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Review of newly released DVDs from Arthaus, Universal and TDK

The release of new classical DVDs is not yet a flood, but we are getting there.

Arthaus continues to dominate the classical market with a constant monthly release list that always offers something of interest. Universal, who have just released their first batch of discs, have not yet had the courage to throw caution to the wind and issue truly exciting material - instead, we have well-worn favourites, usually from Met productions, that are staples of the repertoire. Carmen, Il Trovatore and Die Zauberflöte are among their first issues. TDK offer the most interesting disc under review here (Bruckner's Eighth Symphony) - although I understand there are UK distribution problems for new issues on this label. American readers will not take kindly to the news that this disc, whilst (theoretically) available in the UK on a Region 2 disc, and in Germany on a Region 0, is only seemingly available in PAL format, and not NTSC.

The advantage of DVD over the video format it is slowly replacing is that it offers the potential for extra material. To date, classical DVDs, always more expensive than the mainstream Hollywood blockbusters, have singularly failed to do this. It was refreshing, therefore, to receive Arthaus' new disc of Penderecki's Symphony No 7, 'The Seven Gates of Jerusalem' [Arthaus 100 008]. This extraordinary disc not only offers us a definitive performance of this large scale choral work, but a 60 minute profile of the composer by Andreas Missler-Morell, a commentary by Penderecki himself on the symphony, and a 20 minute interview with the composer. If this were not enough, score plus, successfully used by DG on some of its CD ROM compatible discs, is here accessible as a subtitle synchronous with the music.

Penderecki at one stage stood between the avant-garde and spiritualism. Threnos, a politically sharp lament for the victims of Hiroshima, represented the more modernist Penderecki, but as early as 1960 he was already writing heavily religious works, The Psalms of David being one of the earliest. The Seventh Symphony, based on Old Testament texts connected with Jerusalem, is a glorious, large-scale work that mixes hymnal choruses of staggering mightiness with poetic, reflective passages whose lyricism stands in direct contrast to the overall structure of the work. It receives a fine performance with orchestra and soloists dedicated throughout.

The profile of Penderecki takes us on a journey through the composer's childhood and adulthood, his inspirations, both under communism and latterly under a freer Eastern Europe, all interspersed with excerpts from his own music. It is a revealing documentary of a major composer and with music from Threnos, The Devils of Loudun and Metamorphosen (the second violin concerto) as illustrations to Penderecki's work gives us a cogent and universal portrait of the composer. This disc is highly recommended.

Arthaus continue the classical, as opposed to operatic, vein with a fine concert commemorating the 450th anniversary of the Dresden Staatskapelle [Arthaus 100 028]. Conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli, the programme includes performances of Strauss' Alpine Symphony, Wagner's Overture to Rienzi, Weber's Jubel Overture and Vivaldi's Concerto di Dresda. Recorded in 1998, the programme at first seems wildly eccentric but its raison d'être is simply to allow the great Dresden orchestra to play those works of which it gave the world premieres when it was originally called the Saxon State Ensemble.

This orchestra gave the first performances of many other works - including Wagner's Tannhauser and Flying Dutchman, Richard Strauss' Elektra, Salome and Der Rosenkavalier and, latterly, works by Wolfgang Rihm, Paul Dessau and Hanns Eisler. Both the Wagner and Strauss pieces on this disc reveal the opulence of this orchestra - particularly in the strings. Rienzi is given a truly exciting account, but the honours go to Sinopoli's performance of the Alpine Symphony - a magnificent, graphic and colour-hewn interpretation. There are moments when the iciness of the 'on the glacier' section resemble the frozen fountain of hair that has become Sinopoli's trademark. The storm itself is effusively done, the fullness of Strauss' orchestration caught in state of the art sound. Panoramic shots of the Semper Opera (so lovingly restored after the destruction of Dresden) add to the attractions of this disc.

Operatic discs continue to reflect a shortage of inspiration. Universal's new batch of releases includes three operas from Met productions dating from 1989 to 1991. Of these, Carmen is the best of the bunch [073 000-9]. It is an extremely exciting performance, quite beautifully staged and with Agnes Baltsa and Jose Carreras both somewhere near the peak of their considerable form. This is, however, traditional fare - no matter how lavishly it may appear on screen. How people will respond to the Met's 1991 Magic Flute [073 003-9] will depend entirely on the merits, or otherwise, of David Hockney's stage design. Moving Mozart's opera of freemasonry and fantasy to a hideous fairy-tale world of grossly costumed caricatures and puppet dragons may be appealing to some. A chariot pulled by lions, fluffy-felt looking camels, clouds that resemble iron lungs, and a mountain that looks as if it is made from boxes dominate in a production that often seems very wide of the mark. It deflects from a sprightly interpretation (unlike Levine's latter-day Mozart) and one that is sung with some flair. Luciana Serra, imperious as the Queen of the Night, sings with considerable beauty of tone, as does Kathleen Battle as Pamina. Even though James Levine is by no means as gaunt and statuesque as Klemperer in this opera one constantly craves a little more electricity.

