What can a composer say about his or her music that the music itself cannot say better? The question is voluminously argued, with results that fill libraries. Lately they’ve been filling DVDs as well, with results of varying quality.
Here are two DVDs of recent issue or reissue. Both are documentaries on composers about whom I have expressed a qualm or two over the years (which people seem to remember vividly), along with words of high praise now and then (which nobody except me ever seems to remember). In any case, let that pass for now. One documentary is Frank Scheffer’s Elliott Carter: A Labyrinth of Time, on the Ideale Audience label; the other is Christopher Nupen’s two-part Jean Sibelius documentary, “The Early Years” and “Maturity and Silence,” on Allegro.
The Carter title should itself give off fair warning; through no fault of the venerable composer — now nearing 100 — the program is a labyrinth of metaphor. Somehow a convoluted metaphor involving the passage of time becomes entangled in Scheffer’s script with the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings and the collapse of the tower in the Cocteau film Sang d’un Poète, which Carter seems able to neither explain nor pronounce. The congenial composer is seen at his ease inscribing notes and slur lines on paper, one at a time, in his comfortable apartment, and then turns up for no good reason trudging across the Brooklyn Bridge (quite a trudge from West 12th Street). Illustrious figures, including the pianist and scholar Charles Rosen and the formidable Pierre Boulez, offer eloquent attestation to the stature of Carter among today’s composers, with which I have no argument. I do wonder at Rosen’s evocation of the Carter Cello Sonata as the “synthesis” of his compositional techniques, considering that the work dates from 1948 and, thus, predates virtually all his “significant” works.
Oh, well. We look in on Carter and his wife, the late Helen, bustling around their comfy apartment. “I make the beds,” he says. One genuinely wistful note sounds at the end, considering the, let’s say, prickly regard that his music enjoys in some circles. “Where do you see your music’s future?” he is asked.
“People will become much cleverer and sharper,” answers Elliott Carter. “Then they will like my music.”
You will succumb with far less difficulty, may I suggest, to the passionate beauty of Christopher Nupen’s Sibelius study. I did when it circulated on laserdisc; now it returns all that deeper, richer and more powerful. There is no metaphorical nonsense here, except what the music itself wants us to know. The biographical details are detailed and lavish. Musical performance matters are in the hands of the excellent Vladimir Ashkenazy, and there are two remarkable visual effects. One comes at the end of every work, when the camera captures the orchestra from behind as the string players hold their bows skyward and it’s like a Sibelius ocean. The other is the remarkable plastic face of Ashkenazy himself, so eloquent as a conductor that you wonder why he wasted all those years in his admittedly excellent career as a pianist.
Every detail of the entire range of Sibelius’ symphonic career is carefully and honestly explained in Nupen’s painstaking prose; he has had some first-rate researchers. I’m only sorry that he has stopped short of the tone poems, which, as you know, are a Salonen specialty. As it is, I urge you to acquire this exceptional DVD — 151 minutes on one disc! — as preparation for our Philharmonic’s Sibelius splurge this fall (along with the chapter in the Alex Ross book I mentioned last week, which will also be out by then).
Now, about those 151 minutes . . . The last 30 of these are a kind of Christopher Nupen teaser, bits and pieces from some of his other documentaries of fond memories. There is one 30-second bit that you will play over and over: Jacqueline du Pré alone in a railway car, hugging her cello and plucking out something or other in sheer ecstasy. There’s more besides, but those few seconds are worth everything.
For Glenn Gould Hereafter (Ideale Audience), Bruno Monsaingeon has gathered a lot of old performance videos, much of them a young and tiresome Gould motor-mouthing, but set against some exhilarating piano performance. The worst is that this is another of these superimposed scenarios, a passel of obnoxious characters in communion with Gould revenant. The best of it, besides the music, are the miles upon miles of Canadian autumnal scenery. Twenty-five years after his death, Gould’s niche remains unchallenged. Would the Goldberg Variations figure in today’s vernacular had he not, as an exuberant but endearing brat, arrogantly updated them in his sexy 1956 recording? (To his credit, he then went on to learn their essence in time to record them once more.) A vast legacy remains on compact disc of the strengths, the originality — and, indeed, the occasional maddening wrong-headedness — of Gould’s musical thinking. It will, I fear, soon disappear; grab it now or never. On the Monsaingeon DVD, there’s lots of music in dribs and drabs, but not a single complete work and, therefore, no real evidence of what this dazzling, fascinating, irritating young genius really thought or really could do.
Spend a truly uplifting hour with Carlo Maria Giulini as he rehearses the Stuttgart Radio Symphony in Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, and another hour as he performs the work, on an ArtHaus DVD. The year is 1997; Giulini is 83, 13 years departed from Los Angeles. There are deeper lines in that handsome, Italian face and a little more around the middle, but the eloquence, the graceful movement in the arms, the pleading in the eyes: They are still there. “Please,” he tells the winds, “I can’t say it too often. We must sing.” And another time, again to the winds: “You give too much ‘puh.’ I like more ‘aaah.’ ” At the very end of the first movement, there’s a fascinating exchange, as Giulini adjusts Bruckner’s marking between trumpet and trombone, the smallest dynamic detail. It’s what a conductor defines as a minor detail, and you and I hear as a great performance.