February 24, 2011


Wagner: The Ring without Words—A Symphonic Synthesis. Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Lorin Maazel. EuroArts DVD. $24.99.

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 4, 5 and 6. Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Christian Thielemann. Unitel Classica. $39.99 (3 DVDs or Blu-ray Disc).

Sophia: Biography of a Violin Concerto—A Jan Schmidt-Garre Film. Arthaus Musik DVD. $24.99.

     Videos of classical-music performances always pose something of a dilemma to creators and prospective purchasers alike. Creators have to figure out just what video elements it makes sense to add: ones to try to duplicate a concertgoing experience, ones to enhance at-home viewing, ones that “jazz up” the visuals, ones that are consonant with the tone of the music, ones that make a concert look like a TV show, or what? Purchasers have to decide whether it makes sense to have music on DVD (or, more recently, Blu-ray Disc), at a higher price, rather than have the same material on CD: will they actually watch the video version, and if so, will they watch it often enough to make the extra cost worthwhile? The pluses and minuses of video productions are clear each time new ones are released. Wagner: The Ring without Words is a video version of Lorin Maazel’s 83-minute distillation of Wagner’s nearly 20-hour-long operatic tetralogy, an attempt to bring the Ring cycle’s gorgeous music to a wider audience than would typically have time, money or inclination to see it in the opera house – assuming interested people could even find an opera company that was doing all four operas in reasonably close proximity. Maazel’s work is a noble attempt that does not quite work, through no fault of his: the Ring is deliberately conceived on a huge scale, its leitmotif structure so complex that the interwoven themes of one opera pervade not only that work but also the other three. The Ring without Words lessens the cycle musically to the exact same extent that it opens it up to concert-hall audiences. Yet the music itself is so glorious, so dramatic, that Maazel’s construct is very definitely worth hearing, and will be of interest even to listeners familiar with the operas. But hearing it while seeing it on DVD? Well, despite the excellent playing of the Berlin Philharmonic, it is hard to argue that the video element adds much, if anything, to the experience. This is a performance from October 2000, and it certainly shows Maazel’s intense involvement in the music, giving viewers many looks at a top-notch conductor as he performs a work in which he is heavily invested emotionally. But operagoers will miss the tremendous visual structure that Wagner created for the Ring cycle (even if those visuals have been interpreted decidedly oddly in many recent productions), and listeners unfamiliar with the operas will be seeing just another concert here – nothing wrong with it, but nothing particularly special, either.

     The same is true of the Beethoven performances, on DVD or Blu-ray, with Christian Thielemann and the always outstanding Vienna Philharmonic – but these releases have more visual punch to them, not because of the symphonies themselves but because of their accompaniments. Thielemann’s readings are well paced, full of understanding of Beethoven’s structural innovations and emotional underpinnings, and played with the Vienna Philharmonic’s ever-present silky strings and gorgeous complementary wind, brass and percussion sections. The readings are not especially innovative or revelatory, but they are exceptionally well done in a fairly straightforward way, and the orchestral playing alone is a huge attraction. However, in terms of buying the videos rather than the same or similar performances on CD, the Thielemann offering provides something worthwhile: three hour-long “Discovering Beethoven” films, one per symphony, featuring Thielemann in conversation with the very well-known German music critic, Joachim Kaiser. The films go beyond talk, too, including excerpts from performances by other conductors (Bernstein, Böhm, Karajan, et al.), so viewers-cum-listeners have a chance to compare specific points of interpretation while also learning about Beethoven in his historical as well as musical context. Each of these supplementary documentaries lasts longer than the symphony that it discusses, and some of the points are on the abstruse side – or at least beyond what is necessary for enjoyment of the music. Listeners already familiar with this music may learn some fascinating tidbits about the works and their composer, but whether they will learn enough to make the purchase of these video versions worthwhile is difficult to say – especially since, while most people will want to hear the symphonies again and again, few are likely to want to replay the documentaries time after time. There is very definitely added value to this DVD set or Blu-ray Disc offering, but that fact does not make the Thielemann Beethoven any sort of must-have in video form.

     Sophia: Biography of a Violin Concerto is a different sort of video. It is nothing but a film, and a very well-made one, about Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina’s Violin Concerto No. 2 being performed for the first time, in 2007, by Anne-Sophie Mutter, with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. This is a film about music – about one specific piece of music, that is – and also about the contrasting but complementary personalities of the composer and violinist, and about the way their different creative talents came together for the debut of an important work (Gubaidulina’s previous violin concerto was first performed 27 years earlier, in 1980). Clearly, this video is only for people interested in Gubaidulina’s music, a fact that limits its scope; equally clearly, it is aimed at people within that group who are especially curious about the 15-year gestation period of this concerto, which was commissioned in 1992 by conductor and arts patron Paul Sacher. The concerto, subtitled “In tempus praesens” (the first is called “Offertorium”), is a substantial work that showcases both Gubaidulina’s complex style and Mutter’s very considerable artistry. Jan Schmidt-Garre skillfully provides background on composer and soloist alike, interweaving their stories and showing in what way the première of the concerto was a milestone for each. But it is fair to ask why even Gubaidulina’s greatest admirers would want this video instead of Mutter’s performance of the concerto on CD. The 56-minute film does provide context, biographical information and often-fascinating behind-the-scenes looks at the whole process of collaborative creativity in music. It is worth seeing as a film. But those interested primarily in what Gubaidulina has to say musically will be just as happy with Mutter’s CD of the concerto on Deutsche Grammophon as with this video – which, however, Gubaidulina’s biggest fans may want as a supplement to the CD rather than a substitute for it.

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