When the CD came along, a lot of us were nervous: You mean we’ll have to get rid of our LPs and tapes? You mean we’ll have to re-buy? But the pure convenience of a CD soon won us over, even if a few of us were suspicious about that sound — which seemed to come from nowhere, ungrounded.
Now the DVD is upon us, in spades, and videocassettes will perhaps go the way of the dodo (or the LP, for that matter). The DVD — a shiny little disc just like the CD — is an inarguable blessing. One can skip around, just as on a CD, with no tiresome reversing or fast-forwarding. The DVD is mainly a bonanza for movies, I suppose — just as with a videocassette — but music-lovers have a reason to rejoice, too. All those who want to see their music should be pleased.
And what is there to see? Well, mainly opera, of course, the most “visual” of the types of music. But there is utility in seeing orchestral concerts and recitals, too, if only to satisfy curiosity: What did so-and-so look like? How did he present himself? What was his magnetism, if any, in the hall?
Video Artists International is an invaluable source for historic CDs, videos, and — increasingly, as the medium rises — DVDs. The company offers a nice menu of these “video discs,” prominent among them complete operas, of course. We see — not only hear, but see — Joan Sutherland’s Norma, with the late Tatiana Troyanos as Adalgisa. We see Beverly Sills’s Violetta, in La Traviata — one of her most distinguished roles.
But we also see some old television. There was a time when classical music had a place on TV, and not just public TV, a few times a year. The fearsome Toscanini reigned supreme in NBC’s Studio 8-H. Leonard Bernstein staged his Young People’s Concerts. And The Bell Telephone Hour had a run from 1959 to 1968. You could see about anything on the Hour: a jazz band, Maria Tallchief and Rudolf Nureyev in a pas de deux, a comedy routine, and Birgit Nilsson singing the Immolation Scene. That’s during the same hour, by the way.
The show was the baby of Donald Voorhees, the silver-maned conductor and all-purpose music man from Allentown, Pa. He got his start on Broadway, then linked up with radio. His Bell hour started on radio in 1940, then moved to TV — to Studio 8-H, in fact — in ’59.
Video Artists International has culled segments from the TV episodes and fashioned them into several videocassettes and DVDs: We have the ballet dancers, and singers, and violinists, and pianists. Since opera stars hog a lot of attention in the wider culture, we’ll have a look at the pianists and violinists, on two amazing, illuminating DVDs.
The Great Pianists DVD features ten pianists, in a variety of music, most of it of the “popular” kind: the Grieg Concerto, that sort of thing. The proceedings occur with great dignity, even solemnity. Everyone is garbed in concert tails, and takes formal, silent bows (there seems to have been no studio audience). Baldwin Pianos must have been a sponsor of this show, because we have many, many shots — unavoidable shots — of the Baldwin name on the Bell piano.
First up is Claudio Arrau, the Chilean pianist, at the height of his powers in 1962, when he was 59. The eccentricities that were to mark his later years had not set in. He plays the Rondo of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, and does so bracingly, manfully. And Don Voorhees turns out to be a creditable conductor, even if he doesn’t threaten Fritz Reiner’s reputation.
Next comes the Cuban pianist Jorge Bolet in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue — and Voorhees relinquishes the podium for Paul Whiteman! It was Whiteman, of course, who conducted the premiere of the Rhapsody, with the composer at the piano, in 1924, a full four decades before this Bell telecast. Imagine knowing what Paul Whiteman looked like — while conducting! But then, now there’s no need to imagine. Here, he is immensely dignified, even stately, as though reluctant to appear too much the jazzman before a national television audience. But at one point the camera catches him in a sweet, amused, grateful smile. Priceless — and a visual benefit, not an aural one. Bolet, unsurprisingly, is excellent.
It’s good to see, and hear, the American pianist John Browning, playing the last movement of Brahms’s D minor concerto at age 30. He seems to have drifted away from the concert scene now. This performance is intense, fast, and gripping. It is a young buck’s performance, full of impetuosity — and Brahms would have loved it. The movement is truncated — so is Gershwin’s Rhapsody, for that matter — in accordance with the demands of television. Browning takes the final section of the movement like the wind, leaving poor Voorhees and the boys far behind.
A particular treat is to see Robert Casadesus, the Frenchman known especially for his Impressionism (Debussy, Ravel) and Mozart. (Curiously, the two repertories have often gone together.) Here, however, he plays Beethoven, at which he was equally adept. The third movement of the “Appassionata” Sonata is classic Casadesus, which is to say disciplined, rigorous, and sharply etched. One has to pinch oneself a little: This was American television? Prime time?
