Vivid Images on DVD And Blu-ray


PIOTR ANDERSZEWSKI - Voyageur Intranquille - Film by Bruno Monsaingeon
Medici Arts 3077938 - 0899132000688 - 83 Minutes

A captivating look into the mind and the life of one of today's top pianists, constantly touring, performing, recording ... but more importantly, constantly questioning the music and why one becomes a professional world class musician. This film demonstrates very well the paradoxes within the life of a classical musician, and how one needs to be a philosopher, teacher, historian, diplomat, recluse and socialite to convey his personal musical message to the world.

Most of the footage takes place within a small train compartment, made even smaller by the presence of Piotr Anderszewski's grand piano, playing the role of a practice instrument during the concert tour. A tour that takes us on a winter's journey through Poland and Hungary, passing many small towns with picturesque train stations all nestled within some postcard quality snowy landscapes. The major stops are in Budapest and Warsaw, great historical cities as seen through the eyes of Anderszewski himself. Here we are treated to recitals featuring the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Robert Schumann. There is also some footage of him in a rehearsal of a Brahms Piano Concerto with Dudamel on the podium, a recording session of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1, various shots of previous recitals in Paris and other major centres, and many moments of him at home, commenting and pointing out, using musical examples, the beauty and genius within the music of Mozart. But the train compartment is where the most profound moments of this unquiet voyage occur. We see a solitary human being, revealing his most personal and profound views on music in general, but with more of a focus on Bach, Szymanowski, Beethoven and especially Chopin, and why their music endures, and why he himself is constantly thriving for perfection in his interpretation of their works. It is within these moments that we get to see how one's childhood, parents, schooling and musical training, personal struggles and life itself, all take part in shaping and creating a great musician.

This film takes a hard look at what it takes to be a real musician always aiming for perfection, even if the temptation to give it all up is always present. Not only are we passengers on this train trip through a beautiful country, but we are also passengers through a life devoted to making the world a better place by breathing new life and purpose within music's wonders.

Jean-Yves Duperron

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Daniel Barenboim (Piano & Conductor), Staatskapelle Berlin
Blu-ray Disc, Medici Arts 2056774 - 0880242567741 - 198 minutes

These superb performances of all the Ludwig Van Beethoven Piano Concertos which were recorded live at the Jahrhunderthalle in Bochum, Germany, on May 21-23 2007, as part of the Ruhr Piano Festival, and were previously available on regular DVD, are now as of November 2009 available on Blu-ray Disc.

Daniel Barenboim has always been a champion of Beethoven's music. He has recorded and performed the Piano Sonatas many times, has recorded and performed the Piano Concertos many times as pianist, pianist/conductor, conductor (with Artur Rubinstein at the piano), has given lectures and masterclasses on the subject, so it is fair to say that this, his only video recording of these masterpieces, is quite the musical and historical event. (This concert was captured exactly forty years after his first audio recording of the concertos with Otto Klemperer conducting, an EMI recording still on the market today).

This production directed by Michael Beyer, presents a fine balance between close-ups of Barenboim and panoramic shots of the full orchestra or the concert hall itself which looks like a combination of theatre, football stadium, manufacturing plant and battleship. The variety of angles in which different aspects of the hall are caught, or stunning close-ups of certain instruments, keep the visuals fresh and entertaining. For example, because the piano itself is nestled within the first rows of the orchestra so that Daniel Barenboim is facing the players, when we see a shot of him face on, what we see behind him is a sea of audience members sitting in dozens of ascending rows leading to the top of the hall. The lighting is bright and vibrant, bringing out all the shine and shimmer of the instruments and the varying colors of dress in the audience. The format is 1080i Full HD and is full of detail, and of course the sound is first rate and all 3 hours and some are presented on one disc.

Be it for the interpretations, or for the sound recording, or for the visual aspect, this complete set of these wonderful concertos is a must have in anyone's collection, and you don't even need to travel to Germany to take it all in.

Jean-Yves Duperron

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Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Conductor), Chamber Orchestra of Europe,
Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Julia Kleiter (Soprano), Elisabeth von Magnus (Alto),
Herbert Lippert (Tenor), Geert Smits (Bass), Styriarte Festival Edition 9120042720023 - 161 minutes

Nikolaus Harnoncourt's recording of the complete Beethoven Symphonies, with this same orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, released just over 20 years ago on the Teldec label, was at the top of the bestsellers list for a very long time and still remains a strong active title to this day. A remarkable achievement for a box-set of 9 symphonies, but not surprising when you realize how good an interpretation and recording it was and still is.

This recent production (released on DVD in 2010) of the Symphony No. 5 - Mass in C captured live in June 2007 during the Styriarte Festival in Graz, Austria, his marked by the same boundless spirit, the same direct and focused energy, with the added advantage of a deeper understanding of the essence of the music. Harnoncourt delivers a spirited, rhythmically light-footed, clearly focused account of the symphony, far removed from some of the typically dark and stormy interpretations of the past. The tempos are swift, the accents are sharp, the feelings run deep, and the spirits are high.

