July 19, 2012


Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Dvořák: Symphony No. 9; Sibelius: Symphony No. 5; Nielsen: Symphony No. 3. Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. C Major DVD. $29.99.

Richard Strauss: Lieder—Befreit, Winterliebe, Traum durch die Dämmerung, Gesang der Apollopriesterin; “Arabella” excerpts—“Mein Elemer!” and final scene from Act I; Eine Alpensinfonie. Renée Fleming, soprano; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Christian Thielemann. Opus Arte DVD. $24.99.

Ola Gjeilo: Piano Improvisations. 2L Blu-Ray+SACD. $34.99.

      These three fine recordings raise anew a perpetual question about classical music in video formats: what is the value of adding the visuals to the music?  There are three rather different answers here.  In the case of the DVD of four mainstream symphonies conducted by Thomas Dausgaard, the only real benefit of video is the so-called “bonus material” – here, several interviews in which Dausgaard discusses the concerts at which he presented these well-known works, his general feelings about collaboration with the very fine Danish National Symphony Orchestra, and his thoughts about the music itself.  Fans of Dausgaard will no doubt appreciate hearing his insights into the music and the performers who bring it to vibrant life; indeed, the DVD as a whole is a fans-of-Dausgaard production, perhaps of more appeal in Europe (where Dausgaard is better known) than in North America.  The performances themselves are very well done, with Dausgaard being especially sensitive to the flow of the Sibelius and of Nielsen’s “Sinfonia Espansiva” – whose last movement requires careful presentation (which it receives here) so as not to be something of an anticlimax.  The Brahms and Dvořák symphonies sound fine, too, but the interpretations are basically solid, middle-of-the-road ones with the requisite amount of excitement and lyricism – not bad at all, but nothing really special.  Indeed, all four performances are something short of revelatory in musical terms, although they do show that the Danish orchestra has become a world-class one that can play idiomatically not only in Scandinavian music but also in works from other cultures.  A listener – that is, a listener-and-viewer – who wants Dausgaard’s readings of these symphonies, with the conductor’s well-spoken commentary, will enjoy this DVD; but none of the performances is of unequalled value, and none really requires visualization to have its full effect.

      The situation is somewhat different with part of the Richard Strauss DVD featuring soprano Renée Fleming: the part showcasing Fleming herself.  Fleming is a superb interpreter of Strauss vocal works – her performances of Four Last Songs are the best to be heard from any singer today – and there is something to be said for seeing as well as hearing the way she brings the music vividly to life, exploring its nuances and making it very much her own.  Of the four songs here, Befreit (Op. 39, No. 4) is the deepest and most moving, although there are beauties and even profundities in all four.  Even better is Fleming’s work in excerpts from Arabella, one of her signature roles, which she handles with strength and intensity – although here the high involvement level of her dramatic performance is somewhat at odds with the elegant concert setting (and clothing) in which it is delivered.  This is a generalized problem with opera in concert, and therefore with concert versions of operas or opera excerpts on DVD: what a viewer sees is at variance with what is being sung.  Nevertheless, Fleming is entrancing enough to watch so that her fans will enjoy her performances here.  The rest of the DVD, though, does not benefit in any particular way from visual elements: Christian Thielemann is a fine Strauss conductor, and the Vienna Philharmonic is a superlative orchestra for Strauss (as it is for just about every composer).  Eine Alpensinfonie is lush and dynamic and is played with sumptuous warmth and as much drama as the score holds – but a viewer who closes his or her eyes will enjoy the performance as much as one who keeps them open.  Perhaps more, since Thielemann and the orchestra beautifully conjure up Strauss’ alpine journey, and the trek is clearer in the mind’s eye without the distraction of seeing the conductor and orchestral musicians at the Salzburg Festival in evening dress.

      Ola Gjeilo’s Piano Improvisations provides an unusual opportunity to decide for oneself whether the visual or nonvisual approach to this music is more effective.  By combining an audio SACD with a Blu-Ray video disc, this release gives listeners interested in Gjeilo’s music (which is something of an acquired taste) two different ways to experience it.  Born and raised in Norway, Gjeilo has studied both classical music and jazz and is often influenced by film music as well.  Of the 18 works recorded for Piano Improvisations, three are for three pianos and one is for two instruments – with Gjeilo improvising all the parts as they are layered atop each other.  Because this is a CD of improvisations, the visual impact of watching Gjeilo is higher than it would be if he were simply performing works that were fully written down, although the aural impact of the Blu-Ray and SACD media is pretty much the same: 2L makes exceptionally high-quality recordings.  Unlike many contemporary composers, Gjeilo has a different sound in different works, and his improvisations reflect that, ranging from the joyous Prelude and Seven Eight (two of the three-piano pieces) to the graceful Susanne to the expansive The Great Plains to the tender Heart to Heart.  The music in that last piece (which concludes the recordings) tends to wear its heart on its sleeve, and indeed, Gjeilo sometimes comes across as rather superficial – a sort of 21st-century salonist.  But he is an expert pianist, eliciting a wide range of sound and color from his instrument, and the three works here that are adaptations of his choral pieces sound just as fine on piano as do the pieces originally composed for it.  In the final analysis, the Blu-Ray disc will be of more interest to those who already know and like Gjeilo’s music and who want to see (not just hear) what the composer himself makes of it as he takes it through its many paces.  For familiarizing oneself with the music on its own terms, the SACD is a better choice, lacking the distraction inherent in watching Gjeilo perform and giving listeners a chance to decide whether this is a composer/performer from whom they want to hear, and perhaps see, more in the future.

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