I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Classic films of Herbert von Karajan’s Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven:
Symphony #5 in C minor, Op. 67
Symphony #9 in D minor “Choral”, Op. 125

Anna Tomowa-Sintow
Agnes Baltsa
René Kollo
José Van Dam
Choir of the Deutschen Oper Berlin
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
EuroArts Blu-ray 2072724 Widescreen Pillarbox (concerts) Fullscreen (bonus) PCM Stereo 119min

Karajan and the Berlin Phiharmonic play Beethoven

Karajan and the Berlin Phiharmonic play Beethoven

EuroArts has paired two remarkable historic films of Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Beethoven on Blu-ray. Both the 1966 Fifth directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot and the 1977 New Year’s Eve Ninth are surely familiar to collectors, yet these fascinating documents receive now a welcome high-definition upgrade. The performances are in a class of their own, with the studio-recorded Fifth gaining immensely from the aesthetic vision of Clouzot and the live Ninth remaining a particularly fine demonstration of the Karajan-Berlin team at the top of their game.

French director Henri-Georges Clouzot produced in 1965-67 with Karajan a series of music documentaries dubbed “The Art of Conducting”. They may initially have been intended to acquaint the general public with some of the mysteries of orchestral direction, yet even with only 5 of the projected 13 films completed, they eventually solidified more than anything the image of Karajan as the all-powerful and infallible maestro. The visual and dramatic qualities of these films (they are indeed more “film” than filmed concert), as exemplified here by Beethoven’s Fifth, become all the more apparent when seen alongside Humphrey Burton’s efficient but conventional direction of the New Year’s Eve concert some ten years later. Don’t be surprised to find musicians changing places in this film (like the flutes are suddenly appearing to the right of the oboes in close-ups, only to be in their regular position during longshots). Shot in a stunning true “film noir” black and white, it’s all part of Clouzot’s imaginative and ultimately musical vision. Even almost 50 years after date, this prime example of “music to watch” has hardly ever been surpassed. A box-set release of the whole series of these groundbreaking films in HD may well be out of reach, so we better treasure what there is. (Dvorak’s Ninth and Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin from this series were released on Blu-ray by the C-Major label, but Verdi’s Requiem and Schumann’s Fourth Symphony are still awaiting their HD upgrade).

In a 20-minutes bonus we see Karajan demonstrating an apprentice conductor how to rehearse the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony, and in conversation about the purpose of the series. Again, the maestro in total control of every detail.

The 1977 New Year’s Eve concert is one of Karajan’s best renderings of Beethoven’s Ninth, characteristically built on rock-solid basses and surging forward and upward with an extraordinary sense of shape. The last movement is particularly exciting, with a fine quartet (a superb José Van Dam) and excellent choral singing. Karajan conducts the singers with open eyes and on several occasions you see him watching them with admiration, carried away by the beauty of the moment. Even he was after all only human. Burton’s direction may be conventional, but at least he knew how to preserve this concert as a true event.

The 1966 Clouzot film looks very well in HD, rich in contrast, sharp and detailed. The damage appearing on the title cards initially lets you fear the worst, but the film itself is in much better shape. The 1977 concert is in color which shows its age more. Especially the images of Karajan – shot in his then preferred manner against a sidelight – appear quite dark and grainy compared to the better lit orchestra members and singers. While EuroArts announces PCM Stereo only the Ninth is in stereo (the previous DVD release of this concert included a 5.1 DTS Master). As it is, the sound is totally agreeable, detailed and with an especially impressive dynamic range for the concert. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/e/eas72724blua.php

Bewaren


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Natalia Osipova in Giselle

Adolphe Adam: Giselle
Natalia Osipova – Giselle
Carlos Acosta – Count Albrecht
Thomas Whitehead – Hilarion
Johannes Stepanek – Wilfred
Christopher Saunders – The Duke of Courland
Christina Arestis – Bathilde
Hikaru Kobayashi – Myrthe
Elizabeth Harrod – Moyna
Akane Takada – Zulme
Artists of the Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Boris Gruzin
Music revised by Joseph Horovitz
Choreography by Marius Petipa after Jean Coralli & Jules Perrot
Production & additional choreography by Peter Wright
Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7151D 113m (+features 10m) LPCM DTS-HD Master Audio

