Some good recent selections, though still contains the downs
Christopher Culver | 05/29/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"THREADS is the seventh and final episode of Sir Simon Rattle's "Leaving Home", a television programme introducing 20th century orchestral music. We go between brief lectures by Rattle, seated at a piano, and excepts from various pieces in performance by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rattle. Unlike earlier volumes of the series, which discussed influential composers of the past, THREADS is a selection of personal favourites by Rattle which he feels represent the future of contemporary music.
Rattle begins with Luciano Berio's "Laborintus II", showing that the high modernism of the past (represented by Boulez et al.) was opposed by the Italian composer's interest in the theatrical tradition of his homeland. The third movement of Berio's "Sinfonia" would probably be a more perfectly representative piece, but there wasn't enough time allotted, so "Laborintus II" has to suffice. Berio is no doubt a formidable composer, able to make important theoretical contributions while simultaneously providing zany entertainment. Unfortunately, the next composer Rattle selects is a charlatan: Hans Werner Henze. Rattle actually wants us to believe that this bore, who rejected every important additional to the vocabulary in the 20th century, leads the way for future music. If that's really true, we're doomed. A much better selection would have been Wolfgang Rihm, who still preserves that Teuton romanticism while at the same time boldly moves forward.
Sofia Gubaidulina, the profoundly religious Russian composer who is one of the most original musical figures of our time, and a veritable saint, is represented here by a piece she dedicated to Rattle, "Zeitgestalten" for symphony orchestra with two bass guitars. This is a work of tremendous, earth-shaking proportions, and is in my opinion the height of this episode. Its inclusion here makes THREADS all the more worth buying, since no part of the piece has been otherwise commercially recorded. Gubaidulina is followed by Gyorgy Kurtag, whose "Gravestone for Stephen" appears. I was disappointed to see that no space is dedicated to Kurtag's fascinating biography, but Rattle does dissect the work quite well.
The last two composers represented are Rattle's friends and compatriots, Harrison Birtwistle and Oliver Knussen. Birtwistle's "Ritual Fragment" is played, and since the composer doesn't care much for overly prominent conductors, Rattle helps out the ensemble by playing a drum. It's an interesting piece, and makes me want to check out more by Birtwistle. After a brief bit of news footage from the 1960s showing Oliver Knussen as an up-and-coming boy composer, the ensemble plays his "Flourish with Fireworks". The selection of Knussen makes THREADS, originally shown in the mid-1990s, a little dated. Knussen's output is limited and not terribly popular, and his achievements as a conductor are better appreciated today.
THREADS contains the downsides common to all DVDs in the series. While music is being played, the scene goes between instrumentalists performing and stock footage of whatever the producers thought would be good; for example, while a portion of Berio goes on, we get a montage of a sad clown from a black-and-white film over a dark corridor. Besides looking somewhat goofy, I feel that this forces a single interpretation on the listener, when in reality instrumental music can mean anything one likes. And the decision to put only a single episode on each DVD, charging the usual ArtHaus rate for just fifty minutes of video, is outrageous. Even getting the seven volumes together in the boxset doesn't save one much, and I think that this is a sensible purchase more for libraries than individuals. The only bonus material consists of biographies of the composers (little more than what one would find in a common encyclopedia) and a brief music track.
While I enjoy all kinds of music starting with the Second Viennese School and after, some of the composers here, most notably Gubaidulina and Kurtag, are wonderfully inventive and worth encountering. If you've followed earlier episodes of Leaving Home, you'll certainly want to get THREADS."