Some thoughts on Performance DVDs

I’ve often debated the value of performance DVDs over recordings. Obviously, in many areas, especially opera, video recordings are invaluable documents. Since production values are intrinsic to so many operas today, unless you are lucky enough to be there, a DVD performance may be the only way to experience the entire production—not just the singing. However, pure performance DVDs can be a mixed bag. Unlike commercial films or opera productions (which require a massive film crew), a “straight” performance film director has to find interesting visuals to enhance what can be a fairly static format. Close-ups of hands, facial expressions, etc., are just the beginning. What do you do with a film that simply documents a performer sitting at his or her instrument in recital? Sometimes, there isn’t much that can be done. For a DVD to surpass an audio or live performance, I am looking for details beyond the playing–a visual clue that reveals something new about the artist. While I don’t think performance DVDs will ever completely replace recordings, I think that, more and more, they offer a unique perspective on the artist. And, sometimes, they are the only way to experience an artist in performance.

The Medici Arts label has just launched Classic Archive. The first offerings from this promising series feature DVD performances of two iconic Russian pianists, Sviatoslav Richter and Tatiana Nikolayeva, as well as the Bulgarian-born French pianist Alexis Weissenberg. Each of the documents provides lovers of these great artists with much to applaud and ideas to ponder.

Sviatoslav Richter (1915–1997) was, unquestionably, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century (and one of my absolute personal favorites). A complicated and temperamental man, Richter hated being filmed. The performance documented on this DVD was from a Barbican recital in 1989. Richter, as many know, was known to cancel concerts at a moment’s notice. He also was unaware that this concert was to be filmed until just shortly before the performance. After a considerable and heated discussion, he agreed to the filming, on the condition that no camera would be in his field of vision. This challenge was overcome at the expense of the film crew, who were accustomed to expending thousands of watts of lighting power when televising such an event. Richter insisted on restricting the lighting to a single 40-watt bulb, focused not on him, but on his music. This eccentric lightening was unconventional even without cameras present, but it was his standard practice at concerts, as he wanted to focus maximum attention on the music and de-emphasize the importance of the performer. It also served to mask his use of a score, a practice he implemented in 1979 after a serious memory lapse at a concert.

In the film, it is clear that Richter is uncomfortable knowing cameras are present. On a number of occasions, he looks at the ceiling, presumably where one of the cameras was perched. What is perhaps most interesting about this film is watching a great artist clearly struggling with his demons and aging as he negotiates a solo recital. The Chopin portions of the recital are particularly interesting, as the selections from the Études, Op. 10 and Op. 25 shed light on Richter’s incredible genius and magnetism, and, at the same time, document the difficulties he faced in his later career. That said, Richter closes his Barbican recital with a towering performance of Chopin’s Étude, Op. 25/11 in A minor, which brings the house down, highlighting his legendary artistry. Richter enthusiasts also will enjoy comparing the Barbican performance of Chopin’s Étude, Op. 10, No. 4 to the one included in the bonus material, which features Richter at his peak in 1969.

This DVD includes performances of Mozart’s Piano Sonatas, K 282, K 545, and K 310; Chopin’s Études, Op. 10, No. 1 to No. 6 and No. 10 to No. 12, and Études, Op. 25, Nos. 5, 6, 8, and 11. Bonus material includes a BBC broadcast from 1969 with Richter performing Chopin’s Étude, Op. 10, Nos. 4 and 12; and Rachmaninoff’s Étude-Tableau, Op. 39, No. 3.

The distinguished pianist, composer, and teacher Tatiana Nikolayeva (1924–1993) represents the another example of the wealth of piano talent to flood from the former Soviet Union during the 20th century. Shostakovich’s cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues always held a special place in her heart: she inspired and premiered it in Leningrad in 1952, and it was the piece she performed when she died in concert in San Francisco in 1993. She also made three recordings of the work. The lifelong friendship between Shostakovich and Nikolayeva began when the 26-year-old pianist won first prize at the 1950 Bach Piano competition, organized in Leipzig for the bicentennial of the German composer’s death. As a member of the jury, Shostakovich (1906–1975) was so impressed and inspired by her playing that he returned to Moscow to compose his own set of Preludes and Fugues in 1950-51. This DVD features a BBC broadcast recording from December 1992 of the complete cycle and includes more of Shostakovich’s music played by Tatiana Nikolayeva in a documentary bonus film. This document was perhaps the most straightforward of the three releases. Nikolayeva even at the end of her life was in complete command at the piano. Her technique and musicianship were flawless, and what came across so clearly in the film was that Shostakovich’s music was as much a part of her as breathing. After all, she had lived with it since the beginning, and it was written for her.

The final release was, in some ways, the most interesting of the three. I will go on record now as saying I never loved Weissenberg’s playing. I own some of his early Chopin recordings, which I never liked. And, after watching this DVD, I confess I still don’t like his Chopin. However, this DVD, which is taken from several sources, is perhaps the most rich of the three releases. Alexis Weissenberg, who was born in 1929 in Sofia, Bulgaria, studied both in Bulgaria and Jerusalem before attending The Juilliard School, where he studied with famed pedagogue Olga Samaroff (conductor Leopold Stokowki’s first wife).

This archival DVD includes a 1965 film by Swedish filmmaker and former assistant to Ingmar Bergman, Åke Falck, which shows Mr. Weissenberg performing Stravinsky’s Petrushka Suite. The shooting took 10 days and required a special “silent” piano be built; Weissenberg performed in sync with a playback of his actual performance, while he listened through loudspeakers set at a distance from him (the viewer learns much more about the making of the film in the bonus material). The result is an amazing feat of both pianism and filmmaking, which brings the complexity of Stravinsky’s fiendishly difficult piano score into sharp focus (the composer transcribed the Petrushka Suite note-for-note from the orchestral version). It is, in some ways, very much a music video. There are wild shots of Weissenberg’s massively powerful hands as they negotiate the length and breadth of the instrument. From registral leaps to huge chords, nothing is too difficult for Mr. Weissenberg’s prodigious technique. He is perfect for this music, and Falck’s film really shows an artist who is one with his craft in a visually arresting way. Another highlight of this DVD is Weissenberg’s performance of Dame Myra Hess’ arrangement of Bach’s Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring (taken from a September 25, 1969 Broadcast). He delivers the Bach in a wonderfully Lisztian manner, giving an immense power and majesty to this often understated work.

In addition to Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, the film includes other archival performances taken from various broadcast sources from the 1960s, featuring repertoire including Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 3; Scriabin’s Nocturne for the Left Hand, Op. 9, No. 2; Rachmaninoff’s Prelude, Op. 23, No. 6; Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 – Largo, Nocturne Op. Posth. in C minor, Étude, Op. 25, No. 7; J.S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy, BWV 903, Partita No. 6 – Courante; and the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 83, with the Orchestre National de l’ORTF, Georges Prêtre, conductor – 8/31/69.

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