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

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BEETHOVEN: The Complete Violin-Piano Sonatas, live perf.
Plus Documentary film: A Life With Beethoven (2001)

This is an unusual, unexpected and very courageous DVD project. The complete ten violin-piano sonatas in a set of CDs is unusual enough, but to offer all of them in a series of live performances taped in Paris is unique to say the least. The documentary is really a very compelling music appreciation tour of the ten sonatas as well as being an interesting interview with Mutter and her able pianist. (I hesitate to call him an accompanist because actually these works are often credited as the Piano-Violin Sonatas - indicating that Beethoven intended for the two instruments to have equal say in the music.)

Disc 1 has the first seven sonatas in consecutive order, and Disc 2 continues right on with 8 thru 10 and to close we have A Life With Beethoven. The uncompressed PCM stereo is topflight, with a lovely violin tone and an amazingly quiet audience. In fact the audience is never seen at all, and only the short length of applause before fadeout after each piece indicates their presence. Both performers were dark clothing and are shot against a dark background so the visual accent is on flesh and instruments. Speaking of flesh, Mutter wears the uniform that has been constant for her throughout her career - her strapless gown. A multichannel DVD-A version couldn't improve on the PCM stereo much - the two onstage instruments don't benefit that much from surround (although ProLogic II can give a nice feeling of the hall venue) and one would be bored to death visually looking at a single still photo of the performers for the length of each sonata (many run a half hour or more). The camerawork is natural and not at odds with the musical sense as sometimes happens with videos of concert music. Speaking of the strictly visual side of things, this is a courageous effort also due to the pianist's appearance. Honesty forces me to point out that while Mutter is a gorgeous woman who can withstand lengthy and revealing closeups (she sort of pouts at some particularly pesky notes), Orkis is not exactly movie-star handsome. Now if Jean-Eves Thibaudet were at the ivories, what a pair that would be onscreen, but that's not the case. It must be said that in their exchanges during the documentary Orkis and Mutter seem to have a fine rapport in their searching perusal of these masterpieces.

The musical world inhabited by these works evolves tremendously during the course of the ten sonatas. It begins in the world of Haydn and Mozart, with perhaps a bit more depth than either but still encased in the Classic structures and development of themes. These were the instruments most familiar to Beethoven and he was able to put them thru their paces with great skill and a variety of effects. His deafness was coming on in some of the middle sonatas but his familiarity with the instruments kept his composing from being affected. The Spring Sonata (No. 5) is one of only two of the works with a subtitle. Mutter stresses the fresh qualities of the first movement's main theme, and the Adagio is famous for its own glorious melody. The other titled sonata is No. 9, the "Kreutzer." This 46 minute epic work is full of virtuoso improvisatory passages created for its original intended performer, a mulatto violinist named Bridgetower.

The excellent widescreen video presentation, silky clean stereo sonics, and fine performances by both players bring one more deeply into the concert experience than you might expect from just a music video. I'm more familiar with Beethoven's cello sonatas than the violin ones, and I felt I was newly discovering some unjustly neglected great music in auditioning and viewing this set. The mono Jascha Heifetz set of the complete sonatas is one of the classic recordings. Heifetz' approach is linear, virtuoso, propulsive and more concerned with a chic, lovely overall violin sound. Unfortunately his 1950's-era sonics cannot match the clarity of the new PCM digital effort. Mutter plays with a more vertical, harmony-based style, and isn't afraid to sound less than gorgeous on some notes in pointing up the emotional communication Beethoven has built into the music. Occasionally the sound is a bit raspy, but then the rich and silky sections seem even more beautiful. The only complaint I have about the entire production is the long opening section which precedes all ten sonatas, showing the Seine and the exterior of the concert hall in Paris, with deep bass sounds of traffic. It's fine at the beginning, but repeated in front of each sonata it becomes maddening. Perhaps it would be better anyway to take this set one sonata per evening - then you can fast forward past the repeated intro.