This DVD package contains a second disc with a documentary film titled the Making of "Beethoven!" that I would recommend you watch first. It is footage of the rehearsals of the symphony. Then when you watch the symphony in concert, you will better appreciate all the wonderful insights and ideas on the music that Harnoncourt shares and conveys to the orchestra musicians during the rehearsals. He makes it clear, sometimes with a sense of humour, from the double basses to the piccolo, how cetrain notes must be shaped, how certain phrases must be manipulated, in order for the music to reveal its power. (He even goes so far as to define the virtues of having gut strings over steel strings on the double basses.) All the work during the rehearsals becomes transparent during the concert performance, and you feel as if you played a role in it. From the red hot energy of the Symphony, to the devout fervor of the Mass, this is a memorable performance. Even though these works have been performed thousands of times before, everyone involved in this production, singers and musicians alike, executed their part with a sense of discovery.

For more info on the Styriarte Festival, visit the official website HERE

Jean-Yves Duperron - January 2012

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Daniel Barenboim (Piano), Simon Rattle (Conductor), Berlin Philharmonic, Filmed in Athens (2004), 102 Minutes - Euroarts 2020108 - 880242201089

Forget the fact that this concert was filmed and recorded live at the ancient Herodes Atticus Odeon in Athens in 2004, with several shots of wonderful vistas of the city of Athens and many views of some Ancient Greek ruins. Forget the fact that this was the first European Concert, an annual event that takes place in May, that Simon Rattle conducted in his new post as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. Forget the fact that this is the first musical encounter between Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim. Forget the fact that both these musical giants were at one time in competition for the post of chief conductor in Berlin. Now that you have discarded all this information, you can focus on the main attraction of this DVD; the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 by Johannes Brahms. And what an impressive and arresting performance it is.

As soon as the baton gives the first downbeat, you can tell that Simon Rattle loves this piece of music. There is a recording of it on CD with him conducting and Krystian Zimerman on the piano that is excellent. In this DVD release, Rattle leads a commited, full-bodied, detail rich account, and takes full command of its direction at every moment, pushing and motivating the orchestra members to attain the highest level possible. And Daniel Barenboim relishes that level of orchestral support and himself commits a reading that is pianistically strong and musically profound. The two big outer movements of the concerto are very well done and brimming with energy. So much so, that if some of the tempos were a little faster, some passages might have gotten away from Barenboim, but seeing him hanging on by a thread here and there, makes the performance even more electric and real. The middle Adagio movement on the other hand, is a marvel to behold. A more lofty, profound, sublime rendition I have yet to hear. They both give the music time to speak, time to reveal its inner beauty, time to attain its many levels of emotion. The expression on both their faces mirrors their deep understanding of this music. Those ever so slowly ascending series of trills on the piano near the end of the movement are simply stunning. This movement alone is worth the price of admission.

The DVD also includes a riveting performance of the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25, given a whole new orchestral dress by Arnold Schoenberg, and a bonus film titled The European Concert in Olympic Athens which lasts 18 minutes. The package also includes a full color 2010 EuroArts DVD catalogue.

Jean-Yves Duperron

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Directed by David Starobin, George Crumb Ensemble, George Crumb (Percussion), Tony Arnold (Soprano), Robert Shannon (Piano), David Starobin (Guitar), Bridge Records 9312 - 090404931222 - Duration: 66 Minutes

This DVD is actually Volume 14 of the critical Complete Crumb Edition CDs that Bridge Records have been releasing over the last few years, with Vol. 15 due out later this year (2010). Although this one is a DVD, it is still the fascinating music of George Crumb that takes centre stage in this production. A few interviews and historic still photographs are well interspersed throughout the footage, but the main material on this quintessential American composer is comprised of fresh and incisive performances of some of Crumb's important works. Pieces that reflect his attraction to the spiritual aspects of life and his innovative use of any musical instrument's properties.

The vocal pieces, performed with character and given a deep emotional range by soprano Tony Arnold demonstrate the composer's ability to blend both words and music to create a powerful emotional image. Apparition for example, based on a text by Walt Whitman about existence and death, full of symbolic and spiritual metaphors about the forces of nature at work within our lives, is elevated by Crumb's resourceful use of the piano to emphasize the text and raise the emotional level of the music. Even the Three Early Songs from the composer's teen years, demonstrate a firm grasp of form and structure and an understanding that the text's underlying emotional character is what really matters.