Giselle - Royal Ballet

Giselle – Royal Ballet

This is the second video release of the famous Romantic classic Giselle by the Royal Ballet in less than ten years time. Not that you will hear anybody complain as this new Opus Arte disc features Natalia Osipova in the title role, and her performance is just as treasurable as the earlier one of Alina Cojocaru. Russian Osipova is one of the most significant dancers to emerge in the last decade. She started her career at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet and is now firmly established in the international dance circuit. She took many by surprise when she decided to join London’s Royal Ballet in 2013.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Nureyev’s Swan Lake and Nutcracker in Vienna

The Nutcracker
Liudmilla Konovalova – Clara
Vladimir Shishov – Drosselmeyer/The Prince
Artists of the Vienna State Ballet
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Paul Connelly
Choreography by Rudolf Nureyev
Filmed live at the Vienna State Opera, 7 October 2012
Unitel Classica/C Major Blu-ray 718304, 102 min, LPCM Stereo / DTS-HD Master Audio

Swan Lake
Olga Esina – Odette/Odile
Vladimir Shishov – Prince Siegfried
Eno Peci – Rothbart, the Magician
Artists of the Vienna State Ballet
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Alexander Ingram
Choreography by Rudolf Nureyev after Marius Petipa & Lev Ivanov
Filmed live at the Vienna State Opera, 16 March 2014
Unitel Classica/C Major Blu-ray 717704, 132 min, LPCM Stereo / DTS-HD Master Audio

The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker

C Major released two Tchaikovsky bonbons straight from Vienna – The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. As the main classical ballet company in Austria, the Vienna State Ballet (Wiener Staatsballett) isn’t particularly over-represented on home video, so these recent performances filmed live in high-definition at the Vienna State Opera are definitely welcome. The driving force behind these releases is without doubt former Paris Opera Ballet étoile Manuel Legris, who is leading the Viennese company since 2010 and has by all accounts established himself as a blessed gift for the thus far slumbering Austrian troupe.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Italian bandits in French style danced by Russians (and an American)

Adolphe Adam: Marco Spada, or The Bandit’s Daughter
David Hallberg – Marco Spada
Evgenia Obraztsova – Angela
Olga Smirnova – Marchesa Sampietri
Semyon Chudin – Prince Federici
Igor Tsvirko – Count Pepinelli
Artists of the Bolshoi Ballet
The Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra/Alexey Bogorad
Choreography by Pierre Lacotte
Filmed live at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, March 2014
BelAir Classiques Blu-ray BAC413 126m+23m (bonus) LPCM DTS-HD Master Audio

Marco Spada

Marco Spada

The “Bolshoi Ballet HD Collection” released by the independent Paris-based video label BelAir Classiques, has thus far been exemplary in producing ballet for home video, offering superb quality in all respects. The latest title in the series, Marco Spada, is unfortunately something of a mixed blessing. For one thing this ballet – a contemporary rewrite by French choreographer Pierre Lacotte of a lost 19th-century creation – is a true rarity. Marco Spada, or The Bandit’s Daughter set to music from Daniel Auber is a sparkling and colorful evening-length dance divertissement, a jolly romp in a sumptuously traditional setting, danced by a tremendous cast that assembles some of the most exciting dancers gracing the Bolshoi company at the moment. Yet all these goodies come with a price, a technical issue. There is some judder noticeable in the Blu-ray resulting in a slight stutter in movements or panning. (The disc was tried on two different players and TVs with the exact same result, while the problem was also mentioned on internet forums as well.) Nothing that would make the disc unwatchable, but still something that should have been avoided.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Notre-Dame de Paris in Milan

Esmeralda – Natalia Osipova
Quasimodo – Roberto Bolle
Frollo – Mick Zeni
Phoebus – Eris Nezha

Ballet Company & Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala/Paul Connelly
Choreography and libretto: Roland Petit
Recorded live at La Scala, February 2013
Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7146D LPCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio 95m+15m

Notre-Dame de Paris blu-ray

Notre-Dame de Paris from La Scala

A cabaret-style ballet may not exactly be the first thing that comes to mind when considering Victor Hugo’s famous Romantic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but as this is coming from Roland Petit (1924-2011), high priest of French choreography who obviously could do no wrong, very few will question the necessity to keep it in the running. Last year, the ballet troupe of Milan’s Teatro alla Scala revived Petit’s 1965 creation Notre-Dame de Paris with a stellar leading duo and a seriousness of purpose that would have done the late French master proud. The performance released on home video by Opus Arte is one of La Scala’s live HD cinema screenings.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Don Quixote in Royal Ballet style

