Universal Music is going big guns on Carlos Kleiber, the German conductor who died earlier this year, with seven DVDs now available. He was the son of conductor Erich Kleiber whose 1955 version of Le Nozze di Figaro remains one of the finest opera recordings ever made. Rumor talks of Carlos Kleiber's diffidence and self-doubt, and promoters make much of his poetic and eccentric conducting habits. But the bottom line is that the performances he led were almost always of the highest quality.
The new DVD of a concert he gave in Munich in October 1996 is a real treasure. It begins with Beethoven's Coriolan overture and continues with Mozart's Symphony No. 33, but the real revelation comes with Brahms's Symphony No. 4 which concludes the concert. This is outstandingly wonderful: forceful and lyrical, boisterous and somber by turns.
For some reason, old favorites are made new on DVD. The reason, I think, is that when listening to a CD the mind easily wanders, but with a DVD every bar of the music is etched into the imagination. The epic and incomparable last movement of Brahms's final symphonic masterpiece (and all of his four symphonies are masterpieces) is a case in point. The long flute obligato and the double-rhythm crescendo that follows benefit tremendously from the DVD's visual immediacy plus the medium's ability to isolate and repeat any section you specify.
I have long known this music, but hearing it in this very fine performance and watching all the close-ups of the orchestral musicians renewed it in a way that was exceptionally gratifying. The brief Beethoven item is outstanding as well, with the Mozart sounding, uncharacteristically, like a whimsical fill-in by comparison.
But even the presence of Carlos Kleiber on the rostrum cannot compensate for the predictability and essential disposability of the Vienna Philharmonic's New Year's concerts. With their light-headed music and overly-well-mannered audience clapping during the Radetzky March, these DVDs follow one another relentlessly year after year, appearing set to continue until the crack of doom. Little changes (though on this one, from 1989, the orchestra does at one point briefly sing, which must represent the most highly-paid crowd noise ever marketed). Zealots will, nevertheless, doubtless, continue to collect these confections. (Deutsche Grammophon DVD 004400 073 4014).
In strong contrast, See How Great They Sound! is a highly desirable super-sampler from Deutsche Grammophon, Decca and Philips featuring some of the best DVDs they collectively have to offer. There's a paradox implicit in the title; the pleasure's essentially aural, it's saying, but here on DVD you can see the artists as well!
It's long been a problem with DVDs that you buy them blind. Though some Taipei outlets allow you to sample CDs, with DVDs this is rarely possible. Here you can, though you have to pay for the privilege. Nevertheless, there are 22 items, most of aria-length (and opera dominates this collection), plus many bonus tracks.
Any choice will be personal, but I was drawn to several items I wouldn't have considered before seeing these specimens. All were of modern works that on CD sound forbidding, but on DVD instantly appear accessible. One was John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer, an opera about terrorism that is today even more controversial than it was when it first appeared. The sequence shown here is terrifying indeed. Two other impressive tracks are from the Chinese composer Tan Dun: one an extract from The Map, the other from Tea, both exquisitely fine, visually and aurally, and both with the composer in charge.