The strictly instrumental works performed here display even greater emotional and compositional depth. The two pieces called Yoda and Fritzi, from a suite titled Mundus Canis, are musical tributes to some of the composer's dogs. They are played here by David Starobin on guitar and George Crumb on percussion, and display a deep sense of humor and musical imagination. The solo piano work titled Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik (A Little Midnight Music) or (Ruminations On 'Round Midnight By Thelonious Monk) performed with deep insights by pianist Robert Shannon, is an impressive piece of music delving deep into the composer's mind and his fascination with night music. Taking the main motif from the Thelonious Monk classic as a departure point, it digs deep into the emotional concept of midnight and puts to use rarely seen properties of the piano to accentuate the darkness and solitude of night and even evokes the tolling of bells and the passing of time. Laid out over nine movements, it grabs your attention from start to finish.

Collected here are great examples of Crumb's work all performed by musicians who know the man and his music intimately and reveal the inner workings of his creative mind.

Jean-Yves Duperron

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SFS Media - SFS60041 - 821936004197

The Keeping Score set of releases on DVD by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, has now reached the most anticipated one in the series, a captivating documentary/concert program on the life and music of Gustav Mahler, with two one-hour documentaries and two live performances. Keeping Score:Mahler is designed to engage, educate and entertain viewers of all musical backgrounds. SFS Media - SFS60041 - 821936004197 - WATCH A PREVIEW HERE →

Jean-Yves Duperron

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John Malkovich (Jack Unterweger), Laura Aikin (Soprano I), Aleksandra Zamojska (Soprano II), Orchester Wiener Akademie/Martin Haselböck, musical concept and Music Director. Idea by Birgit Hutter and Martin Haselböck, Written and directed by Michael Sturminger, Produced by Matthias Leutzendorff. Filmed in performance at the Ronacher Theater, Vienna. Arthaus Musik DVD 101 517 - 807280151794 (102 min + 43 min documentary)

By the picking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes: A drama for one actor, two singers and orchestra on the fact-based story of a serial killer might seem to be about as welcome a prospect as a Jeffrey Dahmer cookbook. But The Infernal Comedy goes beyond the lascivious morbidity of the scary movie genre to reveal the shade of a real monster in street clothes. It emphatically showcases another compelling facet of being John Malkovich. This consummate thespian retrieves mass murderer Jack Unterweger from beyond the grave and unifies a diverse collaborative production. Portrayals of such powerful truth are a rarity on the small screen. Students of the social sciences might find the presentation of evil incarnate to be instructive. For the rest of us it is a stone-cold perfect piece of entertainment -- intelligent with the option of enlightenment. And there are funny bits, too.

Who was Jack Unterweger? Unterweger, Austrian poet, novelist, journalist, flamboyant pop-culture sensation, consultant to various police forces on serial murder and a high-scoring covert serial killer in his own right, took his own life in 1994. He was first convicted of murder in 1976 and sentenced to imprisonment for life. In prison he sought self improvement with effect and became a published writer. His 1984 autobiography was a bestseller. Legions of admirers claimed he had redeemed himself and he was released on parole in 1990 on the decree of the President of Austria. To the embarrassment of distinguished instigators in other cases such as the late Norman Mailer, the recidivism rate among literary ex-cons is alarmingly at or near 100%. Writers write; criminals continue as they started. And so it was with Unterweger. The mortal remains of ladies of the night began to accumulate in the Vienna Woods and then in Graz, Prague and Los Angeles. After passing through Canada and the US, Unterweger was apprehended in Miami in 1992 and was once again found guilty by an Austrian court of murder in 1994. Soon after, he hanged himself in his cell.

Hit the road, Jack: The operative premise is that Jack Unterweger is at liberty and flogging another 'tell-all memoir. The stage is set for a conventional book tour presentation with a table for the speaker except that a full period orchestra is seated behind it. The play opens with a very appropriate orchestral performance of Gluck's Giacona L'enfer form the ballet, Don Juan. Following the author's introductory remarks and punctuating his crypto-revelations, the sopranos enter in turn to perform arias by Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Boccherini and Weber (requiring some attention as there is no track listing in the cover notes) devised for female characters in reaction to scorn, betrayal and cruel fate. During each vocal episode, Malkovich mimes charm, molestation, contempt and strangulation. Laura Aikin and Aleksandra Zamojska demonstrate that they are fine singers and superb actors in projecting their numbers while acquitting themselves convincingly in the demanding physical action. Although the setting is artificial, each deadly encounter achieves the churning intensity of the shower scene in Hitchcock's Psycho. The orchestra is also impressive and the choice of music makes it clear that this could only be happening in Vienna. The accompanying documentary film is interesting. It includes discussions with the creators of the drama, comments by the performers and images of the real Unterweger and some of his victims.

Stephen Habington

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Vassily Primakov (Piano), David Starobin (Director and Audio Producer), Becky Starobin (Executive Producer), Filmed in Denmark (2009), 68 Minutes - Bridge 9315 - 090404931529

This DVD production that takes a close-up and intimate look at piano virtuoso Vassily Primakov, makes clear the fact that this musician's reach into the depths of the piano repertoire is limitless, and that his interpretive skills have no bounds. All the pieces presented here demand a very high level of technical skill combined with a profound emotional affinity with the soul behind them.

