Classical DVD reviews

Don Carlo, starring Rolando Villazon, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Marina Poplavskaya and Simon Keenlyside; Chopin, played by Daniel Barenboim; Wilhelm Friedmann Bach, Cantatas; Debussy, conducted by Leonard Bernstein

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing Reporter

Sun, May 08, 2011 - Page 14

If Verdi’s Don Carlo really is to be considered one of his very greatest masterpieces, it will achieve that status with the help of products like the one newly issued by EMI. It’s of Covent Garden’s production starring Rolando Villazon, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Marina Poplavskaya and Simon Keenlyside, directed by Nicholas Hytner and conducted by Covent Garden’s music director Antonio Pappano.

Everything about this pair of DVDs is impressive, except for the rather plastic and simplistic (but reportedly very expensive) sets. But even there the Auto da Fe scene, where Carlo confronts his father prior to the burning of a group of heretics, is visually overwhelming, as well as being very dramatic. Musically, though, the whole enterprise can hardly be faulted.

Villazon has almost all the beauty and virility of voice he’s famous for, while Furlanetto makes an extremely powerful and sinister Philip II. Keenlyside is a very strong and direct Posa.

As for Poplavskaya (the marvelous Desdemona in the recent Otello conducted by Riccardo Muti and reviewed in the Taipei Times Sept. 5, 2010) she’s equal to the best of the men. It was obvious after her Desdemona that she was already worthy of being an international star. Her scene with her husband Philip II (the father of the man she really loves) is astoundingly good.

She’s supported by a very powerful Sonia Ganassi as Eboli.

To cap it all, Pappano conducts his Covent Garden forces to great effect. He is a master of Italian opera, and if purists complain that Verdi originally wrote this opera to a French libretto, and had nothing to do with the change to Italian, all you can point to is the intelligence and sophistication of this version in the language most of us are more used to for Verdi.

Daniel Barenboim was in the news this week after he gave a concert in the Gaza Strip. He has long championed Palestinian rights and has out of solidarity even taken out Palestinian nationality in addition to his Israeli one. An excellent new DVD from Accentus shows him playing an outstanding all-Chopin concert in Warsaw last year. The general mood is sad, even somber, and nothing could be further from the showmanship of Lang Lang (郎朗) or the quicksilver brilliance of Yundi Li (李雲迪). Instead, Barenboim plays his selected program from the heart. It’s almost as if he’s in mourning for someone.

This is Chopin for serious listeners — restrained and inward-looking. There are no bravura gestures and virtually no smiles, though this last may have been the result of the audience’s stubbornly measured, never frenzied, applause. Only at the very end, after two encores, do they let a certain amount of enthusiasm show. Finally Barenboim gives one broad smile, and then leaves the stage.

But playing Chopin in Poland can never be easy, even for a man who began life as a child prodigy, was first celebrated as a pianist, and only later started devoting much of his time to conducting.

This is a lovely DVD, almost private music-making, and displaying a selfless dedication to the inner qualities of the chosen composer. Barenboim’s very physical presence says it all — an unassuming man in his late 60s wearing a gray suit, careless of his own image and focusing instead on the easily-overlooked soulfulness behind Chopin’s sometimes glossy surface. I will watch this DVD again and again.

J.S. Bach had several musical sons, but the oldest of them, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, has received least attention. His father went to considerable lengths to ensure a sound musical education for him, but he never succeeded professionally, and even sold some of his father’s manuscripts, lost now as a result, to escape poverty.

Even so, he may have a claim to some people’s interest, and if so a new DVD of four of his church cantatas and a short “sinfonia,” using manuscripts recently discovered in Kiev, would make an excellent introduction. An item to sample is the last cantata on the disc, Gott fahret auf mit Jauchzen, with Dorothee Mields an especially resplendent soprano. The sound quality is very good, and Mainz’s Augustinerkirche makes an appropriately splendid setting.

Debussy’s silken tones are not what we normally associate with Leonard Bernstein, but here he is, in the last year of his life, conducting an all-Debussy program with the prestigious orchestra of the Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome. You can’t help wondering in advance what opportunity the occasion will give for him to hug himself, or alternatively a chosen member of the orchestra.

But things prove appropriately restrained, and this DVD, while no masterpiece, will appeal equally to Bernstein and Debussy fans as a rather unusual collector’s item.