November 13, 2008


Vladimir Ashkenazy: Master Musician. Christopher Nupen Films DVD. $29.99.

David Oistrakh, Artiste du Peuple? A film by Bruno Monsaingeon. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

Tony Palmer’s Film about Benjamin Britten: A Time There Was… Tony Palmer Films. $24.99.

     With the inevitable caveat that these three DVDs will be of interest only to a subset of classical-music lovers – themselves a subset of all music lovers – it has to be said that two of these three are the sorts of documentaries that really do have the potential to attract the interest of more people than the artists’ fanatical fans. It helps that all three subjects profiled on these DVDs are major artists. It helps further , in the case of Christopher Nupen’s exploration of Vladimir Ashkenazy, that this is not a single film but a collection of short works that collectively give a more interesting portrait of Ashkenazy than might emerge from a single, lengthier presentation. Among the films here are The Vital Juices Are Russian (1968), made when Ashkenazy had just moved from London to Iceland and well before he had become a noted conductor – at the time, he was simply (to the extent that such a thing is simple) an outstanding piano virtuoso. Also here are excerpts from some of the films Nupen has made showing Ashkenazy conducting and his career progressing as he aged toward his 70th year, which he reached in 2007. In many ways the most interesting film is the most musical of all: it is about Rachmaninoff’s Corelli Variations, and it features Ashkenazy discussing this very Russian work – based on a decidedly non-Russian theme – and then performing the entire piece. What emerges from this DVD is a portrait of Ashkenazy partly in words, partly in pictures, partly in small doses of music, and partly in one large chunk in which words, pictures and music all come together. By the end of the DVD, viewers will truly feel they have come to know and, to some extent, understand Ashkenazy, and their experiences of his concerts and recordings will be richer for that understanding.

     Bruno Monsaingeon’s film about David Oistrakh has a question mark in its title, and the question the director poses is never really answered. But it scarcely matters: Monsaingeon has put together a wonderful portrait of a great violinist and fascinating personality who flourished (if that is the right word) under Stalinism in the Soviet Union, and after Stalin’s death became a worldwide phenomenon. Oistrakh (1908-1974) is present here mostly through wonderful archival footage that includes some of his performances as well as offstage material. Much of the commentary comes from Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Igor Oistrakh (David’s son), all of whom are seen performing themselves – as are Sviatoslav Richter, Gennady Rozhdestvensky and others. The discussions about the privations of the Stalinist years and of World War II are nothing really new, and Oistrakh was not alone in finding a way to survive musically despite the hardships – Shostakovich, for example, famously worked out his own way of doing so. But Oistrakh, especially the young Oistrakh, remains little known in the West, and the chance to see and hear about him is irresistible. The reasons Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian and other major composers wrote for Oistrakh become clear in this thoroughly human portrait of a violinist who was largely self-taught and whose brilliance still has much to teach the players of today.

     Tony Palmer’s film about Benjamin Britten is of somewhat more limited interest and for that reason gets a (+++) rating. A Time There Was… (the ellipsis is part of the title) is mostly a story, one among many, of Britten and his longtime companion and lover, Peter Pears. It is Pears’ remarks that provide most of the narrative thread, Pears’ reminiscences that guide the film’s focus. There are plenty of cameo appearances by other musicians, among them Leonard Bernstein, Kathleen Ferrier, Julian Bream and John Shirley-Quirk, and there are quite a few short musical excerpts from Britten’s operas (and some from other works). There are also some interesting remarks on Britten as a person (rather than as a musician) from the family that housed him and Pears after they left England as conscientious objectors, from Britten’s housekeeper, and from the woman who nursed him through his final illness. There is nothing wrong with any of this, and this 1979 film is shot well and presented with sensitivity. But Britten’s music, which is the main thing for which he is and will be remembered, gets somewhat short shrift in Palmer’s story arc, with the result that A Time There Was… will appeal mainly to people who are already thoroughly familiar with Britten’s work and are looking for some additional insights into his personality, as told by some of those who were close to him.

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