December 08, 2016


In Search of Great Composers: Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Chopin—Four Films by Phil Grabsky. Seventh Art. $48.99 (4 DVDs).

Cello Stories: The Cello in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Bruno Cocset, cello; Les Basses Réunies; text by Marc Vanscheeuwijck. Alpha. $27.99 (5 CDs).

Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 3, 4 and 5; Adagio in E, K. 261. Henning Kraggerud, violin; Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. Naxos DVD. $24.99.

     Context matters. Special-purpose releases that might generally be of only limited or targeted interest at most times of the year can in some cases gain in value and suitability when considered as gifts. Here are three fine recent releases that, from a strictly musical perspective, reach out in only a specialized way. But if you are looking for a meaningful seasonal gift for someone whom you know to have an interest in the material presented here, then each of these items can be a perfect match and can bring joy that extends well beyond the holiday season.

     In Search of Great Composers is a compilation of four films in which Phil Grabsky seeks out the venues in which major composers lived and puts together an assemblage of pictures and words – many taken from the composers’ own letters – to create a portrait of each of them: Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Chopin. Strictly as music, the films are somewhat lacking: the performances are uniformly fine and sometimes a great deal better than that, but they are also uniformly brief – inevitable in films that seek to encapsulate entire lifetimes and entire sets of musical production in about two hours (the Haydn film runs 102 minutes, Chopin 115, Mozart 128, Beethoven 139). Anyone who already knows the music will be at least a touch disappointed that comparatively little of it is heard in any of these movies – but on the other hand, anyone who does not know the music will get enough of a taste of it to be able to decide for himself or herself whether it is worth seeking complete performances elsewhere. In a somewhat similar vein, anyone already familiar with these composers’ lives will find little or nothing that is new here: Grabsky’s search does not take him or his audience into any particularly unfamiliar or ill-plumbed territory. But, again, anyone who does not know these composers as people and is not aware of their struggles and successes, their trials and triumphs, will get plenty of material here to whet his or her appetite for seeking out additional more-in-depth information somewhere else. The discussions with musicologists and historians that pervade all four films are something of a mixed blessing: they tend to be too wordy and at times pompous to interest people just learning about the composers, but do not offer anything especially revelatory to people already familiar with Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Chopin. These academic elements are probably inevitable in biographical films like these, but they are less interesting than the composers’ own words, the words of musicians who perform the composers’ music, and the music itself. The fact is that reams of biographical material have already been produced about all four of these giants of classical music, and plenty of dramatized versions of their lives have been offered in the past. For example, the relationship between Chopin and George Sand had more than enough crisis and controversy to sustain a 1991 film called Impromptu. Grabsky is not trying for “docudrama” here, though, or for films that are entertaining above all. He is striving to convey a sense of the men behind the music, to provide viewers with information showing how the composers’ lives were reflected in what they created – or, if the music did not directly respond to specific biographical occurrences, at least to associate the composers’ creativity with the lives they led and the times in which they led them. Grabsky’s films are skillfully made and nicely paced, but not revelatory for anyone who already knows their topics and focuses. For someone not well-versed in these composers’ lives and music, however, they can make an excellent gift that can open the door to all sorts of additional exploration of both the music and its creators.

