Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor; Symphony No. 3

COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: Arthaus Musik
ALBUM TITLE: Mendelssohn
WORKS: Violin Concerto in E minor; Symphony No. 3
PERFORMER: Frank-Michael Erben (violin); Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Masur
CATALOGUE NO: 100 030……….#D30
David Alden’s staging of WIKTERREISE takes the protagonist on a journey from a huge, almost empty room to a white, empty nothingness and back to the room again. Given the chance to act as well as sing, Ian Bostridge is every inch the anguished 19th-century lover, sinking to the floor in contemplation between songs, eyeing his knife in a suicidal moment, and kicking a chair across the room. Whether or not you agree with the concept of staging the piece, of like the way it’s done, nothing really detracts from the beauty of Bostridge’s tone and his enormous range of vocal expression. His capacity for stillness makes the quiet moments, such as the opening of ‘Gefrorne Tränen’ and the end of ‘Frühlmgstraum’ quite breathtaking. The striking change from a resonant acoustic to a dry one cleverly marks transition from the room of the opening numbers to the ‘white void’ of the central numbers of the cycle, increasing the immediacy of these songs.


The picture quality here is one of the best I’ve seen, and there are optional English subtitles. There is also a ‘making of documentary, which made me want to watch the whole thing again in the light of what I’d learned. During rehearsals the artists manage to steer Alden away from some of his wilder ideas, and come up with some good ones of their own.

This film was originally made for television, and is a timely reminder of the current shortage of classical music programming; hut DVDs like this one, and like Bruno Monsaingeon’s MENUHIN documentary, go a long way towards filling the void.

This beautifully crafted portrait of the legendary violinist includes a vast amount of archive footage from the Forties to the Nineties, much of it never seen before, linked together by Menuhin’s own narrative. Menuhin, in a colourful collection of shirts and a variety of poses (including standing on his head), talks about his life and relationships — personal and professional – in an unassuming way. The opening chapters are biographical, telling of his childhood and rise to fame, using shots or newspaper articles to advance the storyline. Menuhin gives favourable criticism to his younger self as he watches the clips on a small I V screen. Details of all the musical excerpts arc listed in the accompanying booklet, as well as in the form of subtitles. The long central section entitled ‘encounters’ is a fabulous collection of Mcnuhin’s performances with many of the major musical names of the last century, including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Mstislav Rostropovich, Colin Davis, Pablo Casals and Herbert von Karajan, whom he describes as a ‘poseur’.

All the Karajan videos of BEETHOVEH’s symphonies have now been released on DVD. While the performances arc highly polished, these are really collectors’ items. There is very little visual variation, and I found myself waiting in vain

for a long shot of the whole orchestra, particularly at climactic moments. The discs don’t make use of the most fundamental of DVD features: there is no menu, so you can only access individual movements by scrolling through each of the preceding ones. Warner’s THE ART OF PIANO is also a reissue of a video version, reviewed in November 1999. It’s easy to navigate between chapters, and the booklet includes a comprehensive listing of all the musical archive material.

None of the newer concert discs capitalise fully on the format. Only two, the Tavener and the Blomstedt/ Leipzig concert, feature both widescreen and full six-channel sound balance. Multiple camera angles, which are beginning to appear on films and pop DVDs, are absent from classical concerts — a shame, as they would suit the format well. There are one or two discs with ‘extras’: the Leipzig concert has an extended documentaty on the events in the city leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, while the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year 2000 concert offers a choice between ballet sequences and the orchestral versions for two pieces.

Of the concert performances in this selection, the live world premiere of TAVENER’s Fall and Resurrection at St Paul’s Cathedral is the one that makes the most of the visual medium. The work is based on a Byzantine chant, and St Paul’s is an appropriate venue: it is full of Byzantine detail, and there is ample opportunity to view it, the shots of the cathedral enhancing the spaciousness of lavener’s music. Lighting is used to good effect: during the pianissimo opening, the orchestra is bathed in a translucent blue light; the representation of chaos that follows is accompanied by rapidly changing coloured lights. The final section is magical: during a spine-tingling, slow-moving crescendo, the cameras pan out, culminating in views from the back of the cathedral and above; then in the final bars, but before the orchestra stops playing, the cathedral bells ring out, and the scene fades to the outside world, with London buses passing the cathedral. There’s an introduction from Stephanie Hughes, and an insightful interview with Tavener.

Unlike this disc, the remaining concerts seem to lack a raison d’etre. The added visual dimension is not always a good thing: in some cases it actually detracts from good performances. In THE CREATION, Rene Pape’s excellent singing is marred by the fact that he spends too much time with his head buried in his copy, while Edith Mathis sports a dress suitable for radio. The sound quality and balance are disappointing; the orchestral detail is captured well, but the choir sounds too far back. The piece would also benefit from onscreen subtitles, or at least a text and translation in the booklet: something that would be taken for granted on a CD version. Vengerov’s performance on the SIBELIUS/FALLA disc is another that might have been better heard and not seen: his technique is spectacular in close-up, but his shut-eye playing is not very viewer-friendly.

There is some music — like the Bach Toccata on the LEIPZIG disc-that does benefit from the visual aspect. Apart from page-turners, who ever has the opportunity to see an organist’s hands and feet in action? Arthaus has chosen some photogenic venues: the shots of the St Nicholas church might perhaps distract the viewer from the fact that the St Thomas’s Choir sounds rather breathy and laboured in Bach’s ‘Fiirchte dich nicht’, and that Viktoria Mullova’s careful rendition of Bach’s Chaconne from Partita No. 2 suffers somewhat from the very resonant acoustic.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra seems more at home in its Gewandhaus for the MENDELSSOHN concert. Kurt Masur is a pleasure to watch, but it’s a shame that the beautiful playing from the violin and flute at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is spoilt by loud coughs in the audience — and there is more to come in the Violin Concerto. The DRESDEN STAATSKAPELLE concert celebrates the orchestra’s 450th birthday with a programme of works originally premiered by the orchestra; the ensemble of today displays a glorious string sound in Wagner’s Rienzi Overture and Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, but appears uncomfortable in a Vivaldi concetto.

The setting for the STRAUSS GALA – the Heldenplatz in Vienna, with an attractive darkening skyscape behind Mehta’s head — raises it above the usual level for this type of disc. The BERLIN PHILHARMONIC’S NEW YEAR GALA features excellent performances from the soloists and a well-focused choir. The NEW YEAR’S DAY CONCERT


has the benefit of full six-channel sound, but it is let down by its 4×3 letterbox format.