August 30, 2012


Beethoven: String Quartet No. 16 (version for string orchestra); Haydn: Missa in Tempore Belli. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Beethoven) and Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (Haydn) conducted by Leonard Bernstein. C Major DVD. $24.99.

Nobuyuki Tsujii Live at Carnegie Hall. EuroArts DVD. $24.99.

How to Get Out of the Cage: A Year with John Cage. A film by Frank Scheffer. EuroArts DVD. $24.99.

Music in the Air: A History of Classical Music on Television. A film by Reiner E. Moritz. Arthaus Musik DVD. $24.99.

      The value of classical-music DVDs, as opposed to CDs or SACDs, varies quite a bit, and depends on such factors as whether the focus is on the music or the performers – and whether the DVDs show performances or are films about classical music or musicians.  As a general rule, video versions of performances are nothing special: the sound is no better than on CDs or SACDs, and in fact is often worse; and while there is certainly a visual element to attending a concert, it is very different from the visual element of watching a DVD, where the viewer’s eyes are forced to go wherever the director wishes – a frequently frustrating experience, since the director and not the viewer decides when to watch the conductor, when to look at the full orchestra, and when to pay attention to individual sections or solo players.  This is why two new DVDs featuring Leonard Bernstein and pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii are less than fully satisfying.  Nevertheless, these visual records will be of considerable interest to some people, if scarcely all – because of the artists, not the repertoire.  Bernstein was one of the most involved and dramatic of all conductors (too much so, according to some of his critics): again and again, he throws himself unreservedly into the music, frequently making moves so athletic that one wonders if he will fall off the podium.  It is common for him to be sweating profusely well before a piece concludes, and to look exhausted when it is over: he was quite the showman, and watching him on video is an intriguing experience.  Nevertheless, Bernstein was usually not as his best in more-reserved music such as that of Haydn (although, surprisingly, he did turn in some superb performances of Haydn symphonies – just not consistently).  It is intriguing to watch Bernstein conduct Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War” (this recording dates to 1984), and the work is certainly well-played and beautifully sung: the soloists, all quite fine, are soprano Judith Blegen, contralto Brigitte Fassbaender, tenor Claes H. Ahnsjรถ and bass Hans Sotin.  The performance is large-scale, emotive and not particularly idiomatic, but it is certainly heartfelt.  And the string-orchestra version of Beethoven’s final quartet (op. 135) is fascinating: recorded in 1989, less than a year before Bernstein’s death, the performance features the wonderfully lush strings of the Vienna Philharmonic and an interpretation that showcases both the music’s emotionalism and its still-surprising modernity.  This DVD has much to recommend it, even though it remains a specialty item.

      As for the Carnegie Hall recital by Nobuyuki Tsujii: the recording of the Japanese pianist’s performance of November 10, 2011 is notable for giving audiences a chance to hear the co-winner of the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition – and to discover how little his physical handicap (he has been blind from birth) means in the context of his musicianship.  Tsujii’s recital is a highly varied one, including Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata, some Liszt (the Rigoletto paraphrase is particularly impressive), Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a Chopin Prelude, plus a work by John Musto, Tsujii’s own arrangement of Stephen Foster’s “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” and a piece entirely by the young pianist himself: Elegy for the Victims of the Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011.  The Liszt and Mussorgsky come off better than the Beethoven, and Tsujii’s Elegy is heartfelt music but is scarcely very original – but the focus here, as in the Bernstein DVD, is more on the performer than on the works.  Everything is beautifully played, if not always with tremendous subtlety (that is likely to come in time, as it has for other young piano virtuosi); and for those seeking an uplifting affirmation of the ability of someone with an apparent handicap to rise to Olympian heights through talent and determination, this DVD will certainly fill the bill.  Again, it is a specialty item, but it is also a special one.

      The relevance of DVD release is different in the case of How to Get Out of the Cage and Music in the Air: these are films and, as such, are inherently visual – they make sense only when presented in a visual medium.  The questions about them revolve around their subject matter.  John Cage (1912-1992) was an influential composer and music theorist – but also considered something of an “anti-composer” by many, and with considerable justification, since his notion of expanding the world of sound involved “preparing” pianos so they would not sound like pianos and, most famously, creating a piece called 4’33” in which the performer does nothing but listen to the audience.  A mixture of bad-boy Dadaism with serious musical thought, Cage’s work is unlikely ever to be mainstream, but his way of thinking, especially his use of aleatoric techniques, has been highly influential in academic circles and among other composers.  Frank Scheffer’s 16-millimeter, 56-minute film is a mixture of narrative, interview material, locations related to Cage’s life and work, and musical performances – a treat for Cage fans (or fanatics) but of limited interest to anyone else.  Of more-general interest may be the five experimental films included as bonus material, totaling a generous 92 minutes.  In these, Scheffer either creates a film based on Cage’s ideas (as in Wagner’s Ring, from 1987) or creates one on his own, using Cage’s music and chance techniques as formative influences (as in Ryoanji, from 2011).  Like Cage’s music and theorizing, Scheffer’s experimental Cage-focused films will be immediate turnoffs to some, fascinating exercises to others, vapid self-indulgences to still others.  Those wanting to get a sense of Cage and his influence, for better or worse, will certainly find the DVD highly intriguing.

      The audience for Music in the Air is harder to pin down.  A well-made 85-minute film created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Austria-based International Music + Media Centre, the movie certainly works in its intended capacity.  But it is rather odd as both a musical and an entertainment work.  It features a cast of important musical figures – composers Igor Stravinsky and Francis Poulenc, composer/conductors Pierre Boulez and Leonard Bernstein, conductors Herbert von Karajan and Arturo Toscanini, the Three Tenors, and many more artists – but they are all seen in mere snippets, not extensively enough to involve viewers in the music or give a real sense of their individual contributions to the field.  Certainly some of the historic footage is fascinating – including the first TV images ever on a regular broadcasting service (BBC, 1936).  But these images are scarcely enough to sustain the narrative for almost an hour and a half.  Reiner E. Moritz has made a film for people interested in how music has been produced for television for more than half a century – and it is more a film about television than one about music.  As a documentary about how TV has changed, with its coverage of music as an example of (in particular) its enormous technical advancements in the past half-century, Music in the Air is quite interesting.  But it is interesting primarily to people who work in television or are fascinated by the medium, its potentials and its long-term development.  In a curious way, despite the film’s title and the long list of prominent musical figures who appear in it, Music in the Air is about music only in the most incidental way.

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