March 17, 2011


A Different Way: Tango with Rodolfo Mederos—A Film by Gabriel Szollosy. EuroArts DVD. $24.99.

Steve Reich: Phase to Face—A Film by Eric Darmon & Franck Mallet. EuroArts DVD. $24.99.

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1, 2 and 3. Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Christian Thielemann. Unitel Classica. $39.99 (3 DVDs).

Debussy: La Mer; Ibéria; Ravel: Ma Mère l’Oye—Suite. Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Munch. ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.

     The interface of music with visuals is a complex one: the combination appeals in different ways to different people – or does not appeal at all. Certainly there are visual elements to concerts that make the live experience of music different from that of hearing the same works at home or in other venues, such as while driving; but a recording of a concert never duplicates the concertgoing experience itself, since it interposes a director – who literally “calls the shots” from the available cameras – between viewer/listener and performers. On the other hand, artfully directed films about music, which can be constructed as directors wish them to be, are more in the nature of personality focuses than musical profiles, and are therefore of limited interest, appealing only to people with a particular fascination regarding the profiled individual. Thus, A Different Way is a well-made film focusing on the tango experiments of Rodolfo Mederos (born 1940), who has tried to move the dance form beyond the approach of fellow bandoneonist Astor Piazzolla. The bandoneon itself is not to all tastes, and Mederos’ concerns about interpretation of the tango – which led him in 1976 to put together a cult group called Generación Cero, which tried to mix jazz and rock with the music of Buenos Aires – are of limited interest, no matter how much passion they may generate among those with a deep concern about Argentine music. Gabriel Szollosy’s film is well constructed but is strictly for Mederos devotees. The DVD actually contains two tango-related Szollosy films: in addition to A Different Way (2008), it offers Domingueando (2002), a docudrama in which a young European dancer learns of the real world of the tango when he visits a tango club for the elderly in Uruguay. This too is a well-made film of distinctly limited, or targeted, appeal.

     Steve Reich: Phase to Face is for an equally narrow audience. It is intended for fans of the New York City composer (born 1936) and his technique of “phasing” (creating short, repeated patterns that move into and out of phase with each other, often through the use of tape loops). Reich himself has numerous musical influences, from jazz and classical Western music to Balinese gamelan, and has in his turn influenced numerous other composers. But his music is scarcely of universal appeal, and even audiences interested in his works – a number of which are excerpted on this DVD – will not necessarily want to follow Reich’s travels from Normandy to Rome for the world première of a piece called 2 X 5, written in 2008 and first heard a year later. The work is typical of Reich in many ways, being scored for five musicians and prerecorded tape – or two identical quintets on rock instruments. Reich calls it a “rock and roll piece,” and it is played using two drum sets, two pianos, four electric guitars and two bass guitars. Fans of the composer and his very personal approach to music will enjoy not only the documentary on this DVD but also the two bonuses, one an interview with Reich (taped in Tokyo) and another in which the composer provides his view of the history of music. Clearly not intended for a mass audience, the DVD is a specialty item for those with a strong interest in Reich, his music and his thoughts.

     In contrast to the other DVDs mentioned here, the three-DVD set of Beethoven’s first three symphonies, with Christian Thielemann conducting the superb Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, offers music that reaches out to everyone. And it includes not only the symphonies but also three documentaries discussing and analyzing them – which collectively run longer than the symphonies themselves. In those, Thielemann discusses Beethoven with well-known German music critic Joachim Kaiser – and the documentaries include fascinating snippets of performances by famed Beethoven conductors from Leonard Bernstein to Karl Böhm to Herbert von Karajan. These in turn make for highly interesting comparisons with Thielemann’s readings, which are well paced, extremely well played (the Vienna Philharmonic is second to none for orchestral quality), and imbued with understanding of Beethoven’s style and his place in musical history. There is no question that the performances are very fine and the discussions of considerable interest. But the basic disconnect between music and visuals remains. Viewer/listeners will here see the performances from the viewpoints chosen by a director, not those they might pick themselves if they attended the performances live; and while the documentaries certainly contain material of some interest, they are also filled with rather pedantic elements that are as likely to get in the way of visceral enjoyment of the music as they are to enhance it. Furthermore, even people who thoroughly enjoy the documentary segments will need to decide whether they are likely to want to view them more than once. If not, it may be hard to justify buying these performances in this format. Beethoven’s music has universal appeal, but it is hard to argue that his works – or any others – communicate more effectively with people at home when presented as videos than when offered simply as audio recordings.

     There is, however, sometimes a historical component to a DVD release that might, just might, make it of special interest – albeit only to a selected group of music lovers. The new Charles Munch DVD of works by Debussy and Ravel is an example. Munch (1891-1968) was famous for his handling of the French repertoire, and the three works on this DVD were all composed during his lifetime. They are all pieces with which he was closely identified. The recordings are far from modern: La Mer dates to October 1958, Ibéria to October 1961, and Ma Mère l’Oye to February 1958. And the visual style is primitive by modern directorial standards. Furthermore, the entire DVD lasts only 68 minutes and contains no bonus material, making it pricey. But fans of Munch, and listeners who may not know his work but may have heard of his particular excellence in this repertoire, may be tempted to buy this release. It does give a good, if limited, portrait of Munch’s style as a conductor, and even though the sound is not on par with that of newer recordings, the DVD shows the sweep, beauty and sure handling of texture that made Munch such a noteworthy exponent of these works. The DVD is decidedly a specialty item, but for those with an interest in this particular conductor, it may be a worthwhile purchase even though it does not scintillate either visually or sonically.

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