Classical music on video furnishes performances of all kinds from the solo guitar of Andres Sevogia to Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand.”
Period and sound quality range from black-and-white, scratchy-sounding snippets of Richard Strauss conducting “Till Eulenspiegel” in the 1940s to last summer’s intense, beautifully filmed and recorded Glyndebourne production of Alban Berg’s “Lulu.”
Let me admit, I find watching orchestra concerts on video bothersome. Tricky camera technique - with its close, close, close-ups, with its shifts and fades - inadvertently take your ears to places they don’t belong, visually over-emphasizing players or parts that may or may not be that important musically.
Solo recitals are somewhat better, even if it gets tiresome to have the violinist’s bridge fill up your screen or to examine the pianist’s shirt cuffs from below.
Perhaps more music videos are bought during the gift-buying frenzy than any other time of year. To that end, here are some of my favorites:
Horowitz plays Mozart (DG) is exceptional because Horowitz was exceptional. Nobody could finds as many tonal colors behind those black-and-white piano keys as Horowitz. Whatever you might think of his very romantic approach to Mozart, his playing of Mozart’s Concerto in A major (K. 488) with the La Scala Orchestra under Carlo Maria Giulini is magnificent. The accompanying interview and rehearsal scenes are entirely too cute, but they can be ignored.
Glenn Gould plays Bach’s Goldberg Variations (Sony) was one of the Canadian pianist’s last projects, a sad reminder that Gould died when he was only 50. The phenomenal control he had over every stand of musical texture makes his playing a wonder. The video also features Gould in conversation with Bruno Monsaigeon. Very interesting.
Rostropovich plays Bach’s Cello Suites is simply beautiful. The Russian cellist has plays these masterworks all his life, but never recorded all six of them before. The venue he chose was a small church in the south of France.
Rostropovich’s famous intensity draws you into the austere works in a nearly hypnotic way.
Handel’s Messiah receives a fine performance in a live concert filmed in Dublin in 1992. Sir Neville Marriner leads the orchestra and chorus of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in a clean, lean, reading filled with Handelian vitality. The soloists - soprano Syliva McNair, mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter, alto Michael Chance, tenor Jerry Hadley and bass-baritone Robert Lloyd are all first-rate.
Opera must be seen for full effect. Regrettably, opera singers are seldom a pure delight to watch. Some of them simply can’t act. Others are unsuited to romantic roles by their appearance.
But there are some fine opera performances on video.
Bizet’s Carmen (Erato), with Julia Migenes in the title role, was originally made as a film. It is the sexiest “Carmen” I know and very well sung.
Placido Domingo doesn’t radiate much sexual energy, but then, he’s not supposed to, is he? He sings beautifully.
Lorin Maazel’s conducting shows the professionalism of his long experience in the opera house.
Verdi’s La Traviata (Paramount) in Franco Zeffirelli’s production was also film version the Italian director made for the Metropolitan Opera. Teresa Stratas is one of the very best singing actresses in opera, and she makes Violetta wonderfully vulnerable.
Domingo sings Alfredo as only he can. Sherrill Milnes provides a special treat as the elder Germont, one of the few Germonts you can truly feel sorry for. The Met orchestra plays splendidly under James Levine.
Bernstein’s West Side Story (DG) may be a musical, it may be an opera, but it is definitely the greatest music Leonard Bernstein ever wrote. For me, Jose Carreras took some getting used to as Tony, as did Dame Kiri Te Kanawa as Maria (their accents needed to be reversed, and both escaped Americanization entirely).
That anomaly notwithstanding, this very operatic production serves as the standard by which others will be judged. And it was conducted by its creator. Don’t miss it.
Don’t count on finding classical music videos locally on the shelves of record or video stores in your neighborhood.
To order locally, try Street Music (624-772 2) or Hastings (924-0667).
I have had good luck nationally with Tower (800-ASK TOWER) or, for opera videos the Metropolitan Opera Shops (800-453-2258). Have your credit card handy.