Monday, June 7, 2010

June Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week

 (Opus Arte)
The great German modernist composer, Hans Werner Henze, turns 84 in July, and is still going strong. This recording of his best-known ballet Ondine — from performances last year at London’s Royal Opera House—prove that his seminal collaboration with British choreographic master Frederick Ashton (which premiered in 1958 with ballerina extraordinaire Margot Fonteyn in the lead role) is a match made in musical and dance heaven. Ondine is one of Henze’s most vigorous and thrilling scores, and Ashton’s scintillating choreography matches it note for note. This first-rate performance, starring diminutive Miyako Yoshida as the water nymph heroine, has been captured on HD in all its visual and aural glory (the music sounds sensational), and there’s a short bonus interview with the frail yet sharp-minded composer.

Dialogues des Carmelites (Opus Arte)

Although Francis Poulenc is known for some of the 20th century’s wittiest music—like his one-act comic opera The Tits of Tiresias -- it’s the stately tragedy that premiered in 1957, Dialogues des Carmelites, that’s his most affecting score. This powerful drama, set in a convent of Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution, ends with the sound of the guillotine. There’s no way to remain indifferent when hearing Poulenc’s intense music as the opera moves toward its inevitable tragic climax, and Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s stark, simple production (with black and white as dominant colors on a near-bare stage) visually reinforces that notion. Lehnhoff’s 2008 staging is nearly ruined by the television director, who ham-fistedly shortchanges Poulenc’s shockingly blunt ending by too much clever cross-cutting of close-ups of the nuns before they meet their deaths. Luckily, the music (in capable conductor Simone Young’s hands), despite such butchery, still resonates.

DVDs of the Week

Gamera (Shout Factory)

Japan’s second most famous monster—after you know whom—returns in this newly restored version of the original movie that brought the extra-large turtle to prominence. As befitting a schlocky ‘60s monster movie, Gamera is silly throughout, with the usual parade of cheap-looking effects, but that’s immaterial in the broader sense: this creature—awakened from hibernation under the Arctic ice after a nuclearexplosion—is befriended by an adorably cherubic boy, and so becomes one of the good guys. This black and white “classic” (the sequels were shot in color) looks about as good as it ever will, and the extras include an informative audio commentary by August Rangone and a retrospective making-of featurette.

Ghostwriter: Complete Season One (Shout Factory)

In the nearly 20 years since its debut (and 15 years since its cancellation), the PBS
mystery series Ghostwriter has nearly been forgotten among the crappy shows that have co me and gone since. But since this is one of the smartest “all ages” programs ever (from the folks behind Sesame Street, the Children’s Television Workshop), it’s a pleasure to have it back again. Ghostwriter follows a group of Brooklyn teens who receive cryptic messages from their computers that help them solve neighborhood mysteries both innocuous and more serious. With guest stars like Samuel L. Jackson, Mark-Linn Baker and Spike Lee, the program still offers hours of intelligent entertainment, and the five-disc set (with all 28 episodes) includes a 12-page “casebook” for those who want to sleuth at home.

CDs of the Week

Shostakovich: Cello Works (Praga Digitals)

Two Czech musicians — cellist Michal Kanka and pianist Jaromir Klepac — play three chamber works by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): the D minor cello sonata from 1934, an alternately somber and playful work that the men sink their instruments into with grit and clarity; two brief pieces from the 1951 Ballet Suite, which are dispatched with vigor; and, finally, Shostakovich’s last chamber work, the Viola Sonata, which sounds even more despairing and haunting played on the cello’s low registers. These are vital performances of some of the most inward-looking music of the past century, reminding us yet again of Shostakovich’s singular genius as a composer.

Czech Piano Trios: Florestan Trio
(Harmonia Mundi)
Over a century of Czech music is heard on this charming CD, with the excellent Florestan Trio playing works by Bedrich Smetana (from 1855), Bohuslav Martinu (1930), and Petr Eben (1986). Smetana’s Trio is a typical Romantic work reminiscent of Schumann and Brahms, but with his own voice peeking through. Martinu—who, along with Leos Janacek, is the heart of Czech music of the first half of the 20th century—is represented by his fleet, brief first piano trio, while Eben (who died three years ago) has penned a trio in an unabashedly tonal but muscular style. Pianist Susan Tomes, violinist Anthony Marwood and cellist Richard Lester give exciting readings of these works, which give us a tasty entrée into a neglected corner of Bohemian chamber music.
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