April 23, 2009


Toscanini: In His Own Words. A film by Larry Weinstein. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

Martha Argerich Plays Mozart – Live from Tokyo. Opus Arte DVD. $29.99.

Amor, Vida de Mi Vida: Zarzuelas with Plácido Domingo and Ana María Martínez. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

     Performers today generally are quite public about what they do – not just during concerts but between them. Whether through self-aggrandizement or a desire to bring additional attention to the music they offer to the public, they appear on TV and the Internet, make lots of recordings, grant plenty of interviews and generally put themselves as well as their performances “out there” for the world. There are certainly exceptions – Sviatoslav Richter comes immediately to mind – but in general, the idea of an unassuming superstar performer is something of a contradiction in terms. But this was not so in earlier days, and Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) was an exemplar of those times. Aristocratic and autocratic on the podium, Toscanini was famous (or notorious) for letting his interpretations stand on their own. He was not known to be introspective – he left no diaries or journals – and he did not grant interviews. So for those who remember Toscanini and were influenced by him, Larry Weinstein’s film, Toscanini: In His Own Words, is a 70-minute gem. The key to it is secretly recorded conversations of Toscanini speaking with his children and friends in the last three years of his life – 150 hours of private talks recorded by the conductor’s son, Walter. To say that Toscanini would have disapproved of this is a vast understatement – he would have been horrified and likely in a towering rage. But 50 years after the conductor’s death, the recordings were made available to Weinstein and his film coauthor, Harvey Sachs. That is the good news. The bad news is that these were audio recordings only, and the film itself is strictly a reenactment (and thus an interpretation) of Toscanini’s thoughts on music, family, love and his own early career. With Barry Jackson as Arturo Toscanini and Joseph Long as Walter Toscanini, Weinstein’s film has a sense of family intimacy that is as false as any reenactment must inevitably be; and because Toscanini’s comments are on a wide variety of subjects, the film itself is a once-over-lightly of the maestro’s thoughts rather than an in-depth study of them. So if this is a gem for Toscanini fans because of its underlying content, it is at best semi-precious for those less familiar with the great conductor or those hoping for greater insight into his performances.

     The live recording of Martha Argerich’s concert on January 27, 2005, at Sumida Triphony Hall in Tokyo, is more typical of what today’s audiences have come to expect to see from performers. This was one of three concerts that Argerich gave to honor the memory of her teacher, Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000). In fact, in addition to Argerich herself, Gulda’s sons, Paul and Rico, also perform as pianists – in Mozart’s Concerto for Three Pianos, K. 242. This 1776 concerto, often called “Lodron” because it was commissioned by Countess Antonia Lodron to be played with her two daughters, Aloysia and Giuseppa, is a work suitable for talented amateurs – and one often used for special multiple-piano occasions such as this Argerich concert. It sounds fine here, and it is enjoyable to watch the three pianists (and the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Christian Arming); but the DVD format adds little on a strictly musical level to the performance. The same is true for Argerich’s performance of Piano Concerto No. 20, the orchestra’s handling of the brief Symphony No. 32, and the rest of the music here, which includes one non-Mozart element that sticks out like a sore thumb: the third movement of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, in which Argerich is joined by violinist Renaud Capuçon and cellist Gautier Capuçon. The performances are all fine, and Argerich’s tribute to Gulda is certainly heartfelt, but there is nothing very special about the DVD except that it gives Argerich fans a chance to see as well as hear her at one particular concert.

     There is something special about Amor, Vida de Mi Vida, even though this is also a “fan” DVD. This 2007 Salzburg Festival performance came about when tenor Rolando Villazón became ill and could not perform with his frequent vocal partner, soprano Ana María Martínez. And who stepped in to save that evening’s concert? None other than Plácido Domingo, who despite his association with traditional opera is also a strong supporter of the Spanish zarzuela – indeed, he was born in Madrid to parents who were zarzuela performers. Domingo was 66 at the time of this performance, and although his voice retains considerable beauty, it is not quite the finely lyrical instrument that it once was. But that scarcely mattered to the Salzburg audience and will surely not matter to the Domingo (and Martínez) fans who will be most attracted to this DVD. Those who are unfamiliar with zarzuela music will not recognize the names of many of the composers here (Federico Cheuca, Reveriano Soutullo Otero, Pablo Sorozábal and others), nor will they know the names of the works from which the arias are taken (El bateo, Los claveles, Don Gil de Alcalá, La marchenera, and so forth). But anyone seeing and hearing this DVD will enjoy the high spirits of the music and the singers, as well as the excellent support from the Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg under Jesús López Cobos. Actually, it is the orchestra that performs the best-known music here: excerpts from Manuel de Falla’s El amor brujo and El sombrero de tres picos. And it is a non-zarzuela encore that is one of the high points on the DVD: “Lippen schweigen,” the famous waltz from Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow. A number of the zarzuela arias tend to blend together, although in a generally very pleasant (and often sensuous) way. So although this is a DVD for fans of the two singers and of zarzuelas, it is a particularly enjoyable offering, even though, at 101 minutes, it does provide something of an overdose of short musical excerpts.

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