Rather more interesting is Valery Gergiev's Kirov production of Verdi's La Forza del Destino [Arthaus 100 078]. Recorded in 1998, this production was based on the original 1862 version which Verdi created specifically for the St Petersburg premiere. Directed by Elija Moshinsky, this stage production used sets based on the original performance more than 130 years ago. For some this may be a drawback, but the results are highly persuasive. The St Petersburg version deviates quite significantly from the Italian version (the most commonly staged). Missing here are the turbulent war scenes and Alvaro's suicide in Act III (here he lives again). What makes this a memorable performance of one of Verdi's greatest operas is the sheer brilliance of the cast. As Leonora, Galina Gorchakova is outstanding - giving us a lastingly memorable 'Pace, pace, mio dio'. Gegam Grigorian, as Alvaro and Nikolai Putilin as Carlos, are superb adversaries. It is conducted with Gergiev's usual fire and panache.

The TDK issue of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony, recorded at St Florian, and performed by Pierre Boulez and the Vienna Philharmonic, is a wonderful disc and the only one of these discs I would unhesitatingly recommend [TDK - DV-VPOBR]. I am not sure what it is about Bruckner's Eighth that makes it so attractive to record companies to release on DVD, but this performance, in a short space of time, is the third performance of this symphony to appear on this format. Recordings by Zubin Mehta and Carlo Maria Giulini (not with the Vienna Philharmonic, unfortunately) are, in their own ways, fine readings, but Boulez's staggering performance leaves them standing at the starting line.

My own view is that this is not the same performance which Deutsche Grammophon recently released on CD [DG 459 678-2]. Though Boulez performed the symphony a number of times over a short period of time, the DG recording has marginally less electricity to it - suggesting that it was recorded without an audience. It also appears to be played at slightly faster tempi. The greatness of the interpretation remains however. This is still an awesome performance of this Everest of symphonies - as dramatic in the two opening movements as it is momentous in the final two.

What is now even clearer seeing Boulez conduct the work is how suited the conductor is to Bruckner's particular sound world. Hardly the most idiomatic of conductors, Boulez seems to conduct almost antithetically, but he still achieves a miraculous sense of space and suspense. Grand gestures are clearly taken up by a Vienna Philharmonic on magnificent form, even if Boulez' actual beat seems often to verge on the point of deliberate vagueness. The tonal continuity of this performance is ultimately irresistible.

Played in the actual church that Bruckner was organist, the performance has an added authenticity that Boulez seems happy to divulge. With scenes of frescos and skulls interspersed with close ups of the orchestra the sense of this symphony's epic scale is visibly, as well as aurally, realised.

Included on this DVD is a short interview with Boulez - in German, but with subtitles. It is not especially revealing (partly due to the rather dense interviewer, I suspect), but nevertheless gives us an insight into how Bruckner fits into the pantheon of composers Boulez has championed. There are some interesting and perceptive comments from Boulez on performing within church acoustics, but little else that is revelatory or new.

Both Arthaus and TDK seem to have the correct approach to classical DVDs. Performances which are new to the visual format seem to me to be of much greater musical and documentary value than previously reissued performances which are of little or marginal interest. Enhanced picture quality and the benefits of digital or stereo round sound are not significant virtues when the performances can often be sterile. This is not to say that Universal's first releases are unimportant because they are not, just that they do not correspond to the ideal for the format. Universal do, of course, have quite some exceptional live performances in their vaults - one thinks of Wagner operas from Bayreuth or Strauss' Elektra, conducted by Karl Bohm, all of which I would like to see issued sooner rather than later. They have partially embraced the ideal of new material with a DVD release of Anne-Sophie Mutter in Beethoven violin sonatas (and a documentary) and a future release will include the nine Beethoven symphonies under Abbado.

I suspect that DVD will only take off in a big way if, and when, record companies or indeed opera companies and orchestras realise the potential that contemporary performances offer. ENO's recent production of a staged Verdi Requiem seems ideal fodder for the DVD market (challenging, unique, visually stimulating), yet I doubt it will ever see the light of day on any visual format. One could argue that just as pirated performances of opera productions from Bayreuth, Covent Garden, the Met or elsewhere have offered us an on-the-wings insight into live performance, and enriched our musical understanding at the same time, so DVD should offer us the same. This may be the future, and it may mean that record companies have to put their houses in order to make it happen, but at the moment it looks like the one lasting hope for the medium of classical music on DVD. Just as CD buyers have learned to become discriminate in the market place, buyers of DVDs will also become more and more choosy. Now seems as good as time as any for record companies to look more carefully at the DVDs people want to buy.

Marc Bridle

Ratings for DVDs reviewed:

Penderecki - Crotchet  £18.99

Dresden Concert - Crotchet  £18.99

Carmen - Crotchet  £19.99

Mozart - Crotchet  £19.99

Verdi -  Crotchet  £24.99

Bruckner - Amazon UK  £18.99

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