July 17, 2008


Beethoven: String Quartets--No. 4, op. 18, no. 4; No. 7, op. 59, no. 1, “Rasumovsky”; No. 14, op. 131. Juilliard String Quartet. EuroArts DVD. $24.99.

Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4. Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein. EuroArts DVD. $24.99.

Fazil Say: Alla Turca. A film by Gösta Courkamp. Arthaus Musik DVD. $24.99.

Jiří Kylián’s “Car Men.” A film by Boris Pavel Conen and Jiří Kylián. Arthaus DVD. $29.99.

      Although we live in a video-saturated age, it is not always easy to understand the rationalization for video releases of classical-music performances. Certainly there is a visual aspect to concert attendance that is missing when one listens to an audio recording; and certainly the release on video of works that have inherent visual elements, such as operas, makes eminent good sense. But when it comes to concerts of chamber or orchestral music, the rationale for video releases is by no means clear. An audience’s interaction with performers can affect the quality of a concert, but that applies only to people seeing it live. Spectators can enjoy watching the players, but they can choose whom to watch at which time, while a video forces viewers to see things from whatever point of view the director chooses from moment to moment. The sound quality of videos tends to be quite fine, but it is no better than the quality of an audio recording. So classical-music videos, such as the new ones of the Juilliard Quartet and the Boston Symphony under Leonard Bernstein, are at most niche products – even more so when the recordings were made before digital sound and audio existed.

      Thus, the wonderful 1975 Beethoven playing by the Juilliard Quartet (Robert Mann and Earl Carlyss, violins; Samuel Rhodes, viola; Joel Krosnick, cello) gains little from being displayed on video. What shows up clearly is this quartet’s ability to bring its characteristic warmth and excellence of ensemble to one early, one middle and one late Beethoven quartet; but this is no clearer on the video than it would be on an audio release. The performances themselves are quite impressive, perhaps a touch less intense than quartets tend to make them 30-plus years later, and the cooperation among the players is nothing short of exceptional – which was the norm for the Juilliard Quartet in the mid-1970s. Leonard Bernstein’s Brahms is an even earlier release, dating to 1972. This is a live recording made at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony and the venue where Bernstein began his career in 1940. There is more passion and warmth in these interpretations than precision and classical poise, with the result that the Second is somewhat more successful than the Fourth. Indeed, Bernstein’s way with Brahms never did please everyone, since he strove more for an emotional connection with the audience than for careful ensemble work and close attention to tempos and dynamics. Bernstein’s Brahms is outsize, as was the conductor’s personality, and in that respect is a welcome change from the more straitlaced readings heard more frequently today, even if Bernstein’s performances sometimes seem to be as much about him as they are about Brahms. Here the video does add something to the equation, showing Bernstein’s own passionate involvement in these musical moments. Still, neither the video nor the Bernstein approach will be universally welcome – although the inclusion of a short film called Bernstein at Tanglewood is a nice bonus.

      In fact, video makes much more sense for presenting films than for showing concerts – so a film focusing on a classical artist, such as Gösta Courkamp’s about pianist Fazil Say, works well in this medium. Say has a fanatical following in his native Turkey and among Turkish expatriates in other nations, and a growing reputation on the international concert circuit. His style is worth watching – he throws himself into the music, swaying not only from side to side but also from front to back and almost in circles, while staying seated on the piano bench. Say is also a crossover artist: the film not only shows him performing Bach and Beethoven, but also includes material from a concert with Turkish pop star Sertab Erener. And there are several of Say’s own compositions here, in whole or in part: Black Earth, Nazim, Paganini Variations, and the Silk Road concerto. An interview with Say is included as well. The eclectic nature of the film and bonus material limits the audience for this DVD: it is for existing fans of Say, or people who want to know what all the fuss is about this onetime child prodigy. The focus is much less on the music than on the man – perhaps a sensible approach for a biographical feature, although in this case Say is young enough (he was born in 1970) so that much of his biography, it seems reasonable to assume, is yet to be written.

      The film called Jiří Kylián’s “Car Men” is limited in another way: to those interested in a drastic reinterpretation, in dance form, of Bizet’s Carmen. Kylián uses four dancers and music arranged from Bizet by Hans Otten – who also composed new material – to create a story focusing on Carmen (Sabine Kupferberg), Don José (Karel Hruška), Escamillo (David Krügel) and Micaëla (Gioconda Barbuto). The whole thing takes place at a (real) coal mine in the Czech Republic, and ends with a race in cars made from abandoned scrap. To say that this is not Bizet’s Carmen is a tremendous understatement; but those who know and like Kylián’s work, or are interested in some of the extremes of modern dance, will find the 2006 film exhilarating. And the DVD contains two bonuses of earlier Kylián ballets. La Cathédrale engloutie, first performed in 1975, uses Debussy’s music for choreography intended to focus on humans’ internal conflicts caused by the impetus to break self-imposed laws. And Silent Cries, which dates to 1986 and also uses music by Debussy, also tries to get at human beings’ inner conflicts, this time with a solo performance by Kupferberg, who seems to be trapped behind dirty glass and is not always fully visible. Kylián certainly has a vision of his own, and this DVD certainly gives him multiple chances to express it; but it remains unlikely that Kylián’s starkness and unusual visual sense will, through video, reach much beyond a core group of admirers of his works or similar ones.

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