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In the first of pianist Julius Drake’s three-part series,
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07 Aug 2009
Discovering Masterpieces of Classical Music — Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra
In the Euroarts series Discovering Masterpieces of Classical Music: Documentary & Performance, the volume devoted to Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra stands out as a particularly accessible and well-executed release.
As with the other DVDs in this series, the contents of the disc are divided between an analysis of the work as its “Documentary” and a film of a performance of the work, and this combination makes the release particularly useful as a teaching tool. To the credit of Günter Atteln, who was responsible for it, the documentary nicely allows historical background to intersect with a description of the music. More than that, the use of iconography helps to give a concrete image of the composer and that is a fine springboard for the interviews with the conductor Pierre Boulez.
Going further, it is useful to have the musical passages illustrated at times with images of the notation, so that students who view the documentary can have some reinforcement of the connections between written music and audible sound it represents. This demonstrates the well considered presentation behind the series, which extends further into the well-written script, inviting narration, and fine pacing. Moreover, through its focus and concision, the documentation on Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra serves the work well through the balance it offers on biography, analysis, and cultural elements.
Moreover, it is useful for audiences to hear the esteemed composer and conductor Pierre Boulez interviewed apart from his presence on the podium for the performance of the work. Boulez’s authoritative voice demonstrates his fluency in German, and the subtitles are a solid way for audiences unfamiliar with that language to apprehend his comments without the artifice of dubbing or other such means. As such, the interspersing of the female narrative speaking idiomatic British English with the continental Boulez commenting in German also contributes a nice variety to the spoken work in that part of the DVD.
As to the performance itself, the concert of the Berlin Philharmonic was given at the Mosteiro des Jerónimos, Lisbon on 1 May 2003. This monastery provides a picturesque background for the performance with its soaring, Gothic arches giving a sense of spaciousness to the concert. The acoustics in this performance space serve the work well, with its clean resonance for the burnished sound of the Berlin Philharmonic. In fact, the performance itself is one which deserves attention its own merits, as a relatively rare presentation of this work on DVD. The apse of the monastery allows for some excellent sightlines for capturing Boulez’s conducting well, and the lighting allows for some fine shots of the orchestra which avoid the glare which sometimes occurs in films of concerts on stage. At the same time, the position of the orchestra and conductor on almost the same visual plane as the audience adds a further level of accessibility to audiences who may be less familiar with this work or other examples of concert music.
The visual images are clear and immediate, the sound rich and full. With subtitles available in French, German, English, and Spanish, it should be possible for people in various Western countries to enjoy this DVD. In addition, the booklet accompanying the DVD contains a brief essay by Wolfgang Stähr, along with a pithy timeline of Bartók’s career, and a glossary of musical terms in German, French and English. (For the latter, a three-volume alignment would have been useful for teaching purposes.) All in all, it is a welcome addition to the series and a fine tribute to one of the masterworks of Bartók. Such an introduction would allow new audiences to delve more deeply into the Concerto for Orchestra. From here it would not be difficult for those interested to move to other music by Bartók, including such fine works for the stage as the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin or the opera Bluebeard’s Castle.
James L. Zychowicz