The finest road show Mozart biography ever
Mike Birman | Brooklyn, New York USA | 01/27/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Today is Mozart's 250th Birthday and I can think of no more appropriate review than of this 2 DVD release from Brilliant Classics, located in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands. This first volume of a 6 volume series of DVDs presents the first 2 hours of a 13 hour biography of Mozart that concentrates on his peripatetic lifestyle. Numerous excerpts from every Mozartean genre are featured and contemporaneously composed piano concertos are appended to the end of each episode, 14 concertos in all. I first saw these programs, narrated superbly by Andre Previn who also helped script them, on a local cable channel here in New York owned by the City University of New York. These may have been broadcast on PBS but I am unaware of any particulars. The series was filmed to coincide with and commemorate the 200th "anniversary" of Mozart's death; something I hardly felt celebratory about but it packed the Mozart bin at the record store so I can live with it. The entire series is superb, one of my favorite television experiences, but I will only discuss the two episodes at hand.
Episode one begins with an image that will quickly become familiar, even iconic, and will help to understand Mozart's astonishingly rapid development as a cosmopolitan composer from the age of 8 until his death at age 35 (ironically hastened by that same iconic image). It is the image of the Mozart family groggily entering a coach, luggage in tow, early on a wintry morning in the woods outside Salzburg. Each travel day in those early years of the Mozart family's musical wandering was a similar series of events: arise before dawn on a frigid morning in the unheated bedroom of an inn, wash in ice-cold water until one's hands turned black and blue from the cold, pack hurriedly after a cold breakfast (if available) and trundle off to the coach where you were jostled on barely recognizable roads until nightfall, then sleep in another barely heated inn's cold bedroom. Travel often took weeks at a stretch. The coaches, heated only by shivering bodies, served as rolling musical classrooms for young Wolfgang; his father Leopold his eager instructor. Mozart initially enjoyed the new experiences travel offered a young man of 8 or 9. Much like a band on tour today, as Mozart's fame grew so did the crowds that gathered everywhere, just to be near this little Prince of music. Sadly, as Mozart grew older and his novelty as a sideshow attraction wore off, the crowds disappeared and the business of Life began.
Episode 1 concentrates on Mozart's childhood visit to London, one of Mozart's happiest periods. Those who wonder just what role Leopold Mozart played on these traveling roadshows, will be interested to learn that within 3 days of arriving in England he had booked his son and daughter to play for King George and his Queen at the Royal Palace at Kew. He must have been quite an agent, as Mr. Previn points out. It was in London that Wolfgang met two expatriate German musicians who were to have a seminal influence upon him: Johann Christian Bach and Karl Friedrich Abel. From Bach, the creator of the piano concerto, Mozart absorbed the first glimmers of what would become his brilliant lifelong affinity for music for keyboard and orchestra: generally judged the finest single genre series of compositions along with Beethoven's string quartets. Both older men had spent a significant length of time in Italy, the most important place for musical development both artistically and professionally. Mozart would absorb these lessons well, soon traveling to Italy himself to cap-off his education, possibly the finest musical education of all time. The episode concludes with Vladimir Ashkenazy leading the Royal Philharmonic and playing the Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major KV 414. It is a fine performance, quite lyrical and lively.
Episode 2 has Mozart and his family cross over the Alps into Verona, Italy on Christmas Day 1769. Wolfgang's Italian education begins in earnest. They then travel to Mantua, to that adorable doll's house of an Opera House, the historic Teatro Bibiena in Mantua. If you've never seen it, you're missing one of music's great treasures. It is here that telegenic young Heidrun Holtmann, who reminds me of a youthful Jeanne Moreau, plays 2 of the Mozart "pasticcio" arrangements for piano and orchestra that Wolfgang and Leopold made together in Salzburg in 1767: No. 1 in F Major KV 37 and No. 4 in G Major KV 41. She is accompanied by the RISI Orchestra conducted by Marc Andreae. Her performances are wonderfully energetic. They are tuneful works, simple but interesting and she brings out their lyricism. She plays like a pianist at the start of a career but as these performances were filmed in 1989 or so, I am unaware of her since then.
This 2 DVD set is an excellent beginning. I intend to get the whole series if it's available. It is important to point out that the piano concertos that appear at the end of each program appear to be the same as the ones already offered on DVD as the "Mozart - Great Piano Concertos" series available from Euroarts. They are reviewed here at Amazon, as well. So if you own any of those you will be duplicating them here. That's a pity because the history segment narrated by Mr. Previn is fascinating.
The film is in color and is shot fullscreen 4:3. The region code is NTSC World excluding Asia. Menu language is English. No subtitles. The sound, although the packaging states DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1, is in Dolby Digital stereo 2.0 only. This is a factual error that should be fixed. In any event, the stereo soundtrack is clear and well-focused. The digitally remastered video looks fine with no video artifacts except a little ghosting during rapid movement. There are no bonuses.
I strongly recommend this DVD set to lovers of Mozart everywhere (except Asia, for some reason). I have seen no better biographical series about a composer. Cumulatively, it recreates Mozart's life to a remarkable degree. We are grateful for the time Mozart spent here on Earth. But we are invariably sad for the pitiable shortness of his life and for the miserly way he was repaid, both for his generosity of soul and his unparalled gift of beauty, by a woefully undeserving humanity.