December 04, 2008


Tony Palmer’s Film about Stravinsky: Once, at a Border… Tony Palmer Films DVD. $24.99.

Tony Palmer’s Film of “At the Haunted End of the Day” (William Walton). Tony Palmer Films DVD. $24.99.

     Tony Palmer’s films are all, to a large extent, about Tony Palmer – witness the titling of the films’ releases on DVD. But some of them contain less Palmer than others; and although Palmer is a fine filmmaker, it is the movies in which the subjects remain front and center throughout that tend to be his most successful. Palmer’s film about Stravinsky is a perfect case study. Made at the request of Stravinsky’s estate to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth (1982), it is nearly three hours long and packed with stunning and genuinely important musical performances: Les Noces in its original scoring, a reproduction of the 1911 choreography of Petrushka, and much more. Outstanding orchestras (London Symphony, London Sinfonietta and others), top-notch choruses (Westminster Abbey Choir, State Choir of Latvia and more), the Royal Ballet and other fine performance groups contribute to the film – whose narrative thread is largely provided by Stravinsky himself. He is seen at home and at work, reminiscing and conducting, talking and remembering – and just as his tremendous musical accomplishments form the backbone of the film’s performances, so do his thoughtful words become the heart of its verbal elements. This is not to say that Stravinsky is the only thoughtful person here: Robert Craft, who worked with Stravinsky for more than two decades and gave the first performances of many of his later works, provides invaluable commentary, and there are interesting remarks from Nadia Boulanger, Jean Cocteau and many others. The comments by family members (Madam Vera Stravinsky and the composer’s three surviving daughters) are less musically illuminating but more intimate. And there is plenty of other talking by better- and less-known musical personages – all of it serving to illuminate a great deal about Stravinsky the man and Stravinsky the composer…and all of it nicely put together by Palmer so that the film flows well and, despite its length, keeps the interest of a viewer and listener throughout.

     Palmer’s 1981 film about William Walton – made as a TV program – is not at this rarefied level and in many ways is more typical Palmer. Walton is a presence in this film as Stravinsky is in his, but Walton comes across as less lively and less of a natural raconteur than Stravinsky. Some of the interviews with those who knew Walton are fascinating – the contributions by Sir Laurence Oliver and Sacheverell Sitwell especially so – but although the film has moments of beauty and moments of revelation (sometimes the same moment), it seems as a whole a touch plodding even though it runs only 99 minutes. The fault likely lies in the music, which is performed by some top-notch players (Yehudi Menuhin, Julian Bream, John Shirley-Quirk and many more) but is usually in the form of excerpts rather than complete works. The result is that the film seems a bit perfunctory, as if it brushes off the Walton music that ought to be at its core. It is likely that the necessities of TV production, and Palmer’s own interests in pacing and structure, are responsible for this; but for whatever reason, At the Haunted End of the Day comes across as a tribute that had the potential to be more revelatory than it in fact turned out to be. It is well-made and well-researched enough to earn a (+++) rating, but it is simply not in the class of Palmer’s outstanding look at Stravinsky.

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