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Leaving Home: Orchestral Music in the 20th Century
Volume 4: Three Journeys through Dark Landscapes

The music of Bartók, Shostakovich and Lutosławski

Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo)
Willard White (bass)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor and narrator)
Directed by Barrie Gavin
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 102039 [50 minutes]
Volume 5: The American Way

Musical extracts from Gershwin, Ives, Cage, Copland, Carter, Weill,
Feldman, Adams, Riley and Bernstein
Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (tenor)
Wayne Marshall (piano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor and narrator)
Directed by Deborah May
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 102041 [50 minutes]

Rattle’s 1996 series Leaving Home – Orchestral Music in the 20th Century is slowly making its way onto DVD. Volume 1 (Dancing on a Volcano - review) is now followed by volumes 4 and 5, but don’t worry – there was no chronology in Rattle’s approach, and all were self-contained programmes, so an order really doesn’t exist, except in the dates they were first broadcast.

I am an ardent fan of Rattle and greatly enjoyed this series first time round, so I suppose I should get my moans out of the way to start with. Why are Arthaus only giving us one episode per (quite expensive) disc? Shorn of the adverts, they are barely 50 minutes long, so two or even three could easily be accommodated on a single DVD. It’s obviously down to making more money out of us, and we could perhaps forgive them if there were a host of extras. In fact, the ‘bonus material’ is simply audio tracks of some of the music featured, (admittedly in complete performances but very ordinary sound) and cheaply reproduced composer biographies and photos, neither of which is likely to sway a prospective buyer.

There was also a technical problem on my copy of volume 4, where synchronization of sound and picture were not perfect. I’ve come across this on odd opera DVDs and it can be very irritating. Watching Rattle’s narration to the camera is disconcerting enough when there’s a slight delay, but the problem even invaded the music extracts – especially those involving percussion, as in the snare drum and wood block extract from Shostakovich 4. Happily, there were no such gremlins on volume 5, and I do hope this doesn’t mar future releases.

As for the programmes themselves, I’ve nothing but praise for Rattle’s easy, authoritative camera manner, the superb choice of music and soloists and the general quality of the concept and presentation. Three Journeys through Dark Landscapes is basically made up of three short films centering on Bartók (A Journey into Exile), Shostakovich (A Journey towards Truth) and Lutosławski (A Journey towards Freedom). Using these three towering figures, Rattle tries to examine the role of the creative artist struggling to work in hostile political climates and the supreme sacrifices that have to be made. As with all the films, he has to cram an awful lot into a very short space, so one has to admire his succinct linking narrations and his apposite choice of musical extracts. For the Bartók, we get quite large chunks of Bluebeard’s Castle, superbly performed by Otter and White, the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, a fragment of The Miraculous Mandarin and the ‘elegy’ from Concerto for Orchestra, which Rattle neatly links back to Bluebeard.

The Shostakovich film concentrates quite rightly on the symphonies, giving us chunks of 4, 5 and, most movingly, 14, where Willard White’s sonorous bass intones Küchelbecker’s ‘O Delvig’ while photos of many of the artists who died under Stalin are flashed on the screen. Rattle is obviously a paid-up member of the Testimony club, quoting liberally from it, but whatever your view on the controversy, he shouldn’t really be referring to it as ‘Shostakovich’s book’.

The Lutosławski film is even more personal, as Rattle met him a number of times and talks with great warmth of the man. Again, the extracts may be obvious choices but no less enjoyable for that, as they all suit Rattle to a T. The pounding opening to the Concerto for Orchestra, Venetian Games (where he has great fun getting the CBSO not to play together) and Symphony No.3 are all dispatched with the utmost virtuosity.

If anything, The American Way packs even more into its modest time span, Rattle giving us a useful overview of the musical birth of a nation. I like his opening morsel; ‘If European art was a very long, marinated casserole, then American art is the fastest, most brilliant stir-fry’. We kick off with the tracing of black culture and influence, jazz and tin-pan alley, culminating in a superbly idiomatic big-band Rhapsody in Blue extract from Wayne Marshall. Other highlights include a tantalizingly brief snippet from the original Martha Graham choreography for Appalachian Spring and a healthy chunk of Ives’s Decoration Day, played against suitably evocative shots of New England countryside and townships. Rattle really gets into his stride when moving on to the post-war period, particularly the contribution of Cage and Feldman. He plays percussion in the decent-sized slice of First Construction in Metal, as well as a short but energetic rendition of Riley’s In C. He tries hard to encapsulate the complexities of Elliott Carter’s fanfare A Celebration of Some 100x150 Notes (1987, not 1969 as the caption says) and finishes with a beautifully gauged rendition of part of Harmonium, John Adams’s setting of Emily Dickinson. Rattle obviously sees the path from the simplicities of Feldman to the eclectic minimalism of Adams as a perfectly logical one, something I would not argue with.

So, if you admired these illustrated talks first time round, you won’t need any persuading to get them in better quality picture and sound. The caveats are there, but the power and persuasion of Rattle in this sort of repertoire is pretty unbeatable.

Tony Haywood

 

 



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