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The Ninth Symphony - On Schiller's Ode to joy
Music: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Choreography: Maurice Bejart
Ballet Bejart Lausanne
The Tokyo Ballet
Kristin Lewis (soprano)
Mihoko Fujimura (mezzo)
Kei Fukui (tenor)
Alexander Vinogradov (bass)
Ritsuyukai Choir
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta
Narrator: Gil Roman
Director: Mari Inamasu
rec. NHK Hall, Tokyo, 2014
Picture: 1080i Full HD, 16:9
Sound: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio
Region code: worldwide
EUROARTS Blu-ray 2060874 [88:00]

"This choreographic interpretation of Beethoven's masterpiece has no concept, goal or theme other than the music it encompasses, the music that nourishes it and is in fact its unique "raison d'être". The dancers simply follow the languid wanderings of the composer, meandering from dread to joy, from shadow to light ... [This] is not a ballet in the general sense of the term but a profound human participation in a masterpiece that belongs to the whole of mankind, and is not only played and sung here, but is danced, as were the Greek tragedies of Antiquity and primitive religious rites."
[Choreographer, Maurice Béjart, quoted in the DVD booklet]

Beethoven's "Choral" symphony occupies, so it is widely believed, something of a key role in the Japanese technological development of the CD - and, more specifically, of the decision to adopt a figure of 74 minutes for the format's "official" maximum length.

Some believe that that time limit originated from a design specification that a disc ought to fit comfortably in a jacket pocket, which thereby limited its potential content. Widely circulated anecdotal accounts have put forward other theories, with most proposing that there was probably some sort of link to the duration of Beethoven's ninth symphony. Some suggest that that work was a musical favourite of Sony's President at that time Norio Ohga and that he demanded that the new medium should be able to accommodate the complete piece. Others echo that story's bare bones but claim that the Beethoven fan in question was the wife of company Chairman Akio Morita. Yet another account suggests that Herbert von Karajan - the era's top-selling classical conductor and a great mate of the Sony top brass - was the one who insisted that a CD ought to be able to hold the whole of such a totemic work without requiring a second disc.

Now this newly released video offers us that very same symphony in a live performance by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under Zubin Mehta, recorded in Japan itself in 2014. On this occasion, however, the musicians are positioned very much - and quite literally - to the rear, while the foreground is very fully and busily occupied by the dancers of two professional ballet companies.

In 1964, choreographer Maurice Béjart (1927-2007), well known for his somewhat off-the-wall take on classical ballet (see here), staged an ambitious new production set to Beethoven's ninth. One might have thought that the same composer's seventh symphony would have been a more obvious choice: no less a figure than Richard Wagner had, after all, termed it "the apotheosis of the dance" and, over the years, choreographers including Leonid Massine, Twyla Tharp and Toer van Schayk have been attracted by its rhythmic vitality. While Béjart may simply have wanted to strike out in a rather different musical direction for its own sake, the quotation at the head of this review also suggests that he was attracted by the ninth's unique status as an international cultural icon.

The Tokyo performance preserved on this Blu-ray disc marked the 1964 ballet's 50th anniversary. It authenticity was buttressed by the participation of Piotr Nardelli who was not only a close friend of Béjart but had also been involved in the original production.

As Béjart's own words make clear, there is nothing in the way of a "story" here. Instead, the Lausanne and Tokyo companies - joined, so we only learn from a throwaway and easily overlooked line in the booklet notes, by some talented but otherwise uncredited "African dancers" - simply offer us a choreographically abstract interpretation of the music. "Simply" is most certainly an inappropriate word here, given that the requirements of moving such a large number of dancers around the stage are very complex. Those requirements are greatly assisted by a geometric grid that is laid out prominently on the stage floor to help the performers find their proper positions - even though the delicious irony of regimenting them as rigidly as in a Ceausescu rally while they dance to a score that celebrates humanity's individuality and freedom appears, on this occasion, to have entirely escaped the producers.

When it comes to that choreography, there is plenty here that Marius Petipa would have recognised and little or nothing, at least once we are past a somewhat incongruous seven minutes long "Prologue", that will frighten anyone who is alienated by the style and techniques of modern dance. The performances - both collective and individual - are executed quite superbly, with everyone on stage displaying immense enthusiasm and commitment. Unfortunately, although no fewer than 21 individual solo dancers are listed in the accompanying documentation, it's not possible in practice to identify - and offer well-deserved credit to - any of them. That's particularly annoying when the booklet actually wastes a couple of pages on a Béjart mini-biography, jarringly written throughout in the historic present tense even though its subject died almost a decade ago. Such details are widely available on sources like Wikipedia and could easily have made way for named photographs of the soloists, just as we are used to seeing in ballet programmes.

There are, it's true, a couple of jarring elements. I could have done without the opening narration from Béjart Ballet Lausanne's current Artistic Director Gil Roman - a piece of nonsense that sounds as if it were penned by a pretentious sixth former and that properly deserves a place in Private Eye magazine's Pseuds corner. If you don't understand the French in which it's delivered and if you don't want to burst a blood vessel in annoyance, I'd advise you to switch off the subtitling facility. We go straight from that into the aforementioned "Prologue" which features a couple of percussionists - Thierry Hochstätter and jB Meier. Though undeniably highly skilled, they do look and perform like they're participating in a rock band. Fortunately at that point Maestro Mehta and the orchestra are enveloped in gloom at the rear of the stage, so we can't see their presumably bemused reaction to those shenanigans. Once the drummers are done, however, we move on to the more easy-on-the-ear symphony, offered in a soundly forthright, if unremarkable, performance, and, more to the point, to that wonderful exhibition of dancing.

Fortunately, the TV directors responsible for this recording, Mari Inamasu and Fukiami Kuriyama, are obviously very skilled at their jobs. Individual shots are well chosen, while unnecessary and distracting close-ups are kept to a minimum and, at least as far as I can see, we miss nothing of any importance. Watching the filmed performance also gives us a special advantage over the theatre audience, for we are offered one or two sequences filmed by an overhead camera; those emphasise the dancers' physical symmetry à la Busby Berkeley as well as adding to the visual impact. This Blu-ray version of the performance is a good one from a technical point of view, with no suggestion of the judder that can sometimes affect lateral panning shots. While it may not exhibit the pin-sharp detail that can be found in the very finest Blu-ray ballet discs - notably some of the entries in the superb BelAir Classiques Bolshoi Ballet HD Collection - it is easily more than acceptable and, indeed, a real pleasure to watch.

Available for the first time on Blu-ray or DVD, it is good to welcome Maurice Béjart's The ninth symphony to the catalogue, particularly in this high quality performance. While I don't envisage watching it with the frequency of some of the other ballets on my shelves, it will certainly deserve more than an occasional outing.

Rob Maynard

Previous review: Ian Lace (DVD)



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