The presentation begins with the Three Intermezzos, Op. 117 by Johannes Brahms. These autumnal works by Brahms, with sombre but yet luminous melodies set against harmonically dense and dark backgrounds, require a fluid and somewhat delicate touch from the pianist to avoid sounding too stern and implacable. Primakov obviously knows this all too well and delivers lucid and yet ravenesque readings. What follows are the Four Ballades by Frederic Chopin. Long and detailed pieces by Chopin's standards, compared to his Preludes, Etudes, Mazurkas, Waltzes, Polonaises and Nocturnes which are all short by comparison. They demonstrate that he was able to develop his musical ideas into more than just short creative bursts. Again here Primakov easily combines both the poetry and the logic, both the tragic and lyrical, to deliver outstanding interpretations of these story-telling keyboard pieces. The program concludes with the Piano Sonata No. 4 in F sharp Major, Op. 30 by Alexander Scriabin. It is a short two-movement sonata that within its 8 minute duration, contains more substance than some compositions lasting an hour. It is a very technically impressive and emotionally stirring work. As the liner notes by Malcolm MacDonald point out; Virtuosity is innate in the musical ideas themselves: it is the medium of communication with the divine, the portal to Nirvana. In Scriabin, the virtuoso metamorphoses into a prophet, his music speaking with a strange intensity as it seems to presage revelation of a new cosmic order. I myself have always found Scriabin to be a master at imbedding his incandescent melodies within a flurry of notes that baffle in their harmonic progressions and yet still lead to a perfect and well achieved resolution. Vassily Primakov delivers an astounding account of this ecstatic and mysterious work. He really brings out the sense of an immense force or energy constantly brewing just below the surface of the music, which bursts out in full light during the coda.

The filming in HD of this DVD production, is focused and yet varied enough to curtail visual repetition. For example, the Brahms and Scriabin footage takes place on a spotlit stage with a black backgroung, placing the focus completely on the artist and the keyboard from different angles. The Chopin on the other hand, was filmed on a bright open stage, with the orchestral chairs and music stands serving as background, and the camera perspectives offer more variety this time around. The people at Bridge Records have put together a captivating look into the life of this world class pianist. It also includes an interactive photo gallery, biography and complete discography. Based on this release and on his previous recordings, there is no telling what level of excellence Vassily Primakov will achieve in his lifetime.

Jean-Yves Duperron

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James Conlon (Conductor), Orchestra & Chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Lev Dodin (Stage Director), Recorded live in Florence (2008), Arthaus Musik 101388 - Blu-ray DVD - 170 min

Two strong versions of this Shostakovich opera have been issued on DVD: from Barcelona (2004 -EMI) and Amsterdam (2006 - Opus Arte). This Florence production is vastly superior to both. Directors in the West have demonstrated a penchant for vulgarity and elevated shock value (as if the adultery and multiple murder of the plot were not shocking enough). The tendency could reflect reaction to the real-life drama of the composer's 1936 denunciation when the opera provided a convenient pretext for Stalinist persecution. Lev Dodin allows the performance to unfold naturally without superfluous embellishment. The result is the most authentic Russian setting since the Lenfilm 1966 on-location, cinematic production of the truncated version (Katerina Izmailova) which featured Galina Vishnevskaya in the title role (available on DVD from Decca). A solid cast of Slavs was assembled in Florence to faithfully depict mannerism as well as language. Jeanne-Michèle Charbonet may not be Vishnevskaya but she gives us a convincing tragic heroine. Sergej Kunaev is suitably rotten as her seducer. The chorus is well drilled and James Conlon demonstrates mastery of the score.

Blu-ray imagery and sound are top-quality. The performance is also available on conventional DVD from Arthaus. Collectors with an interest in Soviet music should not hesitate to acquire this marvelous production.

Stephen Habington

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Dorothea Röschmann (Soprano), Kurt Streit (Tenor), Ruben Drole (Bass), Markus Schäfer (Tenor), Anton Scharinger (Baritone), Elisabeth Kulman (Mezzo), Yasushi Hirano (Bass), Elisabeth von Magnus (Mezzo), Heinz Zednik (Tenor), Bibiana Nwobilo (Soprano), Nenad Marinkovic (Tenor), Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Prague Dance Ensemble, Chamber Orchestra of Europe - Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Conductor) - 3 CDs / 1 DVD: 196 minutes - Released: April 2012 - Styriarte Festival Edition 9120042720047

First performance of the German translation by E. Züngel at the Helmut-List-Halle in Graz, Austria July 2011.

Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884) is called the "father of Czech music" for a good reason. He was the first to draw freely from the deep roots of Bohemian folk music, and elevate and springboard it unto the world stage. In his operas, as in his orchestral works, he strived to capture and portray the spirit of his homeland, rather than write grand operas based on mythical legends. The comic opera The Bartered Bride has been, and will remain, one of the gems of the opera stage. It is a cleverly written comedy of mistaken identities in which the story and music overflow with the simple joys of life, so much so as to come complete with circus acts (the famous Dance of the Comedians) and an opening chorus to the second act extolling the virtues of beer. It is about the triumph of love over money, of good over evil, always present in the common day to day life.