Ludwig Minkus: Don Quixote
Marianela Núñez – Kitri
Carlos Acosta – Basilio
Christopher Saunders – Don Quixote
Philip Mosley – Sancho Panza
Ryoichi Hirano – Espada
Melissa Hamilton – The Queen of the Dryads
The Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Martin Yates
Production & choreography by Carlos Acosta
Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7143D 125m (+12m features) LPCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio

Don Quixote - The Royal Ballet

Don Quixote – The Royal Ballet

The classic ballet Don Quixote, created in 1869 for the Bolshoi in Moscow by Marius Petipa and with music by Ludwig Minkus (Léon Fyodorovich Minkus), has always been the merry playground of choreographers, musicians and arrangers of all sorts. It is danced to this day in its most convincing form by the great Russian companies whose time-honored dedication and savoir-faire has resulted in a complete understanding of the ballet’s style and temperament. A 19th-century extravaganza, loosely based on Cervantes, which is now primarily an irresistible feel-good cocktail of sunny locations, some slapstick comedy and of course loads of supreme classical and character dancing.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Simon Rattle – Berliner Philharmoniker

New Year’s Eve Concert 2007
Alexander Borodin: Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor; Symphony #2 in B minor
Modest Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina – Prelude, Dawn over the Moscow River; Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Maurice Ravel)
Dmitri Shostakovich: The Golden Age (Dance)

Russian Rhythms, Waldbühne 2009
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (Three fragments from Act 1, Pas de deux – Grand adage)
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto #3 in D minor, Op. 30 1
Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

European Concert 2007
Richard Wagner: Prelude to Parsifal
Johannes Brahms: Concerto for Violin & Cello in A minor, Op. 102, Symphony #4 in E minor, Op. 98

European Concert 2008
Igor Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
Max Bruch: Concerto for Violin #1 in G minor, Op. 26
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony #7 in A Major, Op. 92

Yefim Bronfman, piano
Lisa Batiashvili, violin
Truls Mørk, cello
Vadim Repin, violin
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
EuroArts Blu-ray 2059734 4Discs LPCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic

In a box simply called Simon Rattle – Berliner Philharmoniker EuroArts assembles four concerts in Blu-ray format. Captured between 2007 and 2009 these live performances document the orchestra and their current principal conductor in different venues as well as repertoire. From the timeless Berliner Philharmonie (New Year’s Eve concert 2007) and the horrors of the Kabelwerk Oberspree, a former Power and Cable Factory in Berlin (European concert 2007), to the historic Great Hall of the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory (European concert 2008) and the open-air concert at the Waldbühne (2009) which closes the season each year – the Berliner plays it all. The titles were previously available on separate discs, while the two European Concerts, the May 1st anniversary gigs of the Berlin Philharmonic, also make their appearance on Blu-ray here.

In all cases the high-definition transfers are a real joy to behold. The widescreen video quality is magnificent, even for the problematic open-air concert which was plagued by inclement weather. The sound is no less satisfying. All discs are offered with robust but crystal clear LPCM 2.0 Stereo tracks and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks; the Waldbühne concert comes with LPCM mixes only, yet closely miked there is no way to miss anything – not even the rain during the performance of The Rite. The filming and editing is in all cases unsurprisingly traditional and notwithstanding the occasional misfired camera virtuosity (no, we aren’t interested in scrutinizing the girders of the Kabelwerk Oberspree during Brahms), will ensure an enjoyable home video experience.

The performances, however, cannot foster the same overall enthusiasm. This being the Berlin Philharmonic, there isn’t anything really bad, yet there isn’t anything really essential to discover either. The booklet coming with the box-set refers to the changes, most obviously in sound and repertoire, that the Berlin Philharmonic underwent after Herbert von Karajan’s longstanding tenure, starting with the appointment of the late Claudio Abbado in 1989 and continued with the arrival of Simon Rattle in 2002. Changes, unavoidable and necessary of course, but often needlessly placed in a confrontational black and white, opposing Karajan as the epitome of artistic stagnation against his successors as the Berliner’s saving grace. Yet precisely a selection of concerts like this questions not only which direction the orchestra has been heading, and what has been gained of real value, it also hints at the limitations of Sir Simon’s often admired versatility in choice of repertoire. (In this respect one wonders if these older maestros would ever have released four concerts in which not one single performance was at least something truly exceptional?)