My cohort in this review, Peter Bates, has a more critical view of the performance side of this set. Here is his view:

Mutter makes some interpretive decisions that may strike Beethoven enthusiasts as unorthodox. Sonata No. 10 is typical. First, she tends to under use her vibrato. Next, the Adagio expressivo could have been more expressive and heart wrenching. Then her rubato is chancy, succeeding sometime and other times out of place, particularly in the Scherzo. Finally, the pace flags in the final movement, the Poco allegretto. Compare the times with those of Henryk Szeryng and Ingrid Haebler's dazzling set (Philips 446 524-2) and you'll see what the problem is. I: HS/IH 10' 06' vs. AM/LO 12'25"; II: 5:41 vs. 6'39"; III: 1' 54" vs. 1" 58"; IV: 9' 28" vs. 11" 20". In both the first and last movements, Szeryng and Haebler's performance is almost two minutes shorter than Mutter and Orkis! This is not a question of interpretation, it's a one of spunk.

Still, this is not a dismal set. It is, in many ways, acceptable. Yet there are missed opportunities, so many times we wait for the performance to take flight and suck our breaths away. Even the most successful pieces, the Opus 12 works, feel like a creaky biplane that flies a few hundred yards, dips to the ground, and lopes into the air again. Perhaps it is the inherent beauty of Beethoven's music that sometimes bears us aloft, despite the performers' quirky interpretation. If you don't have the patience to wait for someone like Gidon Kremer to release a DVD of this set, then buy this one. But keep your CD renditions nearby for ballast.

- John Sunier & Peter Bates

Puccini: La Bohème (1965)

This performance of the ever-popular and charming Bohème is a cinematic presentation of Zeffirelli's stage production at La Scala. One of the best aspects of this recording is the creative and tasteful sets, particularly the lavish café scene in Act 2. A change in the usual perspective--we look out from inside the café, where the four principals are dining, instead of from the outside in--focuses our attention on the bohemians as they watch the revelers and street entertainers, a pleasant scene for all concerned.

The star of this performance is Mirella Freni, whose innocent demeanor matches the sweet sounds that flutter delicately over Rodolfo's room and on the outskirts of Paris. She is an innocent waif whose graceful movements echo the delicate sounds she produces so effortlessly. Raimondi's Rodolfo, however, leaves a lot to be desired. His legato leans more toward a staccato, and he demonstrates poor breath support. We long for Puccini's long, languorous phrasings, which are nowhere in evidence. And unfortunately, the first notes of "O soave fanciulla" are overpowered by the orchestra. Martino's Musetta is adequately coquettish, although she sounds a little thin. And Matteo as Schaunard is terrific.

Another plus of this DVD is the outstanding surround sound, aided in part by the orchestra's glitzy and glossy notes. Karajan's conducting is brisk and lively (even too fast), eliciting vibrant colors from the players, as in movie music.

-Dalia Geffen

MOZART: Don Giovanni (complete opera) (1991)

There are five DVDs of Mozart's greatest opera available. My previous viewing experience was with the l979 Joseph Losey production in which he collaborated with playwright Harold Pinter and Ruggerio Raimondi was the Don. This was a real film, not just a record of the operatic stage. There is also a l954 Salzburg Festival version with the Vienna State Opera and Cesare Siepi as the Don. I must report that this new DVD doesn't hold a candle to either of those earlier ones. While not seriously lacking in the musical department, the staging, acting, video and audio are sub-par.

The set is extremely spare with many blank dark walls whose surfaces seem to swim around with the low-resolution video and poor lighting of the set. The singers often wander off-mike when they move around the stage. Long shots of all the singers in a sextet, for example, are so long that they are tiny figures half cropped off at the bottom of the screen and nearly unrecognizable. (And I just had my Pioneer RPTV aligned to correct cropping on two sides.) Image quality is similar to a poor VHS tape. The visual quality is so poor that those usually silly scenes actually work in which the Don or his servant are masquerading as someone else and don't want others to recognize them. The image is so murky the viewer also has trouble recognizing who it is! When the Don finally gets his comeuppance, a really cheesy spiral pattern is projected on the scene, like something out of an Ed Wood "Plan 9 From Outer Vienna." The stand-out performer is Ferrucio Furlanetto as the much-maligned servant Leporello; he brings out the humor in the role to the max. Without him I wouldn't have even made it to the fire-and-brimstone scene.

