STRAVINSKY-RÁCZ: Petrushka. BRAHMS: Liebeslieder
BEETHOVEN: Sonatas No. 12 in A flat, Op. 26/No. 11
in B flat, Op. 22. SCHUBERT: Sonata in A minor, D. 537. BRAHMS: Four
The Stravinsky/Brahms DVD seems to fill no need in the DVD catalog. Percussionist Gyula Rácz has made an arrangement of Petrushka (spelled "Petrouchka" on the DVD cover) for two pianos and percussion stating, among other things, the piano-percussion version was "to replace the diversity of orchestral shades with percussive colours....the arrangements of the keyboard parts explores the concept of pianist tonal space." I don't know just what this means, but surely Stravinsky's brilliant score is diminished by this use of smaller performing forces. This concept also is heralded as "a new approach in attempting to develop the visual aspect of the music from within," brought about by computer originated abstract animations—which often don't seem to have anything to do with the music. The charming Brahms waltzes for chorus and piano four-hands are surely well played, but video images are distracting. Sometimes we see the male singers on one balcony, sometimes the women singers on another, as well as bucolic country scenes as various people walk through a beautiful sunny forest. In both the Stravinsky and Brahms the camera often focuses on one eye of a performer, a close-up profile, or one hand at the keyboard, often with blurred images. This DVD might be considered an ego trip for those associated with it. Playing time is only 60 minutes, but the price is modest as DVDs go.
Cellist Jacqueline Du Pré, who died in 1987 from multiple sclerosis when only 42, is the subject of Christopher Nupen's film Remembering Jacqueline du Pré, an affectionate portrait of the artist. There were three reasons for making the film, the first for a gala fund-raising dinner to raise money for the Jacqueline du Pre Concert Hall on the grounds of St. Hilda's College, Oxford; secondly to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the artist's birth, January 26, 1995, and thirdly to "keep her spirit alive in the world." Through informal footage, we see her performing with friends as well as at concerts and it's obvious she is a master cellist with charm, wit and incredible energy. Brief tributes are paid to her by various musicians and we see her at recording sessions as well. But why isn't there more music? It's difficult to believe there are not more films available of her performances that could have been included; the BBC has just released some of these. The total playing time of this full-priced DVD is less than an hour. The EMI catalog contains many performances that could have been included as audio.
Euroarts' DVD of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli offers the legendary pianist in a concert given at the RTSI Auditorium in Lugano. Switzerland, April 7, 1981 before a live—and very quiet—audience. The program of sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert, and the Four Ballades of Brahms, is rather austere; I'm sure the audience would have welcomed hearing some music that would display his fabulous technique to greater effect, perhaps Chopin or Ravel. What we have are superlative performances of chosen repertory, very well filmed and recorded (although this is hardly 5.1 surround sound, although sound does come from all of the speakers). It's fascinating to watch Michelangeli perform. Often his eyes are closed and he is granite-faced. At the end of the concert he briefly and disdainfully acknowledges applause of the audience.
Jarmila Novotná was a leading Czech soprano, born in Prague September 23, 1907. When only 19 she made her debut in La Traviata with the Prague Opera and quickly became well known for her secure, beautiful, light voice and her superb acting. After regular appearances with the Vienna State Opera, in 1940 she made her debut in La Bohème at the Met where she was a favorite for 17 years. In addition to opera, she was a star of a number of movies in both Europe and the United States. This generously filled DVD contains three documentaries: The Elusive Butterfly (1:03:58), Vox Humana (29:34), and The Last Meeting (2:08), the latter filmed in New York the year before her death February 9, 1994. There are many fascinating photos including some with Arturo Toscanini who was infatuated with her—but she would not leave her husband and children. (There exist recordings of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 ) and Marriage of Figaro  both conducted by Toscanini). This DVD includes 15 recordings of music of Mozart, Offenbach, Verdi and Puccini made from 1937-1950 as well as her famous recording of Songs of Lidice made in 1942 by Jan Masaryk, who is the pianist. Listening to the arias one might suspect that the visual element of Novotna's performance played an important part in her great success, but this is a valuable document of the career of one of the best-known sopranos of the 20th century.
R.E.B. (November 2004)