Extant—Complete 2nd Season
The second season of this sci-fi series about humans, aliens and humaniches (human-like robots), filled with an unholy mix of intrigue and sentimentality, remains distant, respectable, occasionally exciting if rarely gripping. Even though Halle Berry's star presence gives it a glossy sheen, the rest of the cast—led by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Grace Gummer, Meryl Streep's even less talented actress daughter—is only passable which, along with convoluted storylines, leads to diminishing dramatic returns by series' end. It all looks pretty spectacular in hi-def; extras include featurettes and a gag reel.
Two decades ago, Polish composer Henryk Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs surprisingly caught on with the public to become one of the best-selling classical CDs ever: its languid and slow music, coupled with Dawn Upshaw's emotive singing, made it resonate even with those who don't listen to serious music. Too bad, then, that Tony Palmer's 1993 documentary isn't up to his usual standard; there's an illuminating Gorecki interview and a vivid performance of the symphony by Upshaw, London Sinfonietta and conductor David Zinman, but Palmer crassly rubs our noses in what inspired the work by showing superfluous footage of piles of dead Holocaust victims and equally emaciated starving Africans. The early '90s video looks merely adequate, as is the stereo sound.
One of the most influential bass players of his time, Jaco Pastorius had a meteoric rise and troubling fall that are the focus of this wrenching documentary by Paul Marchand and Stephen Kijak, who tell the musical story of the man who reinvented the bass guitar in the fusion band Weather Report among other collaborations before his untimely death in 1986 at age 35. We hear from Jaco's friends and colleagues, all admirers and many of them bassists (Bootsy Collins, Sting, Flea, Geddy Lee, Metallica's Robert Trujillo, the film's co-producer), while others like Joni Mitchell talk of how his musicianship affected their own performances. A sad story of a father, husband and artist who burned out instead of fading away gives Jaco its extra emotional kick. The film looks decent on Blu; a full disc of extras features many additional interviews.
(Weinstein Co/Anchor Bay)
In this entertaining dramatization of the adventures of one of the first European explorers to reach the East, the 13th century Italian finds himself amidst clashes of the political, personal, cultural and even sexual kind during his stay in China. Whether much of the drama, out in the open or behind closed doors, is based on fact is problematic, but it's done with as much fidelity to the characters and their era as is possible. The 10-episode first season looks ravishing on Blu-ray; extras are a documentary, featurettes, deleted scenes and a gag reel.
Not as well-known, Harold Lloyd nevertheless equaled Buster Keaton with brilliantly orchestrated, high-flying stunt work that made his films something special; even if 1928's Speedy isn't up to Keaton's Sherlock Jr. or Lloyd's own romps Safety Last and The Freshman, it still has his characteristic physical comedy in hilarious abundance. The latest in the Criterion Collection's excellent Lloyd releases has another luminous hi-def restoration and transfer, while extras include composer Carl Davis' musical score, commentary, featurette, archival footage of Babe Ruth, video essay, Lloyd's home movies and short Bumping into Broadway.
Georges Enescu—Complete Works for Solo Piano
Romanian composer Georges Enescu was a prodigy rather like Mozart, and his large-scale orchestral works—namely his symphonies and his lone opera Oedipe—are the best examples of his heroic but in many ways tragic style. His solo piano works are not as well known (he actually made his name as a virtuoso violinist), which makes this three-CD set of the complete extant works a godsend. Fellow Romanian Raluca Stirbat's affinity for Enescu's highly original music is obvious on these substantial works, especially in the two sonatas, which alternate between intimacy and muscularity, all while making the case for Enescu as a composer of genius in whatever genre he worked.
Denmark's Carl Nielsen is, thanks to his powerful symphonies, thought of as a rather dour Scandinavian composer (his best-known opera, the dramatic if erratic Saul and David, also makes that point). But Maskarade is an amusing but darkly comic romp with a lot of memorable music to go with it, right from its delectable Overture, one of Nielsen's most popular concert pieces. This excellent recording, by the stalwart Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Choir under Michael Schonwandt's baton, makes a great impression and brings up the question: why won't anyone put it on a New York stage? (The Bronx Opera Company performed it back in 1983.).
One of the great Russian composers, Alfred Schnittke’s eclecticism served him well when writing scores for some of the renowned directors of his time: his ease at moving from classical pastiche to dissonant modernism enabled him to create music that worked perfectly for films as disparate as the satirical Adventures of a Dentist, the animated Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and the hauntingly tragic The Ascent. The four discs that make up this first-rate boxed set amount to excerpts from 10 different scores, which doesn't include everything he did for the cinema (he composed 17 scores in all), but conductor Fran Strobel, who ably leads the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, has chosen well, and the music stands on its own, unaccompanied by visual images.
Creating a successful opera aimed at children can't be the easiest thing in the world, but composer Will Todd (and librettist Maggie Gottlieb) has managed it with his streamlined but effective adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic fantasy books. Tunefully engaging, Todd’s work combines wit and charm in equal measure, even finding sonic equivalents for Carroll’s lyrical flights of literary fancy, along with beguiling melodies, all played soaringly by an ensemble of 11 players under conductor Matthew Waldren, and sung beautifully by a first-rate cast, led by Fflur Wyn as Alice.