In the liner notes Simon Rattle is quoted as saying that different composers need to be played differently. The first disc of the New Year’s Eve Concert from 2007, titled in the booklet as “the revolution in Russian music”, ironically seems to suggest the exact opposite. This sounds neither Russian and even less a revolution – not even a German one. It’s simply a run-of-the-mill, low-voltage concert with a conductor venturing on unfamiliar ground. The Borodin Symphony is bland and about as Russian as Hasenpfeffer and Pumpernickel, yet it are the Mussorgsky Pictures that suffer most of all from Rattle who apparently was in constant ritenuto mode this evening. The superficial brilliance of the Berliner cannot make up for some undistinguished solo playing from winds and brass and the massive sonority of the ensemble. It’s not Mussorgsky, it’s not even Ravel – and it’s definitely no consolation it sometimes comes close to Brahms.

The Waldbühne “Russian Rhythms” concert is primarily a happy open air bring-classical-music-to-the-masses event that nothing can and will spoil – who wouldn’t want to hear the Rite of Spring in a chilly night in the pouring rain? – and has arguably little value except as a souvenir for those present. It opens with three hastily dispatched Tchaikovsky Nutcracker bits, only emphasizing Rattle’s complete lack of affinity with this music (why bother with just the three first numbers from the ballet in a concert anyway?) His traversal of The Rite of Spring is on the other hand the perfect illustration of what Richard Taruskin called the “showcase of orchestral prowess” which Stravinsky’s most talked-about work has become. The Berlin Philharmonic plays impressively (the woodwinds are favored in the mix, yet not many formations can top such ravishing colors) but virtually all tension, darkness and surprise (except for the occasional Rattle mannerism) has disappeared. That there are still approaches possible that can pack a punch, however, is proven by Salonen, Jansons, Boulez, Dorati, Markevitch and the likes. In between, Yefim Bronfman’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third is more rewarding. It’s a polished reading, effortless, well-balanced and well accompanied, without pathos or excess but boasting a warm sonority.

The two European Concerts present Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic of the 21st century in a much more propitious light and are by far the most convincing of this box-set. The 2007 edition took place in a none too attractive old Berlin factory (the acoustics seem to be good) and offers core-German repertory which (although this is no guarantee for success) has been in the orchestra’s repertory for a long time. (Interestingly, the orchestra is placed differently in this venue as in the traditional Viennese manner with violins divided and the basses lined at the back.) Rattle’s Prelude to Parsifal may be more posh than profound, but the Brahms Double Concerto featuring the ideally attuned Lisa Batiashvili on violin and Truls Mørk on cello is a magnificent performance in every respect. Dedicated to the great Mstislav Rostropovich who had died four days earlier, Rattle’s accompaniment is sensitive and finely balanced, securing beautiful playing from both soloists and orchestra. His Brahms Fourth, however, is colorful and contemplative rather than incisive and taut, and appears less than ideally focused in the latter half.

The final disc covers the 2009 edition which took place in Moscow, exactly 40 years after the orchestra’s first visit under Herbert von Karajan, in this very same hall of the illustrious Tchaikovsky Conservatory. Times have changed, thankfully, as the liner notes remind us: no more KGB surveillance, no more formally attired musicians (count the multicolored ties) and patrons, but also no more Dmitry Shostakovich moved to tears congratulating the orchestra and its conductor for the overwhelming performance. A fine concert, nonetheless, especially for Vadim Repin’s subtly poetic rendition of Max Bruch’s 1st Violin Concerto, sympathetically accompanied by Rattle, and a flexible and joyous account of Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. Rattle’s Beethoven Seventh however sounds like a work in progress; rhythmically alert and detailed, here too he brings out the fun, but little else – an efficient, but unsurprising reading. Compared to what Abbado and Karajan in their lifelong quests achieved in this symphony, or in Beethoven in general, with this same orchestra, this is more than a step back. But then again, theirs isn’t a tarnished legacy. It’s a tough act to follow.

Copyright © 2014, Marc Haegeman
First published on Classical Net.