Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Music Webmaster Len Mullenger:

Video Review
Great Composers:

Johann Sebastian BACH
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Richard WAGNER

The complete 7-programme BBC TV series on 2 video cassettes (each programme lasts approximately 1 hour)
BBC/NVC Arts/Warner Music Vision 3984-20511-3

These are truly outstanding programmes. They offer not just outline biographies but interesting comment and insight on the composers' lives and achievements, and their importance in the development of the art of music, from an impressive team of experts: biographers and musicologists, and conductors and artists that are associated with their music. Of course, within the limited space of an hour, the coverage cannot claim to be comprehensive; but it is a miracle how much material is crammed into each programme. Indeed, all seven programmes demand repeated viewing for full appreciation of all their riches. All include excerpts from major works played by renowned international artists. And all are filmed in the locales associated with the composers' lives and works adding an aura of immediacy and authenticity. All the programmes are narrated by Kenneth Branagh.

In the J.S. Bach film, John Eliot Gardiner extols the glory of the B Minor Mass and the St Matthew Passion. András Schiff admits that he plays something from The Well-Tempered Clavier every day of his life saying it is better than any exercise and that it is "a wonderful way of starting the day" and Johanna MacGregor calls the same composition a "revolution in the composition of keyboard music". Peter Hurford and Ton Koopman talk about the organ music. Charles Rosen speaks about the influence of Vivaldi and of the differences between the styles of Bach and Handel. Mark Williams covers Bach's contrapuntal writing and Jacques Loussier, Bach's rich harmonies. There are also contributions from Mozart authorities: Christoff Wolff and Robert Marshall plus Karen Armstrong; and Jonathan Miller tells how much emotionally he is affected by the St Matthew Passion.

In the Mozart programme the contributors include: Sir Georg Solti, Sir Colin Davis, Imogen Cooper, and H.C. Robbins Landon. The conditions for Mozart's appearance as the first freelance child prodigy and how Mozart became the first modern piano concerto composer are among the many themes discussed in this wide ranging and stimulating programme.

The Beethoven programme has the authority of scholar Barry Cooper and the intense enthusiasm of the BBC's own John Suchet (a little gushing at times). William Kinderman also contributes some insights as does Basil Deane. The programme charts the development of Beethoven's musical style and his great confidence in the face of so many adversities the greatest of which must have been his slowly encroaching deafness. The artists contributing to this programme include: Michael Tilson Thomas, Nikolaus Harnoncourt (who says of the 'Eroica' Symphony, "Every brick is simple but the building is incredible…the first movement is huge, like a whole symphony of Mozart"). Other contributors include Sir Peter Hall, The Lindsays and Vladimir Ashkenazy who touches upon the spirituality of Beethoven's later works.

Wagner is discussed by experts John Deathridge and Barry Millington with artistic contributions by Sir Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim, and Sir Roger Norrington. It is fascinating to see the locales in Germany, Switzerland and Italy associated with the music. The programme traces Wagner's turbulent life and career through his early experiences in Paris and his early successes with Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman, through his revolutionary activities in Dresden, to his association with King Ludwig of Bavaria which eventually led to the construction of the theatre at Bayreuth. And it does not flinch from covering the less attractive facets of his character including his womanising, his treacheries to friends and associates and his virulent anti-Semitism.

The film on Tchaikovsky raises some intriguing points about the man and his music. Of the music, its emotional charge is recognised and the striking rhythms and constantly changing accents. Above all, Tchaikovsky is recognised as a supreme writer of memorable melodies mainly based on clever usage of sequences. Tchaikovsky's homosexuality is discussed particularly in the context of his alleged suicide. Ballet excerpts are included besides the purely orchestral ones that include the B flat minor Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto. Artists included in this programme are: Evgeny Kissin, Maxim Vengerov and Yuri Temirkanov. David Brown provides the expert's commentary. A Russian lady tram driver says, "His music heals people; it helps me better than any medicine."

One of the most entertaining of the seven programmes is that devoted to Giacomo Puccini. Julian Budden, standing in the Castel Sant'Angelo, the scene of the last act of Tosca offers expert comment on the composer's life and music. Most of the operas are covered with the notable exception of La Rondine which would have made an interesting point about Puccini at work in, and his attitudes to the First World War. Puccini's vividly coloured personal life is covered and neighbours recall, with great amusement, his amorous adventures including paying a lad to play the piano in his room while he slipped out to keep an assignation. Contributors include: Simon Callow, Jonathan Miller, the composer's granddaughter and singers Julia Migenes and José Cura. Very interesting points are made about how Puccini kept on developing his style to reflect the development of music around him. For example the similarities between Wagner's Tristan and the Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut are noted so too, at the other end of the composer's creative life, the Stravinsky-like figures in Turandot. Puccini's symphonic style of writing is noted and how the orchestra always suggests a phrase to the singers and not the other way around. Puccini's obsession with accuracy and for overseeing all aspects of the production of his operas is also covered. Of  Tosca, Julia Migenes says, "She is a wonderful character to sink your teeth into, a role that covers all the emotions."

The Mahler programme features contributions from experts, Donald Mitchell and Henri Louis de la Grange plus Ken Russell, Riccardo Chailly, Michael Tilson Thomas and Thomas Hampson who visits some of the places associated with the composer's work and offers valuable insight into the music from the singer's point if view. The composer's work both as composer and director of the Vienna State Opera (to huge critical acclaim although he could be ruthlessly dictatorial) are covered as well as the joys and tragedies of his personal life -- particularly his relationship with his wife Alma destroyed by his obsession with his work; and the death of his daughter.

A fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of the making of these seven films is included in the informative booklet that comes with the tapes. One is prompted to ask why these seven composers were selected (as many critics at the time of their broadcast did) and if the BBC plans a further series.

The two tapes come in a strong package consisting of inner and outer board casings.

One can easily argue some superficiality but as I said at the beginning of this review, it is amazing how much ground is covered in each programme. I, for one, award the series top marks.

Ian Lace


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