Strauss & Ravel Concert. Vladimir Jurowski conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in 2009 in the Richard Strauss Metamorphosen and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Hélène Grimaud joins as soloist in the Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major. TV direction by Louise Narboni; produced by Pierre-Martin Juban. Released 2010, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grades: A- for the Ravel and B- for the two Strauss pieces.
I reviewed this title about 5 years ago when it first came out. Hélène Grimaud recently played the Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major in Dallas with the DSO, so I thought I would review this again and add screenshots.
This disc has three 20th-century masterpieces for orchestra that avoid the dissonance and harshness that is controversial in much modern music. First comes the Strauss Metamorphosen for 23 strings, which consists of 26 minutes of lamentations over the destruction of German honour and culture by the rise and fall of National Socialism. Next up is the jazz-influenced Piano Concerto in G Major by Ravel (the one for two hands). The happiest piece is the last--- Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme from Strauss. (Grimaud does not play the piano part in Gentilhomme.) Gentilhomme is perhaps a bit out of character for Strauss because it is neoclassical and jolly. But there is no lack of brilliant orchestration with frightful difficulties for the exposed soloists in the small Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
Let's review and grade each piece separately starting with Metamorphosen. Below Jurowski just walked on stage at the beginning of the concert. We like to start off with whole-orchestra video images to help us get oriented as to whom is playing. But here we are off to a bad start with the video because this is not a whole-orchestra shot. It's a shot of a small group of people on a big, half-empty stage:
But soon we do get the whole-orchestra shot seen next below. Alas, the video resolution here is only slightly better than a DVD. Still, one could have made a decent video of this Metamorphosen by locking the camera in this position for 26 minutes. That's not what we would want, but it would have been better than what Louise Narboni in fact gives us:
Metamorphosen is a dirge-like statement of mourning with most of the players engaged most of the time in slow massive blocks of anguished sound. It's the opposite of the stereotype Strauss style with a rapid progression of brilliant solos and small ensemble statements often representing the many strange characters that Strauss so loved to depict. So this video should use long-range or medium-range views to show us big groups of players, and each video clip should last as long a reasonable possible. But what we get is a multitude of short clips of soloists or small groups of players. For example, there are six cellos, but in the shot below we only see three. Why not the whole cello section? I feel we have here a small-scale but exasperating case of DVDitis, the disease we normally associate with HDVDs of full symphony orchestra recordings:
Here's a typical shot of a solo by the concertmaster. This view also illustrates a problem with lighting and color balance in the video. It seems the TV director put the audience and the stage outside the proscenium arch in almost total darkness while the stage is brightly lit (maybe too brightly). Somehow the colors are out of kilter. Many of the faces of the musicians seem strangely ruddy, bleached, gray, or shiny. (This is one of those discs that looks better on my computer monitor than in my home theater on my big, calibrated plasma display.)
There are a few shots that show what's really going on such as this view of the almost all of the violins:
And here, at rest, are all the violins. This proves the TV director could have made an excellent video of this performance. But once a TV director has the virus of DVDitis in his or her veins, it's hard to stamp it out in favor of a better-quality HDVD video:
This performance of Metamorphosen is gripping. SQ, recording balance, and dynamics are excellent. There are many recordings of this on CD, but subject title is the only HD video available and is probably competitive with the best of the CDs. So you could buy this just to listen. But when both picture quality and picture content are poor, the best grade I can give this is "C+."
Now on to the Ravel concerto with Hélène Grimaud. I loved this in 2010. I compared it to the Martha Argerich performance of the same work on the 2009 Nobel Prize Concert HDVD. I'm old enough to remember when Argerich was the hottest piano player on earth and resided on the far side of state-of-the-art. So I wrote in 2010:
Argerich seems to be the better pianist, but Grimaud plays the piano better. On the 2009 Nobel Prize Concert disc, I see Argerich show up and earn her fee. When I watch Grimaud, I feel like an orchestra member getting excited because the soloist is making something happen! I was especially moved by Grimaud's second movement (Adagio assai) in the Ravel. Unlike Argerich, who plays this softly, Grimaud sings out with her adagio and wrings from the piano and the orchestra all the emotion that Ravel put into the score.
Flash forward to 2015 with Grimaud performing the Ravel with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. I was lucky enough to have a good seat for this, and Grimaud was fabulous. As local newpaper critic Scott Cantrell said, she played the bookend movements as fast as a "scalded cat." Again the adagio was precious. And I think she wore the same Ravel pants suit outfit that you see in the video. So it was hugely enjoyable to see this. It was also a good reality check and confirmation of what I've always asserted: there's no way a flat screen and some black boxes will ever be competitive with a live performance. HDVD is a different product than live performance and will never be confused with the real thing. The art of HDVD is no threat to live artists. To the contrary, it's a natural ally of the performers. HDVD is the best teaching tool and entertainment supplement ever devised to help consumers explore the fine arts. As this is increasingly recognized by consumers, interest in live performances will increase, no matter how much competition there is from other segments of the entertainment market.
Now on to a few screenshots with minimum annotations:
Fuzzy notes on the sheet music means weak video resolution---at this range the notes should look sharper:
Ravel's orchestration features a blizzard of quick solos by many instrumentalists rather than sections playing in unison. So here the rapid succession of close-up shots is not a symptom of DVDitis. The harp gets a great part. Here Charlotte Sprenkels is brilliantly recorded and mixed into the sound track:
Jonathan Williams squeezing out immaculate, long, high notes on horn:
A shiny face:
Here a lady who knows how to pay attention when at rest:
Rachel Frost on cor angleis:
This was a great performance. But I have to grade the Ravel down for weak PQ, so I'll give this segment of the disc a "A-."
Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme
The last and longest segment on this disc is the Strauss Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. The virtuosity of the composer and the performers in this work is almost unbelievable. And as with the Ravel, there are many solo parts here that demand video attention and which are not symptoms of DVDitis. We start off with 2 large-scale views of the orchestra:
And here's a beautiful multi-section shot of the sort we so ardently seek and rarely get:
But don't let down your guard. Here one of those dreaded conductor-over-the-backs-of-musicians angles that we hate so much:
Once again the performance and sound recording is excellent. This is the only HDVD of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and it's probably as good as or better than the 12 CDs available. So I'll give this a "B."
Sum up: I'll give the two Strauss titles a blended grade of "B-" and the Ravel an "A-."