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Music Reviews

Laserdisc Music - July, 1997

By John Sunier

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Ratings:
Extraordinary
Good
Acceptable
Mediocre
Poor

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Bernard Herrmann MUSIC FOR THE MOVIES: Bernard Herrmann
Sony Classical Film & Video LD SLV 67169, 57:00
Performance: *****
Audio: **
Video: ***

This is one of a series of four TV documentaries seeking to bring the story of film music to life. I believe they were all done for French TV. Of the three of the four on specific composers, the Herrmann is probably the most interesting and the music of the greatest value. I was somewhat disappointed to find the soundtrack, though digital, is mono on all four laserdiscs.

With over 50 films to his credit, Herrmann is practically the Beethoven of film music. He worked with Orson Welles and Martin Scorsese but his years with Alfred Hitchcock are the best known. The film's many interviews present directors Scorsese and Claude Chabrol, composers Elmer Bernstein and David Raksin, some film scholars and editors, Herrmann's first wife, and even some footage of interviews with Herrmann himself. The strained relationship with Hitchcock is delineated, which ended with Herrmann's score for Torn Curtain being thrown out. A scene from the film is shown as it would have been with Herrmann's music instead of that Hitchcock used in the release.

One comes away from this and the others in the series with a renewed appreciation of how much a good score can add to the impact of a motion picture.

John Sunier

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MUSIC FOR THE MOVIES: Georges Delerue
Sony Classical Film & Video SLV 67168. 60:00
Performance: *****
Audio: **
Video: ***

This French composer worked on many of the New Wave efforts, for people such as Truffaut and Resnais. He also work in Hollywood where Oliver Stone used Delerue for two of his films (Salvador and Platoon), and in Britain where Ken Russell felt he was a genius of film scoring. Among the film clips presented in this documentary are those from Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, The Story of Adele H., Two English Girls and Women in Love.

The interviews in French of course have subtitles. Two disappointing aspects of the documentary were the mono soundtrack and the dependence on showing some of the film clips directly off the Movieola or flatbed editor, with its poor and flickering image quality. Aside from perhaps Jules et Jim, I wasn't stimulated to want to see the films once again to better appreciate the music tracks, as happened with many of the Herrmann efforts. By the way, the other two laserdiscs in this series are on Toru Takemitsu & The Hollywood Sound. The series is also running on PBS.

John Sunier

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Wynton Marsalis: The London Concert
With the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Raymond Leppard. Haydn: Trumpet Concerto in E Flat Major; Hummel: Trumpet Concerto in E Major; Leopold Mozart: Trumpet Concerto in D Major
Sony Classical Film & Video SLV 53482. 46:08
Performance: *****
Audio: *****
Video: ****

Marsalis won a Grammy over a dozen years ago for his music CD of these three Classical period concertos. Now, after a life primarily in jazz, he has approached these works again with a greater maturity and taped them for the high definition video cameras in a gorgeous old church in London. In an interview printed on the jacket Marsalis says that it may be a completely different way of playing from jazz but it's not a different way of thinking. He plays written, not improvised cadenzas in the works. Marsalis also touches on the jazz work helping him to play the classical works with a certain optimism, and one can identify with that in these sparkling performances.

One might think three rather similar trumpet concertos in a row to be boring with only Marsalis standing in front of the small orchestra, but the setting, playing and high definition images and sound keep one's attention focused for the three-quarters of an hour of the concert. The letterboxed widescreen transfer down from the HDTV master aids the feeling of this being a special sort of concert. It certainly scores over the quality of image and sound one would get with a PBS symphonic concert telecast via cable or antenna. Although not in Dolby Surround format, the church ambience is well-captured and was easily decoded by my Fosgate processor for a convincing surround field on the "Classical" setting with a bit of additional delay added on the surrounds.

John Sunier

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Tchaikovsky Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1 ("Winter Dreams"); Variations on a Rococo Theme; Francesca da Rimini
Antonio Meneses, cello/Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Fedoseyev.
Pioneer Artists LD, PA-92-486, 1:20
Performance: ****
Audio: ****
Video: ****

A pleasing program of unhackneyed Tchaikovsky with performers who predictably know their Tchaikovsky backwards and forwards. This is Cycle No. 1 of a six-part Tchaikovsky series; I'm not informed about the remainder of the series. All were taped during live concerts in the Old Opera of Frankfurt Germany with a large stage area and good acoustics appropriate to the video coverage.

