September 2010

Schumann Piano Works

Schumann Piano Works, by Wilhelm Kempff ★★★★★
This is not a comprehensive collection of Schumann’s piano works, but rather an assembly of his most popular romantic works. Kempff performs flawlessly and with spirit, making them appealing. As with his Schubert performances, Kempff is one of the best interpreters of the early Romantic composers and deserves careful listening. This set consists of 4 CDs and is usually sold quite reasonably through


Avatar ★★
This has to be one of the worst films that I’ve seen in recent times. The only reason for two stars is that the graphics are incredibly well done.  The story is about how a group of earthmen (mostly Marines and scientists) has a need for a certain ore on a distant planet Pandora occupied by tall blue people called Navi. The earthmen have no regard for the environment of the planet and run rip shod to tear up “sacred” landscape in order to obtain their ore. Eventually, the natives win out and are able to drive out the earthlings. So, what’s wrong with the film? 1. Character development: acting was poor. None of the characters in the film could be called admirable. Most were sullen, angry people (or Navi) bent on the idolization of themselves. Sig. Weaver was a worn-out hag. The Navi were angry, never happy, quite war-like, and certainly not at peace even with themselves. The military marines and scientists were painted as thoughtless, brain-dead, clueless. The earth “traitors” that went over to the Navi side lacked any sort of insightful virtue. 2. Plot. This film has often been criticized for portraying developers and industrialists against environmentalists. That is too simple of an analysis. If one looks at the  Navi, they are essentially dressed with African animistic paraphernalia, and the thematic structure of their “religion” is essentially animistic and pantheistic, with the world “force” emanating out through every living being that is connected to the “mother”. Animism didn’t get the Africans and other primitive tribes too far, and fantasy films are now necessary to promote such religion of animism that is taking over America by storm. In total, this film makes it for its graphics arts effects and not for its story, and so barely deserves two stars.

