New from Well Go USA Taiwan is a ballet danced to Bach's cello suites numbers two, three and six, In the Wind In the Void. It comes from Zurich Ballet and is the work of choreographer Heinz Spoerli.
Bach isn't natural ballet music. It's concentrated, for one thing, and semi-abstract for another. The cello suites don't tell a story, as much Romantic music does. This is the reason, Spoerli tells us in a bonus interview, why he has only come to Bach late in his professional life.
He's always found Bach's music a true friend in times of crisis, he says. But in his mature years he has felt the need to display Bach's balance and focus in dance. This current work follows his earlier Bach ballet set to the Goldberg Variations.
Here Spoerli sets simply dressed dancers in pools of colored light against a dark background. The items are predictably formal, but they also possess great inventiveness, energy and muscular strength. This is exactly right for Bach's music, which is nothing if not strong and energetic. The cello playing by Claudius Hermann, incidentally, is superb.
Two more DVDs from Well Go USA Taiwan feature Shostakovich's landmark Fifth Symphony. One is the final program of Andre Previn's 1984 TV series Sounds Magnificent (note the pun), while the other forms the first half of a Shostakovich Double Bill, two Shostakovich performances on the one disc. Both are arresting in their different ways.
Previn's series followed the development of the symphony as a musical form. By the 20th century the symphony was under threat, he explains, and many composers considered it finished. But there was plenty of mileage left in the old dinosaur, he argues. To support his argument he plays the entire slow movement from English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fifth Symphony and the conclusion to American Roy Harris' Third Symphony, praising the "endearing, touching, personal" feeling of the one and the "generous, open-air quality" of the other.
What Previn is trying to do is compress the whole of the 20th century symphony into one TV program, concluding a series that had inevitably focused on the 18th and 19th centuries. He does a good job of it, ending by demonstrating how Shostakovich lay somewhere between the avant-garde serialists who rejected the form out of hand and stubbornly romantic loners like Harris and Vaughan Williams. Shostakovich was a modernist of a kind, but he also had a strong attraction to structure and musical development of the sort the symphony traditionally stood for.
He characterizes Shostakovich's mature music as "astringent, satirical, dissonant," stressing in addition its tendency to pessimism, skepticism and irony. This is very relevant to the Fifth Symphony because it was penned after a period of official displeasure and subtitled "A Soviet Artist's Practical Creative Reply to Just Criticism" (a subtitle, Previn notes, not written by Shostakovich at all but "suggested" by someone else).
With two schools of Shostakovich criticism currently at work - the old view that his music is harsh, unsubtle and propagandist, and the newer view that he was one of the 20th century's greatest composers - Previn, without mentioning such disagreements, entirely sides with the latter. This is interesting because Previn's manner is so self-effacing. You'd never guess what critical storms lie behind his quiet, reassuring statements.