This Styriarte Festival production, under the quicksilver musical direction of conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, is a joy to watch and listen to from start to finish. The jovial mood of the whole opera is immediately set by the pinpoint accuracy, fleetfooted and rapid fire delivery of the overture. In particular, the string players of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe deserve a standing ovation for this one. The two principal singers, Dorothea Röschmann as Marie, and Kurt Streit as Jenik, live their roles perfectly and always remain in character, even when they are not singing. The rest of the cast are all in fine form, with Ruben Drole standing out as a superb Kecal, the marriage-broker. The costumes are all simple and yet go a long way in befitting and strengthening each and every character of the story. The stage direction by Philipp Harnoncourt always keeps things moving and naturally focuses your attention where it should. The set itself, although minimal, plays a major role in establishing the time and place in which the drama unfolds, and because of its two-tiered and uneven platform construction, allows for a clear view of everyone, even when the stage is overflowing with singers and dancers. It's built from pieces of an original country fair ride from the 1920s called an Amore-Bahn, complete with multi-coloured lightbulbs and rickety wooden rails and platforms, and in itself acts to reinforce the simple joys of life this opera promotes. Add to this a libretto in which the dénouement of the plot is perfectly paced, and a score by Bedrich Smetana in which all the arias, duets, trios, quartets and even vocal sextet are a pleasure to hear, and pull you deeper and deeper into the story, and that 3 hours feels more like 30 minutes. The final chorus comes full circle to bring down the curtain with the same jubilant and festive music that opened the first act.

The presentation and packaging of this release are to be admired. The actual DVD case opens like a book containing 207 pages which include a full libretto with translations, plenty of informative background information, and many stunning full page photographs of the production. The front and back covers of the book hold the 3 audio CDs and the DVD which also includes highlights from the opera rehearsals. This is must-have material for opera fans, and even if you're not into opera, this may very well be the one that converts you. Highly recommended!

For more info on the Styriarte Festival, visit the official website HERE

Jean-Yves Duperron - May 2012

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PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY - Symphonies 4, 5 and 6

Valery Gergiev (Conductor), Mariinsky Orchestra, From Salle Pleyel in Paris, Released: October 2011, Mariinsky MAR0513 - DVD - 150 Minutes

The North American release of this DVD production of the Symphonies Nos. 4, 5 and 6 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky with the Mariinsky Orchestra under the direction of conductor Valery Gergiev, captured live at the Salle Pleyel in Paris in January of 2010, could not have been more timely. As a matter of fact, this month (October 2011) Gergiev and his band are touring the United States and Canada, performing some of the works on this DVD along with other works by Russian composers. So if you can't attend any of the concerts, you can get the Mariinsky Orchestra musicians to come and play in your living room. And even if you do catch one of the concerts, you can still bring the experience home.

Maestro Gergiev has long been considered one of the best exponents of this most emblematic of Russian composers, and these concerts from Paris certainly help to reinforce that reputation. The opening movement of the Symphony No. 4 alone demonstrates that this conductor has a profound understanding of everything that is Tchaikovsky. The heroic, the tragic, the picturesque, and in particular the hyper-lyrical aspects of this composer shine through from every corner of the orchestra under his guidance. Add to this the fact that the Orchestra of The Mariinsky Theatre, which used to be known as The Kirov during the Communist era, originated way back in 1783 and is now into its 229th season and boasts an impressive history including première performances of operas and ballets from Verdi and Tchaikovsky himself. It's a combination of factors that in itself creates a force to be reckoned with, and has intimidated many contenders to this repertoire.

We all know what a rousing experience the last few minutes of the 4th Symphony can be, and what physical demands it imposes on all of the orchestral players. Well these musicians deliver a thrilling experience without even working up a sweat. This music is in their DNA. They are a pleasure to watch in action, as every slide of the bows, every lift of the horns, every cymbal crash, is executed with the precision of military manoeuvres, but all accomplished with a level of expressive power that belies the mechanics of it all. A case in point is the beautiful french horn solo in the second movement of the 5th Symphony, delivered here with passion and a sound resembling that of a Russian baritone. The solo bassoon against a backdrop of double basses in the opening pages of the 6th Symphony is yet another well captured moment. The camera work in this production is also a predominant factor in the overall quality of this release. The shots from cameras high above suspended from the ceiling, the panning shots of the whole orchestra, and the precisely timed close-ups of particular instrumentalists or the conductor himself, all lend to create the effect of being there and reliving the music through centuries of tradition. Even the facial expressions of the players demonstrate that these musicians are passionate about this music, and dedicated to delivering the conductor's vision of these great masterworks.

