This registration of the Second Symphony by Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) comes with a special gimmick: the performance of the entire piece has been filmed in one single shot. Instead of distant cameras zooming in on whoever is playing the main theme and structuring the registration by cutting to different cameras, here the aim is to take the listener on a journey through the orchestra, in which the camera flows just as freely as the music. Because a microphone has been attached to the camera, its position also influences the sound balance, allowing the viewer to experience the music from inside the orchestra. See an extract here:
The aim here is to avoid an often heard complaint of orchestra performances: they are tedious to watch, because there is not much ‘action’ to look at. Moreover, filmed performances often suffer from the unimaginative approach mentioned above. As such, this DVD belongs to the many initiatives that seek to enliven classical music performances by providing a new type of imagery.
These complaints are not new. Already in the nineteenth century music devotees deplored having to look at the dull faces of the musicians, which in their opinion contrasted too starkly with the ethereal quality of the music. Conjuring up more fitting images was very much a matter of ‘do it yourself’. A notable literary treatment of this attitude is provided in Forster’s Howards End, where the character Helen Schlegel explains the two last movements from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to herself by imagining them to be the latter’s treatment of the evil goblins that walk the earth. (Today’s equivalent would be posting your own visualization of a piece on youtube.)
Does classical music look boring on TV? To answer this, watch this extract of Stravinsky conducting the finale of his Firebird:
Boring indeed, with the close-ups of Stravinsky’s almost expressionless face and his wooden gestures, but here is a clip of the same fragment, this time conducted by Valery Gergiev:
Gergiev’s facial expressions and his highly idiosyncratic movements – he is never ‘beating time’ – make the whole thing much more enjoyable to watch, despite the unoriginal filming strategy: the customary zoom-ins on individual players (or their fingers). It’s actually a bit strange, because progress had been made in the past decades. The legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan had been the first to understand the potential of TV- and film-registrations and invited famous directors like Henri-Georges Clouzot to work with him. Unfortunately, this cooperation ended when Karajan started to direct the concerts himself, with a lot of close-ups of Karajan himself as the result. See for the whole story:
So is this really a totally new experience? Up to a point. The one-shot approach, made famous by the documentary Russian Ark (2002), does bring some original images, but the traditional focus on instruments playing main themes has remained. The performance itself is okay, but compared to famous renditions in the traditional format, like Kleiber’s (see below), it is not particularly exciting. That begs the question whether the musicianship still decides the success or indeed a new visualisation of the performance.