The Francesca opener really starts the concert off with a bang. This is powerful musical drama convincingly brought off; I believe only Stokowski has equalled the high voltages of this performance. For a change of pace in the program, Mensese stresses the lyric element in the Rococo Variations. The camera stays rather close on the cellist throughout his solos. Editing throughout the concert is visually interesting without being distracting, but TV directors always seem to love those French horn passages because they look so flashy all lined up in a row.

Sonics in the concert have an especially extended bass end. (You may want to turn down your subwoofer a bit if the last LD you watched was an action movie.) But there is a strange balance that favors the string sections over the brass and woodwinds in many passages. Sustaining visual interest in a long symphony such as Tchaikovsky's First always presents a challenge for video music presentations. This one didn't prove exactly boring, but I wouldn't have objected to some tasteful Russian winter scenes here and there -- Tchaikovsky writes wonderful icicle music! The one element that attracts the viewer's eye is of course conductor Fedoseyev, and when the going gets energetic he proves fascinating to watch. I especially liked his style at the conclusion of Francesca, where he appears to be trying unsuccessfully to shake loose his cufflinks.

John Sunier

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"SOLTI AND PERAHIA AT THE BARBICAN" Beethoven: Coriolan Overture; Piano Concerto No. 1 in C; Symphony No. 7 in A
Sir Georg Solti, conductor; Murray Perahia, piano; The London Symphony Orchestra
Pioneer Classics LD PC-95-099, 90:00
Performance: *****
Audio: *****
Video: ****

Archiving a 1987 live concert at London's Barbican auditorium taped by BBC-TV, this laserdisc awards its director, Humphrey Burton, equal credit to Solti and Perahia. This would seem to indicate some sort of very special visual approach, but the style is typical concert music for TV editing. Like many of the straight documentation performance videos, it sometimes rises to extremely effective visual heights and at other times makes you tend to agree with those who say television was never intended for the presentation of classical music.

The Beethoven piano concerto is the hit of this LD; it's a dynamic, beautifully balanced performance by Perahia, with superb support from Solti's players. Both the music and the magnificent performance serve to elicit a response in the listener more connected to a much "bigger" work such as one of the Brahms or Rachmaninoff piano concertos; while in fact the materials with which Beethoven is dealing in this very "classical" work are really quite simple. The Seventh performance is not quite up to the same level, though the London forces certainly create a sumptous sound. It is well-served by the stereo digital soundtrack, and as with most live concert performances there is plenty of ambient information that decodes well with surround sound processors for an enveloping soundfield. Just don't use the Dolby Pro Logic setting if you can avoid it.

John Sunier

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LAURIE ANDERSON: Home of the Brave, a concert film
Warner Bros./Lumivision WideScreen Edition
LVD9530, 90:00
Performance: ***
Audio: ****
Video: ****

Laurie Anderson is a wide-ranging performance artist who's hard to describe if you haven't seen one of her cutting-edge multi-media presentations. And this LD is your chance if you are open to this high tech bizarre alternative universe. The New Music artist is joined by seven other musicians playing strange instruments such as electric guitars that bend like rubber, by a huge screen onto which video and slide images are projected, and by various absurd props. Among the other personages who come and go are writer William Boroughs, who appears doing a tango with Ms. Anderson. She shares with many other creative people today the ability (and interest) to make a body of original work out of next to nothing at all, including material one would have never considered a useful subject for artistic treatment.

The music is also difficult to describe, being minimalistic, highly rhythmic and mostly electronic with a number of keyboards on the stage. Most of the 19 sections in the show feature Anderson's patented very-hip narration over the music with a great deal of reverb and other "enhancement" of the voice often making it unintelligible (at least to these ears that are not trained in discerning pounding rock and rap lyrics). Some of the bits are fairly straight-ahead Latin or Soul Music. The visual part of the presentation often seems the most successful, with some striking images displayed across the letterboxed field of view, usually with extreme theatrical color filters throwing the scene into an unreal dimension. Some of those in brilliant reds seem to be taking a calculated advantage of television's difficulty in handling deep reds on the screen.

John Sunier

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Copyright 1997 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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