Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Blu-ray (2009)

by | Oct 8, 2009 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Blu-ray (2009)

Live concert at Hampton Court Palace, May 2009
Performers: Rick Wakeman, various keyboards; Brian Blessed, narrator; The English Chamber Choir; The Seraphim Trumpets; Orchestra Europa/Guy Protheroe
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment EVBRD333409 [Release date: 10/13/09]
Video: 16:9 color 1080i HD
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, DD 5.1, PCM Stereo
Subtitles: (for doc. only) English, German, Spanish, French
Extras: “Behind the Scenes with Rick”
Length: 125 minutes
Rating: ***

This concept album was multi-keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s first big hit outside of his participation in the progressive rock group Yes.  The year was 1973, the album LP was on A & M and it was quadraphonic (that’s not mentioned in any of the online coverage of the LP). (It’s also famous for its cover photo – taken at London’s Madame Tussaud’s – in which Rick posed with the wax Henry VIII and some of the wives; but in the background you can see Richard Nixon because they didn’t completely close the curtains.) In the rather loose behind-the-scenes documentary Rick explains that his original idea was to call the work Henry VIII and His Six Wives, but being limited to only about 18 minutes per side on the LP, after he wrote the music for the six wives there was no space left for on the record for Henry.  This time we get the whole thing, including new opening and closing pieces. If we want it.

Also, back in the 70s Wakeman had requested to perform the work live at Hampton Court, the favorite palace of Henry VIII, but was turned down.  Now, 36 years later, he finally secured permission and the impressive live performance took place on a huge stage outdoors right in front of Hampton Court Palace. The occasion of 2009 being the 500th anniversary of the accession to the throne of Henry VIII probably helped things gel this time.  The show is aided by spectacular lighting and staging, with Wakeman’s ample frame attired in various royal-looking robes, including a gold lame one for his pipe organ solo. The Blu-ray is accompanied by a tiny reproduction of the original concert program, but with type so small as to be nearly unreadable. The hi-def video coverage is very professional, with soaring camera angles and frequent closeups of Rick at his many different electronic keyboards.  The DTS-HD 5.1 track captures well all the various choral and instrumental elements that make up this extravaganza. Conductor Protheroe also leads the orchestra for the various Vangelis extravaganzas, so he is well set to handle the realization of Wakeman’s long-held dream.

Of the music, Wakeman himself states “There was never the intention to try and mirror the course of [the six wives’] lives musically, but always to create six pieces of musical modern art, inspired by their lives.”  There is actually very little relationship between the pieces and the particular wives in question. The things Rick Wakeman did on his own never seemed to equal his work with Yes. As another reviewer said, he always seems to rely on the same musical bag of tricks to get the job done.  I’m personally a great fan of anything on keyboards, but after awhile Wakeman’s repetition of the same simple tunes, abetted by lots of ornamentation and arpeggios, began to wear on me.  Some of the synthesizer sounds he espouses for portions of the melodies seem to me dated, gimmicky and in downright bad taste. There’s a feeling on many of the tunes – unlike the 1973 LP – of a sort of jam session, with not only Rick but some of the electric guitarists blowing their hearts out as at a typical rock concert. If you’re a fan of keyboard-dominated instrumental progressive rock and the sameness of most of these tracks doesn’t bother you, go for it.

I was a bit surprised at the informality of the narrator’s part in this.  Brian Blessing, who is sort of Henry VIII shaped – but not in costume, simply comes out and reads from a stapled set of sheets (with some mistakes – perhaps they should have used a larger font), the summary of the lives of each of the six wives plus Henry himself. There is also a very theatrical scene for Rick’s solo on pipe organ: it is atop an elevated stage surrounded by lots of fake organ pipes.  I gather the organ itself is a synthesized one, though the console looks old-fashioned. But then later, for the music for Anne Boleyn, the penultimate item of the concert (and perhaps the one passably good piece of music), Rick ascends the stairs again and this time there is a grand piano there for his solo – we never see the switch from the organ to the piano.  For the closing Tudorock Rick comes down to the edge of the stage and plays a duet with his son, keyboardist Adam Wakeman, both using portable keyboards slung over their shoulders. The Blu-ray and DVD releases contain two more selections than the CD issued at the same time.

  Tudorture/Henry’s Fanfare, Tudorture/1485, Catherine of Aragon, Kathryn Howard, Jane’s Prelude, Jane Seymour, Defender of the Faith (Henry VIII), Katherine Parr, Anne of Cleves, Anne Boleyn, Tudorock.

 – John Henry

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