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Notes and Editorial Reviews
LEGENDARY BRITISH PERFORMERS
Jacqueline Du Pré (vc);
Iris Du Pré (pn);
Benjamin Britten (pn);
Peter Pears (ten);
Emanuel Hurwitz (vn);
Cecil Aronowitz (va);
Terence Weil (vc);
Alfred Deller (ct);
Mark Deller (ct);
Desmond Dupre (lt);
John Barbirolli, cond;
John Ogdon (pn);
Myra Hess (pn)
EMI 88461, mono (DVD: 100:12)
Song without Words,
Go not, happy day.
Down by the Salley Gardens. The Shooting of his Dear. The Plough Boy.
Piano Quartet No. 1:
What then is love but mourning?
Have you seen but the white lily grow.
Ah, heaven, what is’t I hear.
Sound the trumpet.
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.
Piano Sonata No. 31.
Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C:
Collections like this rarely live up to the exalted names that producers bestow on them. EMI’s “Legendary British Performers,” however, delivers in spades. That’s not to say that the program is flawless. Some of the older videos simply aren’t up to par from a technical standpoint, the camerawork is unremarkable, and not all of these artists were captured at the peak of their powers. Still the plusses far outweigh the minuses, and the opportunity to see these amazing musicians in performance should not be missed.
First up is Jacqueline Du Pré, looking rather younger than her 16 years, but playing like an angel nonetheless. Nearly a decade ago, EMI issued two CDs of Du Pré’s early 1960s BBC broadcasts, nearly all of which were disappointing. In this 1962 telecast she appears to be a more mature and confident artist. Perhaps the presence of her mother at the keyboard (a fine pianist, as it turns out) enabled her to relax and focus on the matter at hand. Whatever the case, these early performances display all of Du Pré’s greatest strengths in embryo—the radiant, singing tone of her Mendelssohn, the searing intensity of the stormy Saint-Saëns, and the sultry Latin passion of the Granados. Further, Du Pré’s uncanny ability to energize each phrase and propel the music forward is continually in evidence. Indeed, the only thing missing here is the smile that eventually became her trademark. Her instrument is mediocre, but the recorded sound is quite good for a television broadcast of its era, and the black and white photography is clear and crisp.
Peter Pears was hardly my favorite tenor, even when singing the music of his long-time companion Benjamin Britten. The pinched, nasal quality of his voice and his prissy interpretations usually left me cold. This 1964 broadcast is another matter entirely. Here the voice sounds unexpectedly fresh and sweet, and the singer’s dramatic gift enables him to transform each item into a powerful and compelling character study. The program is quite unusual. Dressed informally in sweaters and ties, Britten and Pears begin with a spirited, joyous rendition of the Bridge, followed by an effortless, flowing account of
Down by the Salley Gardens
as arranged by Britten himself. Unaccompanied, Pears then delivers a riveting performance of the tragic ballad,
The Shooting of his Dear
. Afterward, Pears moves toward the camera, which pulls back to reveal a string trio seated around Britten’s piano. The instrumentalists give a touching, intimate reading of the slow movement from Mozart’s First Piano Quartet. Britten was a splendid Mozart interpreter, and it’s a shame the ensemble didn’t perform the entire work. Pears and Britten conclude with a delightful rendition of
. If the BBC has any other videos of these great artists in their archive, they ought to issue them post haste. The sound is adequate, though the Mozart suffers from poor balances and occasional distortion.
Countertenors are not usually my cup of tea, but Alfred Deller has always been an exception to that rule. This 1972 telecast is a delight from start to finish. The music is intimate and hauntingly beautiful. Deller sings splendidly in the solo songs and blends perfectly with his son Mark in the Blow and Purcell duets. The sound has all the depth and warmth that was missing from the Britten/Pears program, but the video production—with its constant crossfades and double exposures—quickly becomes tiresome.