When Casadesus has finished, he introduces — in his thick French accent — his wife, Gaby, and his son, Jean, who will sit down with him to play a movement from the Bach concerto for three pianos (keyboards, we should say). So, la famille Casadesus occupies three grand pianos, sprawling out on the stage of Studio 8-H, with Voorhees far in the back, looking anxiously over his shoulder. All three Casadesus comport themselves stolidly.
Van Cliburn appeared in September 1960, two years after winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, and thus earning a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan. Cliburn was 26 when he performed on Bell (at about the time Kennedy and Nixon were having their debates). He shows tremendous ease and confidence in Liszt’s arrangement of Schumann’s great song “Widmung.” And to witness these qualities is poignant, as he seems to have lost them somewhere along the way, in his most unusual, slightly sad career.
In 1963, the 29-year-old Philippe Entremont dropped by for the Allegro vivace from Saint-Saens’s Piano Concerto No. 4. He demonstrates his amazing technical facility and marked musicianship. This performance is extraordinarily exciting, and yet eschews bombast. This movement can be a circus, and yet Entremont is too refined for that.
Continuing the theme of Where Are They Now?, we have Lorin Hollander, a sensation of mid century who sort of dropped off the map. He was 15 years old when he appeared on Bell, fresh from a triumph at Carnegie Hall. He plays the Chopin C-sharp-minor waltz with exquisite maturity, and then romps through part of another Saint-Saens concerto.
The final three pianists are Jose Iturbi — doing Iturbi-ish works, like the Ritual Fire Dance — Byron Janis, and Grant Johannesen. In a way, given these last two, and Browning, Cliburn, and Hollander, this DVD is a tour of the towering young American pianists of the middle of the century. And it was a laudable era.
The violin DVD? It is equally compelling. Right off, we are reminded — or told — that there was a time when Isaac Stern could play, before he became more of a guru and “personality.” The year is 1959, and he plays Saint-Saens’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. (These are happy DVDs for le grand Camille — Saint-Saens, that is.) Technically, Stern is rock-solid, and he conveys this music not only nimbly but authoritatively and stylishly — con slancio.
We then have a rare — very rare — opportunity to see as well as hear Zino Francescatti, the consummate French violinist with the lilting Italian name. In a way, he is the violinistic counterpart of Robert Casadesus: same age, same nation, similar (musical) outlook. Maestro Voorhees takes to the piano to accompany Francescatti in an arrangement of Debussy’s “Girl with the Flaxen Hair.” Francescatti’s tone — masculine, full — is intimately familiar, even if his face and phphysical presence aren’t. After the Debussy, Voorhees walks to the podium, and Francescatti plays that crowd-pleaser from Sarasate, Zigeunerweisen — yet he does so with astonishing nobility, and not a trace of vulgarity. That was Francescatti.
It’s sad, just a bit, to see Michael Rabin, the brilliant talent who died at 35, in 1972. We hear him at 24, in the last movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto, then two years later, in a couple of ditties from Kreisler. Rabin was a phenom who would only have broadened.
Out of another era entirely was Mischa Elman, born in 1891, and taking the Bell stage in 1962. He belonged to an age of highly individualistic violinists, of “homemade works of art,” as the conductor-violinist Joseph Swensen says. On this DVD, Elman is well past his prime, but at least we get to see the man, and when he plays “Schon Rosmarin” by his contemporary Kreisler, we feel that we have touched something authentic.
A great surprise and delight here is the appearance of Erica Morini, a Vienna-born violinist all but forgotten today. She plays an old war- horse, the Finale from the Bruch Concerto No. 1, but she digs her spurs into it and makes it run. She is accurate, robust, spirited — thrilling, really.
We then have Yehudi Menuhin in middle age — 1963 — neither the kid in shorts nor the elderly sage who stood on his head in yoga exercises. Next appear two emissaries from the Soviet Union, David and Igor Oistrakh, father and son. They perform the last two movements of Bach’s Double Concerto, faithfully and movingly. Then Ruggiero Ricci gives us the last movement of the Tchaik. And then we have, as a bonus, an appearance by a cellist, Gregor Piatigorsky. His concerto is the Saint- Saens (wouldn’t you know?), but the real prize is Faure’s cherished, much-milked little “Elegy.” If there has ever been a more honest, more affecting performance of it, I haven’t heard it.
When CDs hit the scene, one result was a plethora — a wave — of historical recordings. Thus did a vibrant new technology serve to bring back the past. The DVD might operate in a similar way — and there’s maybe no better way to start than with several hours of The Bell Telephone Hour.