Claude Chabrol Collection

Claude Chabrol Collection ★★★★
Each of the films will be reviewed separately. Chabrol has a very distinctive style in his movies and oftentimes uses his wife as the main female character. Many of his actors are repeat players, and it’s fun to meet different people playing differing roles.  All in all, the collection deserves four stars, though with its criticisms. These are very unlike American films! All the films are in French, with English subtitles optional. The speaking is usually not too difficult to follow in French, though the subtitles definitely help.
Juste avant la nuit ★★★★
This story revolves around a central character Charles Masson secretly murdering his best friend’s wife after having an affair with her. Charles is riddled with guilt, initially telling his wife, and then his best friend, both offering acceptance and forgiveness. Regardless, Charles is unable to psychologically cope with this guilt, which ultimately leads to his ruin. The gist of the movie is the absence of absolute morality, and that psychological internal factors are our judge. Chabrol is masterful at exploring the psychology of guilt in this movie, similar to that seen in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Though the movie starts with a brief episode of female nudity, the remainder is clean enough for general viewing and would be a shame to refuse a good film thinking that the film was going to mostly be off-color.
La femme infidele  ★★★★
This is a suspenseful story of a lawyer from Paris living in the countryside close to Versaille, who discovers that his wife is having an affair with somebody in town. He learns of his identity and then murders him. The police remain on the track of the murderer, who never solves the murder mystery. His wife does discover that he is probably the murderer but remains silent. Chabrol is skillful at holding suspense but never in an on-the-edge-of-your-seat fashion. Thus, the art of a slowly unfolding plot never is obvious as to direction.
Le Boucher ★★★★
The film starts at a wedding, at which the young but well-known butcher in town Popaul encounters the town head school mistress Helene and falls in love with her. Simultaneously, a series of brutal murders take place. Slowly, Helene sorts out that it is Popaul who is committing the killings. Eventually, Popaul commits suicide. Though a simple plot, the story unveils in a Hitchcock style that holds suspense while typically leaving one unsure as to who done it. This is considered one of Chabrol’s best films.
Les Biches ★★★
This is an odd film, entertaining the mixing of complex though maladjusted characters. A rich woman Frederique encounters a street artist (Why) in Paris and falls in love. They go live in a villa in St. Tropez where a third person, a male architect is encountered, first falling in love with Why, and then soon after with Frederique. When the architect and Frederique decide to return to Paris without Why, Why murders Frederique. Chabrol artfully develops this dark drama, bringing in other characters, such as a gay male couple living at Frederique’s estate in St. Tropez. I rated this movie a 3-star since Chabrol attempts profundity through what are essentially shallow characters. This is not one of his better films.
Les noces rouges ★★★
This film is a very strange story, though in many ways similar to the other Chabrol movies. Here, the wife of the mayor of a town is having an affair with the mayor’s chief assistant Pierre, who is having a terrible marriage of his own. Pierre eventually murders his wife, and then the mayor in order to allow their relationship to go unhindered. Yet, the mayor’s daughter detects what is happening, and turns mom into the police, causing both to be arrested. The movie is most interesting simply for the way Chabrol weaves the flow of the storyline in a most unpredictable fashion.
Madame Bovary ★★★
Chabrol’s version of Madame Bovary, is well-acted, though Madame Bovary is not exactly the seductive vixen that she is supposed to be. Otherwise, this is well-acted and holds reasonably well to the storyline of the novel.
Nada ★★★★
Nada is the name of a revolutionary organization in France, which has just kidnapped the ambassador to the USA. Eventually, the police discover the whereabouts of the group in a distant farmhouse, though using heavy-handed means to corner the group, leading to the death of the principals of both the police and the terrorist group. As typical of Chabrol, the outcomes are not predictable, except that one can be assured that his films will never end with a happy end, this film included. Nada does hold one’s attention for the unveiling of the plot as a police detective film.
Que la bête meure ★★★★★
Known in English as “This Man Must Die”, this is probably my favorite film of the collection. It is a suspenseful thriller that starts with a young boy being killed in a hit-and-run accident. The boy’s father Charles slowly weaves out clues that lead to the killer, who is an influential businessman in Northern France. The killer has a most repugnant character, and all who know him wish for him to be dead. Thus, the complexity of sorting out the murderer at the end, when the killer is found dead by poisoning. Chabrol does excellent character development and flow of action in this film, with the usual French characteristic of most films of leaving the films’ conclusion not entirely certain and thus to the imagination, but definitely not a happy end.

A Secret Labyrinth

A Secret Labyrinth, with the Huelgas Ensemble conducted by Paul Van Nevel ★★★★
This compendium of early music (medieval and renaissance) was a pleasant surprise. Carrying a quite inexpensive price tag, the performances are flawlessly executed, yet with enough spirit to make them quite enjoyable. This is a mixture of sacred and secular pieces and a broad spectrum of composers.  It is distinctly early music, being polyphonic yet without the compositional characteristics of music for the modern ear. This album is a delight, and medieval music at its best.

Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes, by Benjamin Britten, starring Peter Pears, conducted by Britten, made for t.v. ★
This is an opera that has been recorded for DVD at least 5-6 times and usually gets a 5-star rating. This performance by the composer himself has the highest reviews of all. Yet, both Betsy and I sat entirely bewildered for at least 2 hrs. and 15 minutes. This piece did not appear to have any remarkable creativity at all. It is exactly the sing-songy type of speech one would make if one chose to satirize an opera. The storyline also was entirely incoherent. It was quite obvious that Britten wished to make strong anti-Christian statements, but did so quite poorly, the storyline showing hypocritical Christian leaders condemning Peter Grimes, and not showing sympathy for him. Yet, it was Peter Grimes that was money-grubbing, resulting in driving a child to death at the beginning of the opera and then the end of the opera again. No wonder the “Christian” folk were upset! Britten was a flagrant homosexual, and his lover was Peter Pears, thus, he wrote many pieces supposedly for Peter Pears. Perhaps his utilization of a boy-servant for Peter Grimes was not quite appropriate in such a setting. All in all, this work had no consistency for music, there were no musical episodes that one could call great composed music, the plot was horrible, and if a statement was attempted to be made, it was made quite poorly. This is an opera that I would never waste my time watching again. Don’t waste your time.

