice and appearance, which suggest a large and wealthy upper-class British matron of far too proper demeanor to say and do the things that Russell does. Think of Dame Edith, only Russell is the genuine article. You don’t even have to be a classical music lover to be reduced to laughter by Anna Russell, but it adds depth to the fun. One of her half dozen bits preserved here is on folk song parodies and another - “On Pink Chiffon Drag” - has nothing to do with music at all. Another classic is her own version of a typical Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. Her pianist Robert Rosenberger does yeoman duty here and in all the sketches as well.

- John Sunier

DOO WOP 50 & 51, Volumes 1 & 2

Featuring:Various Artists
Studio: WQED Public TV and Rhino Records
Video: 4:3 fullscreen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Extras: Performer interviews
Length: 140 & 138 minutes respectively
Rating: *****
These two DVDs are number 1 and 2 on my top DVD concert list. They are both concerts done with the combined resources of Rhino Records and National Public Television. Public Television used them as a pledge break concert and Rhino released the concert as CDs and DVDs. Both discs have by far the best video quality of any DVD concert I have the pleasure to view. Perhaps the best video quality I have seen on a DVD. The sound quality is excellent in Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. The music is fantastic and a lot of it. Each disc has over 35 songs and is over two hours and 20 minutes long. They bring back the original Doo Wop artist to perform the songs. Some groups have to use replacement artist when some has died from the group. The music is from the sixties and seventies. It is really amazing how well these people can still perform. It is a real kick watching them. The discs also offer an archive of this music. Many of these people may soon no longer be with us. Old videotapes of the original performances are usually in black and white, poor picture quality and poor mono sound. Very good musicians backed up the groups. I did not recognize some of the names of the groups, but I recognized the music. These groups first did some songs that were done later with major success. It also showed that dancing on stage while performing dates back to this era. Both concerts were done in the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in Pittsburgh, PA.

Doo Wop 50 was recorded in May of 1999 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the start of doo wop. Some of the many groups were The Platters, Del Vikings, Skyliners, Cleftones, Cadillacs and Spaniels. The backup instruments are drums, guitars, sax, and keyboard. A number of songs were done with combinations of various groups. There is 38 songs performed. At about half way though the show, there seems to be an end of the concert. That is only the first night of the concert and the second night soon starts on the disc.

Doo Wop 51 was recorded in May 2000, for the 51st anniversary. You would think that they might run low on music but 35 more songs are presented. The songs are even better and there are more groups performing. Groups included The Velvets, Tokens, Dells, Chiffons, Zodiacs, Tymes and many others. The backup is bigger with strings and small orchestra. I took this disc over to a friend’s house, which we were tweaking in his system. After hours of tweaking I suggested that we put this disc on. Another friend that had come along expressed reservations about the concert. He suggested on just listening to just a couple of cuts. Two hours and twenty minutes later we finished the concert. Both of my friends thought it was a great concert and wanted to get it.

Congratulations, Rhino and PBS, for a great achievement. If you have any interest in this type of music at all, they are a must-have. And they also make great demo DVDs.

- Clay Swartz

Lauryn Hill Unplugged (2002)
Studio: Columbia
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: DD 5.1, PCM Stereo
Extras: None
Length: 1 hour 45 minutes
Rating: ****+

This is not your average MTV Unplugged video. We have the rare pleasure to hear completely new acoustic songs from Hill that are amazingly real and true in intent and power. If you are familiar with her many past efforts with the Fugees or Hill’s solo album, then you are in for a surprise. These songs have a serious message, and Hill has managed to elevate herself to a new level as a performer. Lauryn would object to the term performer, and claims she is just sharing her music with the crowd. Although the concert is a completely solo performance, you wouldn’t know it by the power of the music and how she illuminates the onlookers with her message like a bright, burning fire. During the show, Hill shares several important realizations she has made over the years and tells us of the things that have allowed her to grow not only as a musician, but also as a person. I came in expecting a decent concert, and discovered a true talent. If you hold a place in your heart for great singer/songwriters, then you can add Hill to the list and pick up this disc--I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Includes the songs: Mr. Intentional; Adam Lives In Theory; Oh Jerusalem; War In The Mind; I Find It Hard To Say (Rebel); Water; Just Want You Around; I Gotta Find Peace Of Mind; Mystery Of Iniquity; I Get Out; I Remember; So Much Things To Say; The Conquering Lion.

- Brian Bloom

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