The only symphonic music on the program finds Sir John Barbirolli and his intrepid Hallé Orchestra in fine fettle. Dvo?ák’s little
usually sounds trite, but not in this instance. Barbirolli leads a moderately paced, warmly lyrical, and vividly colorful performance. The orchestra plays magnificently—especially the solo winds, all of whom display the kind of personality and wit that we used to hear in the recordings of Tommy Beecham’s Royal Philharmonic. I’d never seen Barbirolli in action before, and I’m pleased to report that his podium antics are utterly fascinating. His motions are abrupt and jerky in the opening bars, but he becomes far more graceful in the score’s most lyrical effusions. Later he actually dances a bit, and, when the big string theme returns toward the end, he turns to the violins and encourages them with huge, sweeping gestures. The orchestra is seated in a very unusual arrangement, with all of the instruments that have prominent solos placed directly in front of the podium, undoubtedly to accommodate close-ups by the huge cameras of the era (1962). The sound is good, albeit with some hiss and occasional congestion in the climaxes.
Any opportunity to hear (and even more importantly see) the blazing virtuosity of John Ogdon is welcome, especially in music that was as perfectly suited to his volatile personality as Liszt’s
. Ogdon’s jaw-dropping technique and flair for drama make this one of the most remarkable performances of this music that you are ever likely to encounter. Yes, there are a few flubs along the way, but they never detract from the demonic ferocity of the performance. Indeed, after about 90 seconds, I honestly expected to see smoke rising up from the keyboard. Daniel Barenboim may be more poised and polished on his Teldec CD, but he can’t quite match Ogdon’s riveting interpretation. This televised performance from 1961 is also preferable to Ogdon’s own 1985 commercial recording on Philips (part of their “Great Pianists” series). By that time the pianist’s once formidable technique was in tatters, and the clattery, percussive sound of his instrument reminds me of a poorly regulated player piano.
The video is fuzzy, but the sound is tolerable for Solomon’s gossamer 1956 reading of the Fourth Schubert Impromptu. Surely more music from that broadcast could have been included on this disc. Unfortunately, the 1954 performances by Myra Hess are almost unlistenable due to the unsteady pitch of the recording. If you can somehow ignore this serious flaw, you will hear magical readings of the three selections on the program—especially her seamlessly phrased and deeply spiritual
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.
One-hundred minutes seems rather stingy for a full-price DVD, but with so many remarkable performances to enjoy this is clearly an example of the triumph of quality over quantity. If you have any interest in these truly legendary Brits, this disc belongs in your collection.
FANFARE: Tom Godell
Works on This Recording
Go not, happy day, H 34 by Frank Bridge
Benjamin Britten (Piano),
Peter Pears (Tenor)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1916; England
Sound the trumpet, Z 335 by Henry Purcell
Mark Deller (Countertenor),
Alfred Deller (Countertenor)
Written: 1687; England
Goyescas: Intermezzo by Enrique Granados
Jacqueline Du Pré (Cello),
Iris Du Pré ()
Written: 1914-1916; Spain
Average Customer Review: ( 2 Customer Reviews )
Wonderful views of great artists of the past. March 30, 2013
By S. Southall (Mooroolbark, Vic) See All My Reviews
"This collection of films (all but one from the BBC archives) varies in technical quality, but all are enlightening views of some great artists of the mid-20th century. Developments of film technique are obvious, from the faded quality of Myra Hess's dreamlike 1950's performances and Solmon's graceful Schubert Impromptu, to the clearer camera technique on John Ogden's forceful Liszt (1961) to the eyewitness documentary depiction of Barbirolli's choreographed conducting (1962). A young and vibrant Jacqueline du Pre resonates with her music in a 1964 view of Mendelssohn, and we can observe the unique chemistry between Britten and Pears, and the then astonishingly new (old) sound of Alfred Deller as these artists were seen in their time. What makes this DVD indispensable for me is the lovely and lucid Andante from Mozart's Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, which Britten, Hurwitz, Aronowitz and Weil play with wonderful clarity and tenderness."