September 27, 2012

(+++) WATCHING GIANTS


Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Sibelius: Symphony No. 5. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein. ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.

Britten: Nocturne; Mozart: Symphony No. 40; Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3—Adagio and Scherzo. Peter Pears, tenor; English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten. ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.

Classical Music and Cold War: Musicians in the GDR—A Film by Thomas Zintl. Arthaus Musik DVD. $24.99.

      Giants in their fields and in their time, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) were both composer-conductors, with Bernstein far better known on the podium and Britten far more so in composition.  Two new ICA Classics videos give 21st-century music lovers a chance to see as well as hear these major musical figures, and each video has fascinating elements for those interested in exploring two central figures in 20th-century classical music.  Videos of classical concerts are rarely revelatory and rarely of more interest than audio recordings of the same music, but the Bernstein DVD is an exception, since Bernstein was known as much for his podium performances – some called them antics – as for the music that resulted.  These November 1966 performances were the British public’s first significant introduction to Bernstein, and it is interesting to see the reactions to him by some audience members, who clearly find his over-the-top podium activity surprising.  Bernstein literally threw himself into music, moving around constantly and perspiring so much that he seemed to lose several pounds of water weight by the end of a concert.  In some works, his approach paid enormous dividends: The Rite of Spring is absolutely splendid, with tremendous rhythmic bite and intensity and remarkable balance between the overall flow of the ballet music and the close attention to the details of the individual sections.  In other pieces, Bernstein overdid things: his fondness for emotion-driven, unwritten tempo changes was well known, and his emotive approach could blur the structure of carefully assembled music – Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 being a case in point.  Bernstein keeps the music restless, and his many tempo alterations make it seem far more disjointed than it usually does (or should).  There is little majesty in the “flight of cranes” theme of the finale, with Bernstein seeking the propulsive and exciting rather than the expansive.  The very end of the symphony is certainly impressive, the difficult off-beat chords counted just right and given enormous strength by the London Symphony Orchestra’s spot-on playing.  But as a whole, the symphony is too much Bernstein and not enough Sibelius – a more-frequent issue in Bernstein performances than in those of most conductors.  The bonus material here, in which Bernstein talks with a rather too-intrusive Humphrey Burton, sheds little light on the Sibelius but a great deal on the Stravinsky, bits of which Bernstein – an excellent pianist – illustrates at the keyboard.  Although certainly not a recording for everyone, this Bernstein DVD has revelatory elements that fans of the conductor-composer will greatly enjoy discovering.

      The Britten DVD comes with revelations, too. It is scarcely a surprise that Britten and his longtime companion, Peter Pears, do a wonderful job together with the Nocturne Op. 60 for tenor, seven obbligato instruments and strings, in a December 1964 performance filled with style and sensitivity.  But it is somewhat unexpected to hear just how well Britten puts across one of his favorite symphonies, Mozart’s No. 40, in the same concert: the reading has sweep, intensity and a strong sense of involvement throughout, if perhaps somewhat more emotionalism than the music calls for – and more than most later conductors put into it.  Britten often conducted the English Chamber Orchestra, and the ensemble’s responsiveness to him is a big part of the enjoyment here, although certainly Britten is not an exciting conductor in the way that Bernstein is.  It is the Nocturne performance, which can reasonably be deemed definitive, that most Britten fans will cherish here.  The bonus material on the DVD is harder to enjoy: excerpts from Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (a work that should never be excerpted), filmed in color in June 1970, when Britten was gravely ill and by no means as firmly in control of the orchestra as he had been six years earlier.  This material is more of a curiosity than a genuinely valuable musical experience.

      A curiosity in its own way, Thomas Zintl’s 52-minute film about the musicians of East Germany (the “German Democratic Republic” or GDR) is one of many looks at the relationship between art and dictatorship – the Soviet Union is the usual nation studied in this regard – and provides an interesting reminder of how many excellent musicians were fostered by East Germany in its bid to prove the superiority of its political system.  Kurt Masur, Helmut Schmidt, Peter Schreier and other artists are featured in this exploration, which unfortunately contains relatively little music and relatively much discussion – a state of affairs that is probably inevitable, given the subject matter, but that ends by relegating the film to a matter of only historical interest.  There were no towering East German composers, certainly no one like Shostakovich or Prokofiev in the Soviet Union, and so Zintl’s focus is on artistic expression more than artistic creation – which is fine to a point, but which makes it impossible to study any genuinely interesting cases of artists who made their peace with a brutally repressive system (as, for example, Kabalevsky did under the Soviet regime).  Zintl offers an interesting exploration of the ways in which the GDR co-opted artistic endeavor for political purposes and managed nevertheless to produce and nurture some outstanding musicians; but there is really not very much unusual or surprising in this subject matter or the way Zintl presents it.  The short film will be of more interest to students of modern European history than to music lovers.

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