     Cello Stories is, on the face of it, an even more rarefied release, an almost-six-hour-long exploration of one specific instrument in one specific long-ago time period, 300 to 400 years in the past. Certainly, even as a gift, Cello Stories, on the Alpha label, must be for someone who plays the cello, loves it, has always wanted to know more about it, or is fascinated by its role in musical history. These “stories,” though, are not as dry or as academic as might be imagined, thanks in part to the intelligent writing of Marc Vanscheeuwijck, in part to the numerous contemporary illustrations that show the instrument at various points in its history, and in part – large part – to the excellent choice of illustrative examples of the cello’s development, and the excellence of much of the music in its own right. The titles of the five CDs clearly reflect their content: “The Origins: Bonizzi, Degli Antoni, Frescobaldi, Galli, Ortiz, Vitali”; “Italy-France: Barrière, Marcello, Vivaldi”; “Johann Sebastian Bach #1”; “Johann Sebastian Bach #2”; and “From Geminiani to Boccherini: Boccherini, Cirri, Geminiani.” The music and text go together exceptionally well, and Bruno Cocset’s playing is careful, idiomatic, and historically very well-informed. There are some little-known composers and some little-known musical gems here, such as Giovanni Battista Vitali’s Chiacona per la lettera B, coupled with some music of towering reputation and extreme difficulty: Bach’s complete Cello Suites Nos. 3, 5 and 6, plus excerpts from his other three. There are three Vivaldi cello sonatas and two by Boccherini, plus the latter’s Cello Concerto in G, G. 480. And there are short pieces galore, from all the composers named on the individual discs. The set as a whole gives a wonderful impression of how variegated cello music was in the 17th and 18th centuries; how the instrument developed and attained capabilities that grew and grew; and how composers increasingly insisted on pushing it in new directions. Giving Cello Stories as a gift requires some care. It is a very attractive offering, packaged as a book with the CDs at the back; and it contains both text and music presented with a great deal of knowledge and even erudition. It is exceptionally well-priced for so many CDs with so much ancillary material. However, it is, as noted, almost six hours long, and while that will be enormously attractive for those interested in the cello and its role in the Baroque, it will be overwhelming for anyone – even an ardent music lover – who has something less than an all-consuming preoccupation with and attraction to this specific instrument and the music written for it in this specific time period. Choose a recipient for Cello Stories wisely and you will be giving a gift of significant value, one that the receiver will dwell on for a long time and likely return to again and again for its insights, its interesting music, and its fascinating historical material. Misfire on the choice of a recipient, though, and you will be giving something that will be appreciated on an intellectual level for its depth and quality but that will likely wind up on a bookshelf, or music shelf, unread, unheard and unused.

     Careful recipient choice is also key to deciding what to do with the new Naxos DVD featuring Henning Kraggerud and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra playing three of Mozart’s violin concertos and the Adagio in E, K. 261. Unlike much of the material in Cello Stories, these pieces are well-known and widely available, and in fact there is a CD version of Kraggerud’s performances, also on Naxos, available at a lower price (without the Adagio). Kraggerud’s readings of the concertos are very fine. His violin tone is warm and rich in the lower register, sweet and even in the upper, and the concertos’ cadenzas – Kraggerud wrote his own – are sparkly to the point of effervescence, if perhaps not entirely in conformity with cadenzas of Mozart’s time, being of considerable length that is somewhat out of keeping with the movements within which they appear. This is a quibble more than a significant criticism, though: lovers of this music will get a great deal of pleasure from Kraggerud’s handling of it, and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra’s light and poised support is an additional big plus. But the question remains: for whom might this DVD be suitable? It was recorded during a live performance in Norway in January 2015, and the video is quite fine and does give something of a sense of being present at the concert – with the ever-present caveat that when one attends a concert for real, one decides where to look, at what and when, while when one watches a DVD, those choices are made by the producer and director (Sean Lewis fills both roles here). Anyone not yet acquainted with Mozart’s five violin concertos will probably be better served with a CD recording of the full cycle than with a DVD of the last three, so the most-appreciative recipient of this DVD would likely be someone who has one or more recordings of all five concertos already and would like a chance to bask in the atmosphere of a concert performance done at a high level of quality and featuring some lovely playing and unusual cadenzas. Yes, that analysis means that the potential recipients of this DVD will be quite limited – but it also means that if you know someone who meets those criteria, or if you come up with other criteria that you feel better indicate who would like this recording, then this will make a very enjoyable holiday gift for someone who will be impressed with how well you know his or her musical tastes and interests. Let the giver beware – or, more precisely, let the giver be aware of the personality and preferences of the recipient.

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