May 14, 2015


Georg Solti in Rehearsal & Performance—Richard Wagner. EuroArts DVD. $29.99.

Richard Strauss: At the End of the Rainbow—A Documentary by Eric Schulz. C Major DVD. $24.99.

Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim: Piano Duos. EuroArts DVD. $24.99.
Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 21 and 23; Rondo in A, K386. Ingrid Jacoby, piano; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. ICA Classics. $16.99.

     Many concertgoers, including some otherwise knowledgeable ones, continue to believe that the primary work of a conductor occurs in front of the audience, usually involving “waving a stick” and cuing instruments during a performance. In fact, though, like the tip of an iceberg, a conductor’s podium manner at a concert represents only a very small part of what conducting is all about. Just how small a part is clear from DVDs such as the new EuroArts release featuring a 1966 rehearsal of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture with Georg Solti and the Südfunk-Sinfonieorchester. This hour-long DVD is certainly a limited-interest item, but it is a very interesting one indeed for conducting students and listeners curious about what a conductor really does before a performance. Solti was unkindly known as “the screaming skull” for his notoriously quick temper and vociferous demands on orchestra members, but the intensity seen here is far more muted – either because Solti was in a comparatively good mood when the documentary was made, or because director Dieter Ertel chose to excise some of the excesses, or both. In any case, what comes across here is rehearsing led by a highly knowledgeable and meticulous conductor, one who knows the score intimately and has very clear ideas of how it should sound, where the emphases should be, and how orchestral musicians should cooperate in order to fulfill the conductor’s vision and, through him, that of the composer.  Solti is demanding here, yes, but never without reason and never of anything that the members of the orchestra are unable to provide. The result is a genuinely insightful look (if perhaps a slightly whitewashed one) at what made Solti the podium master and master Wagner interpreter that he was, and what led to concert performances as skilled and convincing as that of the Tannhäuser Overture as seen and heard here after its rehearsal time is concluded to Solti’s satisfaction.

     Insight of another sort, also for a distinctly limited audience, is offered by director Eric Schulz in the documentary Richard Strauss: At the End of the Rainbow. The hour-and-a-half production contains all the usual elements of a film about a musician: archival footage, commentary by the composer’s relatives and by musicians who knew and worked with him and those who have studied his works, and pictures of the composer at various ages and with various people who were important in his life. Its most intriguing element is footage of the première of Strauss’ 1934 Olympic Anthem at the notorious 1936 Olympics in Berlin – featuring the Berlin Philharmonic and a thousand-strong choir led by Strauss himself. Strauss’ relationship with the Nazis is a continuing source of debate, and the use of his music for Hitler’s Olympics distresses many people, but of course it was not he who commanded that the performance be staged; and his participation was part of his years-long cooperation with the Nazis for the sake of relatives of his who were Jewish and whom he managed to save from death because the Nazis considered him a valuable cultural face to show the world (although Goebbels called Strauss a “decadent neurotic” and looked forward to getting rid of him as soon as possible). The Olympics scene is the one on this C Major DVD that is most likely to stir strong emotions among those who still debate Strauss’ ties with the Nazis, but it is not, from a strictly musical perspective, particularly noteworthy. Indeed, music itself is rather oddly in the background in Schulz’ film, whose title comes from the idea that Strauss was the last great Romantic composer and therefore “at the end of the rainbow.” The proposition is arguable at best – Rachmaninoff, for example, could qualify just as well – but it does give a centering point to the documentary and a foundation upon which Schulz can erect an otherwise fairly straightforward account of Strauss’ life and works. Little that is said about Strauss here, and little about him that is presented by actors dramatizing specific scenes, is especially new or noteworthy, although the film is certainly well-paced and does include a variety of viewpoints. However, for Strauss as for other composers, there is ultimately more communicated by the music a person composed than by words describing the music and its creator.

     Thus, the two-piano recital by Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim on a EuroArts DVD connects with listeners in a more-direct way than the more-intellectual DVDs about Solti and Strauss. This is a live April 2014 recording from Philharmonie Berlin, its featured work being the piano-duet version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The two-piano version of the ballet has some genuinely interesting moments as it reveals the inner skeleton upon which Stravinsky’s fascinating orchestration is hung, and Argerich and Barenboim do a first-rate job with the complex and frequently changing rhythms and the wide dynamic range called for in the piece. Nevertheless, even when performed this well, this piano reduction is also a reduction in the communicative power of The Rite of Spring, whose effects stem not only from its glaring harmonies and distinctive rhythms but also from its masterful orchestration. There is an inevitable paleness to a piano version of this work, for which all the video’s focus on the performers’ obvious involvement in the music does not really compensate. Indeed, the performer focus, here as in other DVDs of classical recitals, to some extent undermines the effectiveness of the other works heard here. They are Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D, K448 (375a) and Schubert’s Variations on an Original Theme, D813. Argerich and Barenboim seem thoroughly comfortable playing together, and their parts blend very well, with neither attempting to assert himself or herself to the detriment of the other. The Mozart, in particular, showcases the pianists’ lovely balance and fine sense of style, even if the two modern concert grands are a bit too heavy-toned and overwrought for music whose underlying delicacy is to be cherished. But the music is even more effective and involving if a listener closes his or her eyes and listens to the interwoven piano lines – showing, yet again, that watching a DVD of this sort of performance is not necessarily the best way to experience the music, since the visuals easily become a distraction when one’s eyes are required to focus on whatever is shown on screen (a different experience from attending a live performance, when one can focus where one wishes).

     To understand why even a fine performance like that of Argerich and Barenboim is a (+++) experience on DVD, it is only necessary to listen to a (++++) piano CD, such as Ingrid Jacoby’s new recording of Mozart concertos for ICA Classics. The purity of tone and excellence of interpretation from Jacoby and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner come through here with clarity undistracted by visuals and all the more engaging as a result. Jacoby has an especially wonderful way with Piano Concerto No. 21, producing an interpretation whose first movement is longer than the second and third put together and is capped by an unusually attractive cadenza by Jacoby and Benjamin Kaplin. The gorgeous, flowing lyricism of this movement seems so effortlessly composed and interpreted here that it is almost impossible not to lose oneself in a gentle flow that seems to go on and on, yet ends too soon. This is a truly lovely rendition of the movement, and the remainder of the concerto is scarcely less involving, with beautiful forward motion in the Andante and a finale (using Dinu Lipatti’s cadenza) that simply bubbles. Concerto No. 23, in which Jacoby uses Mozart’s own first-movement cadenza, is not quite as impressive, but it is still played with understanding, emotional involvement, and excellent balance between soloist and orchestra. It is only because the interpretation seems a tad more reserved at times, almost stand-offish or intellectualized, that No. 23 falls a touch short of No. 21. The Rondo in A, K386, makes a fine complement to No. 23, which is in the same key. The rondo’s lyrical expansiveness comes through in a thoroughly accomplished manner here, and Jacoby’s own cadenza fits the music very well. There is no video component to this release, and none is necessary – or desirable. Mozart’s music, when this well performed, calls up listeners’ emotions and their own internal images far more effectively than any mere camera ever can.

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