Archive for the ‘DVDs’ Category

Bartók: Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion

Performers: Sir Georg Solti, Murray Perahia (Pianos), Evelyn Glennie and David Corkhill (Percussion)

Venue: Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh, England

Year of recording: 1987

Label: Kultur Video

Running time: 30 minutes (Documentary), 28 minutes (Performance)

Sound formats: Dolby 2.0

About the Video: This entertaining DVD includes the 1987 BBC production featuring conductor Sir Georg Solti performing the technically challenging sonata, accompanied with Solti & Perahia play Bartók, an illuminating documentary about the work and its recording.


Solti & Perahia play Bartók chronicles Solti’s intense fascination with the sonata and the tedium he endures in order to successfully record the piece. Solti had the honourable task of turning the pages for Bartók’s ivory-tapping wife, Ditta Pásztory, when she and her husband first introduced the sonata in 1938. The experience motivated Solti to perform the work with the assistance of pianist Murray Perahia and percussionists Evelyn Glennie and David Corkhill. The conductor offers several insights into the sonata, noting that it is “practically impossible” to play if one is to perfectly follow the composer’s markings, while Glennie emphasizes the highly specific instructions Bartók provides for the various percussion instruments. The bulk of the documentary is devoted to the preparation for the recording; countless hours soar by as the group rehearses and then heads off to the audio room in order to evaluate their grasp of the Hungarian’s masterwork. Satisfying Solti is a formidable task, as he demonstrates an unrivaled knowledge of the sonata and clearly understands how the sounds of the pianos and the percussion instruments are to weave together as Bartók intended.


The excitement really begins when the team gets down to brass tacks in the disc’s second segment. Solti and his colleagues are surrounded by an impervious darkness which complements the mysterious nature of the sonata rather nicely. The maestro maintains a steely determination throughout the course of the performance, and Glennie and Corkhill are amazingly focused and collected despite the demands of the piece.


Perahia is the most interesting to observe, however; he’s so absorbed by the challenge of maintaining synchronicity with the other players that you almost begin to fear that he’s about to slip out of consciousness.


There are several insightful camera angles documenting every part of the action. The perspective changes at a brisk pace during many of the more hectic passages, making for an exhilarating viewing experience. The resolution quality is what you’d expect from a 1980s recording, but all essential details are easily seen. Thankfully, there are no distortions in the sound either.


Overall, the disc serves as a concise introduction to one of Bartók’s seminal compositional endeavours. Let’s hope that more of these remarkable modernist chamber music recordings saunter our way.

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Smetana: Má Vlast

Smetana: Má Vlast

Conductor: Rafael Kubelik

Orchestra: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

Venue: Munich Herkulessaal, Germany

Year of recording: 1984

Label: EuroArts

Running time: 82 minutes (Performance), 11 minutes (Introduction)

Sound formats: PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1

About the Composer: Regarded as one of the most important Czech composers of all time, the spirit of Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) lives on in his famous work Má Vlast, a cycle of six nationalistic tone poems. Smetana was afflicted with deafness when he commenced work on Má Vlast, but like Beethoven, the loss of hearing did not prevent him from making a remarkable contribution to the classical canon.

About the Video: Having amassed numerous classical discs in the past couple of years, I decided some time ago that it would be an interesting change of pace to acquire a video recording of an exciting concert performance so that I could try to improve my understanding of the sounds made by the various instruments of the orchestra. I was curious about Má Vlast for some time, so when I discovered that EuroArts had recently released a 1984 recording of Rafael Kubelik conducting the piece, the disc was promptly placed into my Amazon shopping cart.

The consensus seems to be that while a handful of strong readings have been produced by numerous conductors, Kubelik is the greatest interpreter of Smetana’s epic work. Although all of the segments of Má Vlast are invigorating, the two main draws are Vltava, a serene paean to the titular Czechoslovakian river, and Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields), an intense piece with a very chilling introductory passage. It’s not long before one can see that Kubelik might benefit from having a nice absorbent towel in his left hand to compliment the baton in his right; the members of the orchestra, on the other hand, seem fairly relaxed throughout the entire performance.

The slightly grainy footage is solid for the most part, providing the viewer with numerous camera angles highlighting the orchestra and some of the ornate architecture of the concert hall. Unfortunately, there are some elements present that should have been effaced. When the camera decides to observe a specific group of musicians, it will often make a transition by slowly zooming in on one or more of the performers’ instruments and then intentionally slip out of focus. Some might find this amusing, but I find it rather irritating and would prefer to see the director simply move to a different angle of the action. However, it’s not nearly as bad as when various footage of Kubelik and the instruments is taken and superimposed onto the screen when the camera is showing the entire orchestra, as shown in the image below. I’m not sure if these sorts of filming techniques are de rigueur for concert recordings, but I certainly don’t care for them at all.

Even though some of the directorial decisions made aren’t in line with my preferences, there are still enough positive elements in the recording to warrant a purchase. The sound is clear, and a brief introduction concisely describes Smetana’s life and his inspirations for each of the tone poems in Má Vlast. A few minutes feature Kubelik being interviewed about the significance of Smetana’s work, and one can see that he has an indomitable enthusiasm for the composer. After hearing these works, you might just follow suit!

A trailer of the recording can be seen at the Naxos site.

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