Der Fliegende Holländer

Der Fliegende Holländer, by Richard Wagner, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch, starring Donald McIntyre as der fliegende Holländer, and Catarina Ligendza as Senta ★★★★★
This opera production has received mixed reviews with, being that it was a filmed version and not a staged version of the opera and that there were short deletions in the full performance of the opera. I can appreciate criticisms regarding deletions, but not on objection to the opera being filmed in life-like circumstances. I consider the opposite of film versions, to be minimalist operas, which seems to be exactly fly in the face as to why composers wrote operas rather than oratorios–because they expected the staging/scenery to contribute to the statement of the opera. To change the scene from what the composer wrote is (in my not so humble) opinion similar to changing the musical script itself. Meanwhile, back to this opera. First, the musical performance was superb. Both McIntyre and Ligendza have superb voices, and the supporting vocalists were all first class. The live scenery was more effective at conveying the opera story than a staged version would have ever done. Of the two things that have made opera accessible to modern populaces, under titles (supra titles at the opera) and filmed versions have been the most effective at spreading the appeal of opera to normal folk. I would certainly like to see more productions like this, especially with the Wagner operas, such as Tannhäuser or der Meistersinger. While playing this opera, I asked Betsy to guess the composer, and she was quite surprised to learn that it was Wagner. She had thought that Wagner did not write melodious opera that could appeal to all. This opera, and this production in particular, is a wonderful way to begin entry into the world of Wagner, before tackling his more mature works.

The Fugitive

The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones  ★★★★★
This is Harrison Ford at his best, filmed mostly in Chicago. It is a suspenseful thriller, Harrison Ford playing the role of a vascular surgeon, Dr. Richard Kimble, falsely sentenced to death for murdering his wife. He manages to escape while being hauled to prison and then weaves a tale of running from the detectives while sorting out the identity of the actual killer of his wife. There were a few unbelievable sections, such as when he survives a leap into the spill-out of a dam, and the solitary persistence of the detectives on pursuing Dr. Kimble, with Dr. Kimble remaining only a few steps ahead of them, both parties seeming to know exactly where the other party was going. Even so, it makes a great story and thrilling plot. Mostly, I enjoyed seeing Chicago again. I left Cook County Hospital in 1990, and this was filmed in 1993. Clearly, the insides were not completely Cook County Hospital, but there were recognizable characters, such as Dr. Roxanne (Rocky) Roberts, who was several years ahead of me in residency and stayed on staff in the trauma unit. As an aside, I was glad to hear that they are NOT going to tear down the old County Hospital, but leave it standing for other purposes.

Beethoven Violin Concerto

Beethoven Violin Concerto; with von Karajan and Anne-Sophie Mutter ★★★
It is uncharacteristic of me to give Karajan only three stars since he is my favorite conductor of the twentieth century. Even this piece was impeccably conducted and beats other performances for its interpretation. I found several things annoying about the recording. Camera work was often bizarre and not typical for filmed orchestral performances. The recording often left the solo violinist too quiet to adequately hear. Since this was recorded close to the end of Karajan’s career, there is a sense of the absence of his prior dynamism. Oddly, he had his eyes open more than is typical for him conducting orchestras. Mutter’s only expression of enjoyment was the last two seconds of the recording on completion of the piece. Regardless, she performed the virtuoso sections of the concerto without flaw and expressively. This is a performance perhaps best listened to and not watched.


Sadko, by Rimsky-Korsakov, performed by Kirov Opera, Valery Gergiev – Dirigent  ★★★★
Sadko used to be quite strong in the Russian repertoire of opera pieces, and one of the most recognized of RK. This production by Gergiev is very well done, with superb conducting, and awesome and expensive staging sets. No expense was spared on the number of performers/singers, ballet dancers, costumes, visual effects, etc. Unfortunately, the opera story is just plain boring, with a ridiculous plot. The music is delightful, but no pieces stand out as extraordinarily remarkable. It is superb R-K with a bad plot. There are other Russian works far more worth watching. This opera is best for those who have exhausted the standard repertoire and wish to explore the lesser-known Russian works.