- John Sunier

Benny Goodman - Adventures in the Kingdom of Swing (1993)

Personally I've been more of an Artie Shaw than a Goodman fan, but this is a fascinating and very comprehensive documentary on the clarinetist who became one of the most famous bandleaders ever. All sorts of sources were scoured for the visual material, including home movies, rehearsal footage from the 50s, performance bits from as early as the 20s, and TV appearances. With Goodman the producers had a great visual advantage on their side - Benny and his band appeared in dozens of Hollywood film features and music shorts. There are also interviews with Goodman himself, family and friends as well as some of the top names with whom he played. Over 17 of his classic tunes are heard at least in part during the film. The clarinetist's successful foray into classical music is also portrayed; he took the same studious approach he did with perfecting his jazz playing. (See our review of a new Artie Shaw CD reissue box in this month's jazz section.)

- John Sunier

Gato Barbieri - Live from the Latin Quarter, NYC (no date)

Was disappointed to see that this DVD had only mono audio, and Dolby Digital at that, rather than uncompressed PCM. Saxist Barbieri - well known for his catchy Last Tango in Paris soundtrack (on this DVD) - is identified by his distinctive harsh and raspy sax sound that is probably the cats' pajamas to his fans but I frankly find annoying after a while. The mono soundtrack captures it only too well. I did like the pianist - Mark Soskin - but that wasn't enough to save the eight-tune set. It appears all the tunes are Barbieri originals, and they possess a certain enervating sameness. The box says enhanced for 16:9 but everything appeared to be stretched anamorphically when I used the 16:9 setting. The image quality was very contrasty, with many dark areas in the darkly-lit jazz club. Murk, murk, murk. In combination with the huge dark glasses on Barbieri (that he never removed) the result is that there's not a heck of a lot to look at onscreen! I wanted to absquatulate the Latin Quarter ASAP. As far as I'm concerned this is The Last Gato in my Player.

- John Henry

Gosford Park (2001)

Relatives and friends alike begin to arrive at a country house to take part in a hunt and to enjoy the weekend. The host of the party is not the most well-liked man, but he does have a lot of money and is therefore a magnet for many of the other guests. Through gossip provided by the servants, we learn the woeful tales of the attendees, and how their lives are both intertwined and in some ways, difficult. When a murder occurs in the household, there are many more suspects than one would expect. The movie then becomes a whodunit; clues given earlier are compounded to push the guilt towards one character after another. After the bungling police investigator arrives (shades of inspector Clouzot), we wait patiently as the facts are slowly uncovered by one guest's servant (who seems more able than the police to discover the truth of the crime).

This film is a wonderfully acted and directed example of the genre. Everything in the film flows easily and naturally. The comedy is witty and sarcastic, and Altman uses several tried and true techniques to coax the best performances out of the actors. It doesn't hurt that most of the actors and actresses are gifted in their own right. The story is told from the perspective of the servants who are often subject to an even stricter form of the class system "below the stairs." This line tends to get blurred in the story and occasionally the "above the stairs" characters could definitely take lessons in composure and respectability from those below. The documentary really helps one to understand the kind of respect that Altman receives and deserves from cast and crew. It is clear that he is the one who pulled the film together and made it is special as it is. The film won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and should be on your list of movies to pick up.

- Brian Bloom

Last Orders (2001)

Many a successful film has been made based around the effect of the death of someone upon a group of his friends. These friends recount tales of experiences and times they have shared with the deceased. Sometimes the movie goes beyond the main character and speaks of their influences on others, the relationships they have created within the group of friends, and the difficult times that were overcome -- this is one of those films. The characters are in their senior years, and except the son of the dead man (who is not young himself), much of the story revolves around the years earlier in their life, building up to the present. A quick passing has led this group of friends on a quest to scatter the ashes of their beloved friend. As they make the long journey together, the viewer learns more of what the man is made. We also learn how the characters are much more intertwined than they appear to be on the surface.

The pace of the film is rather relaxed, though not slow. The accent is hard to follow at times, and it was a help to put on the subtitles. The acting is quite good, and the small vignettes depicting earlier days of the deceased along with the friends help to keep interest. I would venture to describe this movie as a buddy film, but for older viewers. The film waxes emotional at times, but may not grab you. But if you like this sort of character-driven film, it will slowly win you over as a passenger in the long car ride to deliver the remains of the dead and to make peace.

- Brian Bloom

On to Part 2 of September reviews

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