So if your city is on the list of dates for their North American tour and you can't attend the concert, there's no need to panic. Just get this DVD and live the experience at home.

Jean-Yves Duperron

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Zubin Mehta (Conductor), Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, Carlus Padrissa (Stage Director), Recorded in performance at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, April/May 2007, C Major, Blu-ray DVD 700604 - 194 min - Extra Feature 27 min

RICHARD WAGNER - - Juha Uusitalo (Wotan), John Daszak (Loge), Franz-Josef Kapellmann (Alberich), Gerhard Siegel (Mime), Matti Salminen (Fasolt), Stephen Milling (Fafner), Anna Larsson (Fricka), Sabina von Walther (Freia), Lilya Bannik (Donner), Germán Villar (Froh), Sylvia Vázquez (Woglinde), Ann-Katrin Naidu (Wellgunde), Hannah Esther Minutillo (Floßhilde), Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana
Zubin Mehta

And Now for Something Very Different:

How to concisely describe this Catalonian entry in ever expanding Ring des Nibelungen stakes? Revolutionized, super-sized, energized, dramaturgized, mechanized, transformerized and digitized could summarize it. Here is Das Rheingold strenuously re-imagined; and all for the sake of realizing the composer's original - and until now impossible - stage directions. In most cases of interpretive controversy, the stage director is the lightning rod for criticism. Carlus Padrissa has been aided and abetted by a cohort of brilliant accomplices: video background creator Franc Aleu, staging and acting coordinator Valentina Carrasco, stage designer Roland Olbeter, lighting director Peter van Praet and costume designer Chu Uroz. During the two years of intensive planning which preceded the first rehearsal, conductor Zubin Mehta contributed ideas which had gestated since 1954 and his student days in Vienna. Mehta knows where to go with the music because he knows where it has been. It was his suggestion to involve La Fura dels Baus which is a daring and agile performance troupe similar to our own Canadian Cirque du Soleil.

New-Look Authenticity: The brains trust behind this production rightly deduced that gods don't run around dressed in thrift store remnants. And why should gods be subject to the law of gravity? The result is divine costumes and the most use of a stage's upper atmosphere since Mary Martin soared over Broadway as Peter Pan. There is little use of scenery as such but eight massive projection surfaces (all programmed from a piano keyboard to fully integrate effects with the score) compensate with 3D animation of the finest cinematic quality. In the opening scene the Rhine maidens are immersed in individual, levitating aquariums. Gods are trundled around in elevating platforms to hover over the stage. The demi-god Loge zips around skillfully on a Segway scooter and the giants are giants for a change. Once the sensation of watching the world's grandest puppet show is shaken, the stage action fascinates. Performances of Das Rheingold can be the weak link in a cycle. The entry of the gods into Valhalla may even seem anti-climactic. Here the tension is sustained to the very end and the closing scene is extraordinarily powerful.

Und die musik? Consummate stage craft is all very well but Wagner demands - and in this case gets - superhuman musical and vocal performances. Matti Salminen as Fasolt is luxury casting, indeed while Juha Uusitalo, Franz-Josef Kapellmann and Anna Larsson turn in near benchmark portrayals of Wotan, Alberich and Fricka, respectively. All of the singers are, in fact, superb. Zubin Mehta draws inspired playing from the orchestra. It creates the impression of hearing the performance of a lifetime from this conductor. A sneak peak at the companion release of Die Walküre (review pending) gives every indication of being in the same outstanding category of endeavour as this Das Rheingold. The cycle will be complete in the shops in short order. Don't get left behind.

Blu-ray Rules: Collectors who are so-equipped will be delighted to learn that the surround-sound option includes 7.1 playback. In surround or stereo this recording will give your speakers a rigorous workout. And the awesome quality of the imagery more than justifies the possession of a high-definition television set.

More Mehta from Valencia: The city's spectacular new opera house, the Palau de les Arts 'Reina Sofia', opened in October 2006 with a Royal Command performance of Beethoven's Fidelio. Maestro Mehta was in the pit with Juha Uusitalo (Don Pizarro), Peter Seiffert (Florestan), Waltraud Meier (Leonore) and Matti Salminen (Rocco) on stage. The event was captured on a Medici Arts DVD (2072498).

Winner of the 2011 International Classical Music Award (ICMA) for best DVD performance.

