July 31, 2008


Classical Archive: Alexis Weissenberg; Sviatoslav Richter; Tatiana Nikolayeva. Medici Arts DVDs. $19.99 each.

Stockhausen: Helicopter String Quartet. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

      What might the Ampico and Welte-Mignon piano rolls have been transformed into 100-plus years later? Those were the famous rolls used in player pianos and giving us glimpses of the artistry of composer/performers of the very early 20th century. The inherent fascination of hearing legendary pianists and composers performing has long made the rolls – or rather the recordings of them, from vinyl to CDs – a particularly attractive niche product for serious classical-music lovers.

      Now it seems that there has been a transformation, of sorts, of the Ampico and Welte-Mignon approach. It comes in the form of Medici Arts DVDs that show significant performances by famous artists of the mid-20th century, capturing them in ways that audio recordings alone do not. These DVDs too are destined to be niche products, but for listeners with an abiding interest in classical music and the musicians of the past 50 years, they will be highly attractive.

      The Alexis Weissenberg DVD, which runs a generous 150 minutes, is in some ways the most fascinating. It includes a 1965 film of the pianist performing Stravinsky’s Petrushka Suite, in which Weissenberg – for video reasons – performed on a specially built silent piano, listening to his actual performance while “playing” the silent instrument’s keys. Bonus material explains why this was done and how the film was made – and the Stravinsky performance itself is extraordinary, no matter how it was captured. There is a wealth of additional music here as well: Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 3, Scriabin’s Nocturne for the Left Hand, a Rachmaninoff Prelude, some short works by Chopin and Bach, and a full-length performance of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto that was broadcast in 1969 (featuring Orchestre National de l'ORTF, conducted by Georges Prêtre). This DVD is not just for Weissenberg fans – it is a fascinating study of classical music as video.

      The Sviatoslav Richter DVD is harder to watch but almost as interesting, in its own strange way. Richter hated being filmed and agreed to this 1989 recording only after insisting that no camera could be in his line of vision. He also demanded that lighting be restricted to a single 40-watt bulb focused on the music, not on him. The result is an almost surrealistic viewing experience, with Richter playing three Mozart sonatas and 13 Chopin Études. There is very little of Richter visible – indeed, very little of anything – so this DVD is mostly a curiosity. It is also short, at 90 minutes, and that is with the inclusion of bonus performances of Chopin and Rachmaninoff from 1969 (Richter’s earlier versions of the Études, Op. 10, Nos. 4 and 12, is stronger).

      The name of Tatiana Nikolayeva is less known than those of Weissenberg and Richter, but the importance of her lengthy (164-minute) DVD cannot be overstated. She performs Shostakovich’s complete 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 – a cycle that she inspired and, in 1952, premiered. This DVD captures her playing 40 years later, in 1992; indeed, this cycle was the last work Nikolayeva played on stage before her death in 1993. Her thoroughly assured manner, her intimate familiarity with the music, her superb technique and fine sense of style, make this performance memorable on a strictly musical basis, not just as a historical document. But it has importance as history, too – and a short bonus documentary offers Nikolayeva performing some additional Shostakovich.

      The DVD of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet has historical importance almost in spite of itself. Seventy-seven minutes of the 113-minute CD are taken up with a film by Frank Scheffer, documenting a month of preparations for the work’s debut at the 1995 Holland Festival. The quartet, one of Stockhausen’s typically grandiose concepts, was written for the Arditti Quartet, and gets its name because each of the quartet’s members played while flying in a different helicopter – their sound being sent to a central location and mixed there. Stockhausen tells Scheffer about the genesis of the work (the composer dreamed of musicians being able to fly), explains how the score is intended to imitate birds flying in different formations, and discusses ways in which the music is designed to mingle with the sound of the helicopters. The quartet’s members – violinists Irvine Arditti and Greame Jennings, violist Garth Knox and cellist Rohan de Saram – certainly give the work their all and seem (in the performance seen after Scheffer’s film) to be thoroughly involved in what they are doing. Whether this is performance, or art, or “performance art,” is a matter of (probably endless) debate. Certainly this work and this DVD will be of no interest to anyone with notions of conventional musical boundaries. Fans of Stockhausen and of the outré in general, though, are likely to find it endlessly fascinating.

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