Classical DVDs and Blu-Rays come in several varieties.
There are the filmed concerts, now commonplace, which are created to
provide content to the few "arts" TV channels around the world, then
sold on disc to music fans. Some of these are operas, and some are just
films of orchestras, ensembles or soloists performing in concert halls.
There are also the, now less common, films of artists playing in grand
rooms and halls in chateaus or other stately buildings.
What do we really expect from them? They can't replace the concert experience,
no matter how good your DVD/Blu-Ray player and audio system. At best,
just like CDs, they provide a record of a performance, but in a way
that documents a specific artist's expressions and emotions. Many of
them are simply films of concerts, with little advantage over audio-only
versions. Operas are an exception, since there's the staging and the
costumes, and, in some cases, inventive camera-work that will get you
much closer to the action than if you were in the audience - just as
theatre broadcast to cinemas gives you a totally different view of a
play than you would see from the cheap seats, or even the front row.
I've seen a lot of DVDs and Blu-Rays, and I've been riveted by some,
bored by others, and greatly surprised by a handful. I very much like
the medium, because they let me approach music differently. However,
there are only a handful of optical discs that I've watched more than
a couple of times. A classical DVD or Blu-Ray needs to have something
special to stay on the top of my pile.
There's an intensely visual performance of Takemitsu's From
me flows what you call time
which is entrancing and creatively
staged. There's a film of Purcell's Fairy
which I spin every now and then. And there's this luminous
set of Beethoven's
performed by Daniel Barenboim in a series of recitals
in Berlin in 2005. (The latter is also available on CD from Decca, as
part of Barenboim's recent "Beethoven for All" series.)
The latter are probably the films that I watch the most. Not only do
I appreciate the subtly inventive camera work, but the performances
are excellent. Each programme - there are eight in all - provides a
selection of the sonatas. Watching these films helped me gain a much
deeper understanding of Beethoven's piano sonatas, and a better appreciation
of Barenboim as an interpreter of them.
So, when I heard that EuroArts was releasing a "new" set of Daniel Barenboim
performing these works, I was very excited. These were recorded in 1983
and 1984 in four different "palaces" and castles, showing Barenboim
at what one might call his middle period. His first recording of the
Beethoven sonatas on disc, in his mid-twenties, bore the impetuousness
of youth. His later interpretations, such as the mid-1980s cycle for
DG, show wisdom acquired through experience. These films are from that
period, and catch Barenboim at a stage where he had been playing these
works for decades. His performances here are polished and refined, though
lacking the sparkle of the 2005 live recordings. Barenboim is generally
expressionless as he performs, and, while he gets a bit animated at
times, his face betrays very little.
The filming is unadventurous. Edits are conservative, there are lots
of long shots, and not many showing Barenboim's dazzling finger-work.
There is much attention to the surroundings; the buildings are merely
the setting for the music, however, and shouldn't be more than that.
There are some very long static shots, which are very different from
today's MTV-influenced videos.
This leads me back to the original question: what does one expect from
a film like this? It's got great music - more than 11 hours of it -,
an excellent performer, and is a visual record of that performer in
his element. But he's really in a studio - albeit a grandiose one -
without the spontaneity of the stage, and in many ways it's similar
to a film of someone in a recording studio. No one will watch 11+ hours
of Beethoven, or even the 200 minutes or more on each disc (Blu-Ray),
in a single sitting. Unlike CDs, which have the convenient length of
about an hour, optical discs require more of a time commitment. You
can dip into them at any point to hear a favorite sonata but then you
will end up not hearing them all.
Technically, this is another of EuroArts' Recorded Excellence releases,
where the company has scanned old 35mm footage to bring it to today's
audiences. The restoration is as good as possible. Compared to something
filmed in HD today, it's lacking; there's grain and blur, lighting issues
and color saturation problems, but they don't distract from the performances.
The images are judiciously cropped from 4:3 to 16:9, and you don't really
notice the difference.
In the end, if you're a fan of Beethoven's piano sonatas, and especially
of Daniel Barenboim's performances, you'll want to own this, as there
aren't many complete sets on film. I prefer the live recitals because
they are more spontaneous, and because each one is a programmatic selection
of three or four sonatas, rather than them being in number order. If
you're not familiar with Barenboim's recordings of Beethoven's piano
sonatas, I strongly recommend you give these a listen - on film or CD.
This is a fine document of one of the best performers of Beethoven on
piano. In a field with a lot of competition, I find his recordings to
be among my favourites. Maybe you will too.
Kirk writes about more than just music on his blog Kirkville.
See also reviews of individual volumes (DVD) by Stephen Greenbank: Volumes
Masterwork Index: Beethoven