Stephen Habington

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Peter Seiffert (Siegmund), Matti Salminen (Hunding), Juha Uusitalo (Wotan), Petra Maria Schinitzer (Sieglinde), Jennifer Wilson (Brünnhilde), Anna Larsson (Fricka), Bernadette Flaitz (Gerhilde), Helen Huse Ralston (Ortlinde), Pilar Vázquez (Waltraute), Christa Mayer (Schwertleite), Eugenia Bethencourt (Helmwige), Heike Grötzinger (Siegrune), Manuela Bress (Grimgerde), Hannah Esther Minutillo (Roßweiße), Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana - Zubin Mehta (Conductor)

Fooled by the Gods: Not so long ago, your critic praised to the heavens an audio recording of this opera. The review of Simone Young's 2008 Hamburg production is posted on this site. The point was made that over-reliance on DVD inhibited hearing and fully appreciating the music. The opinion stands but the sublime audio interlude left one quite unprepared for the magnificence of the audio-visual Ring des Nibelungen unfolding from Valencia. The critic was stunned. And the Gods laughed. There is more and yet more of Wagner that can be revealed and this daring production is proof of the overwhelming supremacy of genuine originality. With the concluding chapters of the cycle close at hand, there is every reason to expect it to equal or surpass the great Bayreuth DVD sets of Pierre Boulez (DG) and Daniel Barenboim (Warner).

Stop, Look and Listen: The present Die Walküre builds on the advanced technical stagecraft evident in the Padrissa/Mehta production of Das Rheingold (review also posted on this site). The giant-screen animated backdrops have even greater impact commensurate with the developing plot. Physical interventions by the Fura dels Baus performance troupe ingeniously amplify the drama. One essential element of Padrissa's concept which should be carefully noted by 'modernizers' of the story is the presentation of Hunding and Siegmund as primitives with the latter carrying the creative spark which will flourish as humanity. The coupling of Siegmund and Sieglinde is, in this sense is no more unnatural than the mating of Adam and Eve - the origin of the species, so to speak. Musically this production leaves nothing to be desired. Peter Seiffert and Petra Maria Schnitzer give courageous portrayals of the doomed couple. Salminen is Salminen and Juha Uusitalo continues to turn in a pretty well definitive interpretation of Wotan. The Brünnhilde of Jennifer is an astonishing vocal and dramatic achievement. The late-blooming soprano will personify the role for a generation of Wagnerians. Zubin Mehta's mastery of the score emerges from every bar of the music. The accounts of the Ride of the Valkyries and the Magic Fire Music achieve a primus inter pares status with the closest competition and visually, the staging of these keen scenes is the outright winner (See Valkyries fly!).

The Ring Goes On: Watch for reviews of the Valencia productions of Siegfried and Götterdämerung in coming weeks. Note that the set is also available in conventional DVD format.

Winner of the 2011 International Classical Music Award (ICMA) for best DVD performance.

Stephen Habington

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Zubin Mehta (Conductor), Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, Carlus Padrissa (Stage Director), Recorded in performance at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, June 2008 & 2009, C Major Blu-ray DVD 701004 - 256 minutes

Siegfried for all Seasons:

This staging of the penultimate episode in the cycle maintains the musical excellence and high production values established in the C Major DVDs of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre (see separate reviews on this site). This is Wagner on the creative cutting edge and yet monumentally unique in the lengths to which Padrissa and La Fura dels Baus went to follow the letter of the Master's original stage directions. The tale is uncompromisingly told with clarity and boldness of gesture and decoration.

Voices Tried and True:

The cast of the opera is sensational. Juha Uusitalo gives a commanding performance as the Wanderer. The psychological revelation of a God struggling on the path of defeat and destruction creates a new benchmark performance for the small (and perhaps, not-so-small) screen. Gerhard Siegel and Franz-Josef Kapellmann leave nothing to be desired in the key enabling roles of Mime and Alberich, respectively. The Erda of Catherine Wyn-Rogers is unforgettable while Marina Zyatkova's purity of tone as the voice of the wood bird is eerily apt to the dire warnings conveyed to the hero. Above all, the symbiosis of Siegfried and Brünnhilde is a towering achievement. Lance Ryan and Jennifer Wilson turn in epoch-making performances as the central couple. The quality of their voices is exceeded only by a shared, remarkable ability to project the characters. Ryan, a heldentenor of depth and sensitivity, is a believably fearless Siegfried with the moves and conviction to shake the punk stereotype which has become typical of so many revisionist productions. When Brünnhilde arises from her long repose, Jennifer Wilson stands before the audience (and lucky us) as the most desirable woman in the world. The collaboration of Ryan and Wilson would justify the cost of the entire cycle (on Blu-ray or conventional DVD). Of course, the cycle is paying its way quite nicely with ingenious stagecraft and a vivid orchestral performance under a master Wagnerian, Zubin Mehta.

Winner of the 2011 International Classical Music Award (ICMA) for best DVD performance.

Stephen Habington

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Zubin Mehta (Conductor), Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana,
Carlus Padrissa, (Stage Director), Recorded in performance at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia,Valencia, May & June 2008, C Major Blu-ray DVD 701204 - 309 minutes

Raising the House: Each installment of C Major's Valencia Ring is accompanied by a half-hour documentary film on the production in hand. In places repetitive, the films do reveal much behind the makers' inspiration and means. The role of house intendant Helga Schmidt is given deserving prominence. And what better solution to winning a golden reputation for a new opera company than a successful staging of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen? When Zubin Mehta was brought on board, he asked for a world-class Wagner orchestra ("Because a Wagner orchestra can play anything"). As these recordings amply demonstrate, Mehta got exactly what he wanted. It was also the conductor's suggestion that the performance troupe, La Fura dels Baus, be engaged to stage the cycle and Schmidt obliged. She provided everything necessary from the best singers to wide screen backdrops in 3D animation. With this Götterdämmerung to conclude the cycle, it can be confidently asserted that the collaboration of performers, production team and Intendant Schmidt yielded the best Ring on film of recent years and secured for the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia a first-rank place among European opera houses.

