Striking though parts of this film are — not least the setting of Berlin’s Old Power Station Kraftwerk Rummelsburg — I probably found it to be striking for quite the wrong reasons. That Henning Kasten’s style of filming, taking the viewer on a flight from within the orchestra on a single unbroken span (though this is actually more fragmented than I think Kasten’s would lead us to believe), is neither new nor original. Back in 1987 the Italian film director Dario Argento made a film, Opera
, in which swooping camera movements immerse the viewer within, and above, the audience and among the action on stage during a performance of Verdi’s Macbeth
. Kasten’s camera probably glides and creeps through the orchestra with more grace than Argento’s did during his film, but where the latter achieved heights of unmatched theatricality Kasten’s simply spotlights the deficiencies in a rather run-of-the-mill and static performance of Brahms’ Second Symphony
There are moments where Kasten’s get the “flight” through the orchestra just right — highlighting, for example, the horn solo in the first movement — but this is sometimes marred by very close-up shots of the backs of players’ heads, almost as if the camera has missed its mark or just panned in too closely. One of his objectives in filming this way was to achieve an acoustic correlation between the images. In other words, you hear what you see. This is obvious with instruments themselves (a flute, oboe or horn solo), but works particularly well when the camera is focusing on the bowing of double basses and your audio output is able to distinguish a rich bass line — very well spot-lit in the first movement. “The sound changes according to the position of the camera: An instrument closer to the viewer sounds more immediate and louder than instruments further away – creating an experience of being fully immersed within the orchestra.”
Notwithstanding Kasten’s visual objective, the major problem with this film really rests with a, frankly, dire performance of the symphony itself. Sokhiev’s tempos are not in themselves particularly slow, but they sound beyond lugubrious. This is one of Brahms’ sunniest works, but given how serious Sokhiev looks much of the time you’d think he had taken the composer at his word when he described the work as one of “mourning”.
I came away from this disc with two distinct impressions. Firstly, that Sokhiev would have been better served in music he is known to conduct rather well and secondly, that Kasten’s vision of a “flight through the orchestra” would have achieved more tangible results with a symphony that has less classical proportions than Brahms’ Second
. Rachmaninov’s Second
or Prokofiev’s Fifth
would have been wiser choices. The results we have, however, are very mixed. Camera-work has, and will continue, to evolve when it comes to filming orchestral performance and not everyone will be satisfied by the outcomes. It’s arguable that some of the lingering shots and angles border on the intrusive, just as some of the wide-angled shots filmed from overhead are so panoramic as to be musically meaningless within the parameters set down by the director. The logic must be that you become more fully immersed within the orchestra the closer to the instruments you become, so Kasten’s use of panoramic shots as the camera moves away from the orchestra suggests the opposite. That said, we are a world away from the films of Herbert von Karajan, for example, where the focus was very much on the conductor rather than the music; here, Sokhiev is less important than both the orchestra and Brahms. Sound quality is first rate, helped by the lack of an audience and the acoustics of the Berlin factory in which the performance is played. Unfortunately, though, I found this to be a missed opportunity.