December 06, 2012


Schubert: Winterreise; Die schöne Müllerin. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Alfred Brendel and András Schiff, piano. Arthaus Musik. $29.99 (2 DVDs).

Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme; Pezzo capriccioso; Romeo and Juliet—Fantasy Overture; Britten: Gloriana (extracts). Mstislav Rostropovich, cello; Peter Pears, tenor; Aldeburgh Festival Singers and English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten. ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.

Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Mendelssohn: Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Georg Solti. ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.

Toscanini Unreleased. Concerto DVD. $19.99.

      Two of the most interesting classical-music videos to come along in quite a while have shown up just in time for the Christmas season – gift-givers be aware! The two-video set of late-in-life performances of Schubert’s Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin by one of their preeminent interpreters, the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, is a genuinely interesting musical and visual document.  It contains both the cycles plus a generous 73 minutes of bonus material, most of it in the form of a nearly hour-long documentary showing how Fischer-Dieskau thought through and rehearsed Winterreise with Alfred Brendel as accompanist.  Neither Brendel nor András Schiff, Fischer-Dieskau’s partner in Die schöne Müllerin, has ever been particularly known in the accompanist’s role, both being very high-level virtuosos unlikely to subsume their personalities within the more-modest role of a singer’s backup. But both take well to the experience in these performances, collaborating with Fischer-Dieskau to bring out the flow and emotion of Schubert’s music while being careful not to overwhelm him or turn the spotlight more onto themselves.  If neither Brendel nor Schiff has the easy familiarity and high comfort level with Fischer-Dieskau possessed by Gerald Moore and Jörg Demus, that is likely because neither Brendel nor Schiff has a particular calling to take on the role he assumes here.  It may also be because Fischer-Dieskau’s voice was showing its age in these performances, especially in Die schöne Müllerin, recorded live in 1991, when the singer was 66. The understanding of the music is superb, the delving into its emotional heart excellent throughout, but this cycle is, after all, that of a young man desperately in love and desperately overreacting to its loss, and Fischer-Dieskau has a touch too much worldly wisdom and experience to sound wholly convincing – although his musicianship is at the highest level throughout.  This version of Winterreise, an even bleaker cycle, was recorded in 1979, and in this case the autumnal tone of Fischer-Dieskau’s voice fits the wintry story very well indeed, producing a set of variations on a theme of despair that extracts considerable emotional intensity without ever wallowing in depression.  Fischer-Dieskau was an outstanding interpreter of these cycles, one of the best of all (and some would say the best).  These particular interpretations may not be quite the finest he ever recorded, but they are superb in many ways and on many levels, and the collaborations with Brendel and Schiff – plus the rehearsal video and a Fischer-Dieskau interview recorded in 1985 – make this two-DVD set a wonderful one in wintertime or anytime.

      The same is true of the ICA Classics release featuring Mstislav Rostropovich, Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, but for different reasons.  Rostropovich was at the height of his interpretative powers in 1968, when the Tchaikovsky pieces on this video were recorded, and Britten had become a highly accomplished conductor if not exactly a formidable one, as his version of Romeo and Juliet makes clear.  Rostropovich’s way with the Variations on a Rococo Theme, to which he gives rich tone and a high level of expressiveness, is altogether winning, and if his style is almost too big for the rather slight Pezzo capriccioso, it is nevertheless highly impressive to hear and watch his full command of the cello’s nuances.  Britten’s emotional but not overdone handling of Romeo and Juliet is a fitting capstone to the Tchaikovsky part of the program.  And the Pears-Britten excerpts (here called “extracts”) from Gloriana, recorded in 1970, make a wonderful bonus, showing the skill of Britten’s vocal writing for both soloist and chorus – and the intimate interrelationship between Pears’ talents and Britten’s own.  Here as in the Fisher-Dieskau Schubert performances, there is considerable pleasure in watching the way the soloists approach the music, immerse themselves in it and take from it the full measure of expressiveness that it contains.  These DVD releases are ones in which the visuals really do add an additional dimension to the auditory one.

      This is less true of two new conductor-focused DVDs, however. Both the Solti release on ICA Classics and the Toscanini one on Concerto earn a respectable (+++) rating, but neither is likely to make listener/viewers sit up and take notice. The Solti DVD is a recording from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first performance outside North America, at the Edinburgh Festival in 1971. The tour – in which Solti shared conducting duties with Carlo Maria Giulini – was a turning point for the orchestra, its first time outside the United States in its 80-year history and the beginning of a revival of its flagging fortunes that had persisted since the death of Fritz Reiner in 1963.  It was not yet the highly polished, top-tier orchestra it would eventually become, though, and while the Brahms and Mendelssohn performances heard on this DVD are perfectly serviceable, with the Brahms having moments of genuine grandeur, neither reading is one that a 21st- century music lover will consider a must-have. There is a dearth of bonus material here, too – just a five-minute segment from the BBC in which Solti discusses the orchestra.

      Solti’s toughness in rehearsals (along with his bald head) led him initially to be labeled “the screaming skull” by some wags, but he was never considered as dictatorial as was Arturo Toscanini, a conductor whose name is virtually synonymous with “martinet” among many who knew or played under him.  The same musicians often admitted, though – albeit sometimes grudgingly – that the result of his browbeating was some absolutely outstanding music-making.  Toscanini Unreleased, unfortunately, shows only a modicum of that.  It is a modest documentary for Swiss radio and television, including some photos from Toscanini family archives and film shot in a number of European and U.S. locations that held special meaning for Toscanini.  A driven, complex and in some ways deeply flawed man, Toscanini was neither a complete podium monster nor a total podium master – although closer to the latter than the former. Toscanini Unreleased, though, sheds little new light on the conductor’s music-making or personality, being devoted mostly to rehashing details of his biography that have already been quite thoroughly hashed over.  Many of today’s listeners know little of Toscanini at all, which is unfortunate, but not as unfortunate as the fact that his recorded legacy comes primarily from below-standard recordings made in the 1940s and early 1950s – many in the notorious Studio 8H, whose acoustics were famously awful, and many others at live performances where the audiences were far less unobtrusive and refined than are audiences at most live recordings today.  Toscanini was a giant of the earlier part of the 20th century, but in the early part of the 21st, he needs less to be “unreleased” than to be released from the cobwebs of history in which he now seems permanently enmeshed.

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