This Ring's the Thing: Whether in pure audio or on film, it has been a Wagner axiom that sitting through a complete Ring des Nibelungen involved a bit of aging. Not this time. Like Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and Siegfried, the staging of Götterdämmerung is enthralling. Quite aside from the thousands of other musical and dramatic factors that go into interpreting these epic works, the essential criteria for an outstanding performance is the quality of the storytelling. The consummation of characters, plot and themes of morality throughout this cycle attains a rare high level of excellence and originality. This Götterdämmerung is the crowning achievement in a triumphant traversal of music drama's most arduous relay of works. Superbly cast and with Maestro Mehta leaving no leitmotif behind, this cycle is fit to stand alongside the great Bayreuth productions of Boulez/Chereau (DG) and Barenboim/Kupfer (Warner).

Forever Twilight: From levitating Norns, Alberich and Rhinemaidens to the orgy on Brünnhilde's rock, an inverted Siegfried and the final, jaw-dropping immolation scene, this production provides the ultimate in visual spectacle without ever losing the focus of the contrived legend. La Fura dels Baus and Carlus Padrissa even succeed in restoring some of the tale's mystery because the audience is kept in a constant state of aroused curiosity. For the first time in the cycle, structured stage sets are used. Basically a mezzanine platform and stairway, these are fully integrated with the multi-screen video display. The Gibichungs are presented as a society which passed from savagery to decadence without a civilized interval. After an on-stage makeover, Siegfried, shorn of dreadlocks, joins them with alacrity. And the descent into betrayal and mortality unfolds apace. Wagner veteran Matti Salminen takes his third role of the cycle as a suitably diabolical Hagen. Ryan and Wilson as Siegfried and Brünnhilde are again superb and the Gunther-Gutrune tag team are as oily as any on film. The chorus is splendid. This production of Götterdämmerung will entertain and inform novice collectors and Wagner fanatics alike.

Winner of the 2011 International Classical Music Award (ICMA) for best DVD performance.

Stephen Habington

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CHARLES-MARIE WIDOR - Master of the Organ Symphony

Gerard Brooks (Organ), Daniel Roth (Organ), 0721762375426, Fugue State Films FSFDVD010, Released: January 2016

Symphonie No. 6 - Gerard Brooks, Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d'Orléans
Symphonie No. 1 (Méditation) - Daniel Roth, Saint-Sulpice, Paris
Symphonie No. 3 (Prélude et Finale) - Daniel Roth, Saint-Sulpice, Paris
Symphonie No. 2 (Adagio) - Daniel Roth, Saint-Sulpice, Paris
Symphonie No. 5 - Gerard Brooks, Abbatiale Saint-Ouen, Rouen
Symphonie Gothique (Andante sostenuto) - Gerard Brooks, Abbatiale Saint-Ouen, Rouen
Symphonie No. 7 (Choral et Finale) - Daniel Roth, Saint-Sulpice, Paris

The CDs alone in this 4-Disc Pack are well worth the price of admission. Charles-Marie Widor's Organ Symphonies are highly dramatic and deeply expressive works, and organist Gerard Brooks certainly brings those exact qualities to the forefront in his thrilling account of the impressive Symphonie No. 6. The intensity of the first movement alone had me returning over and over again for just one more listen, and never failed to impress me. Mind you, the organ of Sainte-Croix plays a large role in the "blow your mind" side of things, with plenty of headroom and unbelievable power. You'll know exactly what I mean once you listen to the second most famous Toccata after the Bach D Minor, the one that ends the Symphonie No. 5. I've played that one myself many times on some great organs and listened to countless recordings of it and I tell you, this performance is so virtuosic and powerful, it's scary. And then just as moving are the Adagio and Cantabile movements from No. 6 in their soft and lyrical character. And in a 'live' recording from Saint-Sulpice, Daniel Roth delivers a superbly expressive reading of the Adagio from Symphonie No. 2.

And if that wasn't enough the set also includes one DVD that features all the video footage of these great pieces where you can see and hear these great instruments at work and the organists that have harnessed their power. The second DVD contains a detailed documentary on Widor's life and work, expertly narrated by these organists and some Widor scholars, all set and recorded in the pews of the churches where the composer spent his entire life, adding a deeply personal feeling to the film. At the end of it all you are left with the profound impression that being a composer and organist during that era was not only a job, it was a way of life.

Jean-Yves Duperron - February 2016

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