Two Masterful Music Documentaries by Frank Scheffer
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 10/26/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This DVD combines two marvelous documentaries done by the expert classical music documentarian, Frank Scheffer. The first, called 'Igor Stravinsky: The Finale Chorale,' concerns itself with the 'Symphonies of Wind Instruments' from 1920. 'Symphonies' was written in memory of Stravinsky's friend and colleague, Claude Debussy -- one remembers that the first private performance of 'Sacre de Printemps' was a four-hand version prepared by Stravinsky and with Debussy sight-reading the bass part, reportedly without making any mistakes! -- and it is a paradigm of Stravinsky's mosaic or block style of formal organization. Interviews with Stravinsky's acolyte, Robert Craft, as well as the conductor of a performance of the piece, Reinbert de Leeuw, form the main spoken parts of the documentary. One sees various musicians of the acclaimed Netherlands Wind Ensemble as they rehearse, make reeds, practice by themselves, talk about their experience with the piece. Included is much archival film of the composer at work. The connecting narrative is beautifully written as is the filming and editing of the documentary. 'The Final Chorale' is a masterpiece of documentary film. It dates from 1992 but I had never seen it before and am very grateful now to have done so.
The second film, from 1994, is about Schönberg's 'Five Orchestral Pieces' with much discussion of its meaning to the composer, technical comments about its construction given by both conductor Michael Gielen, who is seen rehearsing and then conducting the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in a beautiful performance of these path-breaking pieces, and by pianist/musicologist Charles Rosen who makes pithily informed comments about the work and also plays the third piece of Schönberg's Opus 11 'Three Piano Pieces.' The discussion and illustration of Klangfarbenmelodie (Sound-Color Melody), invented for 'Five Orchestral Pieces', is not only communicative in the extreme but beautifully illustrated by musical examples from the third of the pieces. There is much archival film of Schönberg and many closeups of his quite beautiful expressionist paintings.
As an extra, there is also included a brief documentary based primarily on Wagner's 'Ring' that I found confusing but exhilarating, too, largely because of the quick intercutting of scenes and music from a vast array of modern musics. And there are brief trailers of other classical music documentaries from Scheffer, including those on Mahler.
Subtitles in English, French, German, Dutch, and Spanish; most of the spoken narrative and interviews are in spoken English. Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0. TT=104mins
I have always been fascinated -- from many years of assiduously attending rehearsals, masterclasses, and seminars -- watching musicians at work. For anyone who, like I, is mesmerized by the process and who is interested in the music of Stravinsky and Schönberg, these two films are must-haves.
Elucidating two classic works in a highly entertaining forma
Christopher Culver | 12/01/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The Juxtapositions series of DVDs is a dream for fans of contemporary art music. It has already provided documentaries on Pierre Boulez, Gyorgy Kurtag, Luciano Berio, and Tan Dun. I got into the modern-classical scene through the Darmstadt generation and afterward, and so I was very glad to find this installment featuring the joint fathers of 20th-century innovation: Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. The man behind the documentaries is Frank Schaeffer, who has produced some of the best of the Juxtapositions series.
"The Final Chorale" describes Stravinsky's "Symphonies of Wind Instruments". Composed in memory of Debussy, this 1920 piece ushers in a curious new style where blocks of sound replace traditional Romantic development. Olivier Messiaen ("Chronochromie"), Harrison Birtwistle, and Magnus Lindberg ("Gran Duo") are a few composers who have worked in this vein, and it is interesting indeed to see the beginnings of it all. The documentary consists of two intermixed strains. One is the history of the piece. Here we find interviews with Robert Craft and much archival footage of Stravinsky. The second strain is a rehearsal of the "Symphonies" by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw. Oddly, de Leeuw initially doesn't speak in front of the camera. Instead, his commentary is dubbed by an Englishman over scenes of Leeuw studying the score. Later, as de Leeuw leads the ensemble, we finally hear something from him. The documentary closes with a full performance of the piece.
The second film covers Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces op. 16. These were written in 1909 and mark the composer's leap into free atonality. Again the documentary is split into two strains. In discussing the history and nature of the work, two commentators are especially prominent. One is the pianist and teacher Charles Rosen, who makes the thought-provoking assertion that far from being overly intellectual and meaningless, Schoenberg's music is in fact the most intensely emotional that he has encountered. Reference to Schoenberg's visceral paintings of the same era underscores this theme. Rosen even plays some of Schoenberg's music at the piano to show the specific musical innovations within these vast orchestral movements. The other major commentators is conductor Michael Gielen. The second part of the documentary has Gielen rehearsing the piece with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. At the end, we are treated to a full performance of the piece.
This DVD proved an entertaining and convenient way to discover the music of two influential 20th-century composers I've always heard much about, but whom I never seemed to get the chance to engage. I'd recommend the entire Juxtapositions series, but this DVD is all the more highly recommended to people with tastes similar to mine."