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5.0 out of 5 stars WHAT CLASSICAL MUSIC FILMS SHOULD BE LIKE, 10 May 2007
This review is from: Gustav Mahler - Conducting Mahler / I Have Lost Touch With The World [Frank Scheffer 2005] [DVD] (DVD)
These two Frank Scheffer documentaries really bring home what works best for classical music on DVD. Videoed concerts, to my mind, seldom add much to the experience of audio only and are certainly no substitute for the real live experience - we are always too much at the director's whim for close-ups of puffing or sawing musicians or of every pore on a rapt conductor's face. Opera works better, but again, the constricted format is no substitute for the real thing and in the opera house (as in the concert hall) one's eyes move subconsciously all over the place, constantly taking in different elements of the hall, the performers and the performance.

Both these documentaries include a high proportion of concert performances of the Mahler symphonies, but it is all directed to a different end. The first, Conducting Mahler, is about exactly what it says on the tin. It is about the views of five eminent Mahler conductors on their craft and on the facets of the composer and his music that they look to elucidate in their performances. And their views are illustrated by substantial excerpts from live renditions of all the Mahler symphonies with three of the orchestras that the composer himself knew well, all given at the Mahler Festival in Amsterdam's Concertgebouw in 1995. What makes these performance extracts different from the usual filmed concert is that they remain fixed for practically the whole time on the conductor's face - no extraneous cutting about the various instrumentalists, no views of architecture of the hall. If I have one quibble with the film it is that these close-ups are just a bit too tight: all we really see are the conductors' faces and we get no real chance to watch their stick technique to see how they beat what are often quite complicated rhythmic structures, how they employ rubato or how they communicate Mahler's frequent abrupt changes of tempo and time signature. A shame, because in all other respects this is a fascinating documentary, really enhancing our knowledge of Mahler and his music as well as of the conductors and their different approaches to him.

The second documentary, I Have Lost Touch with the World (an evocative translation of the title of Mahler's Ruckert song, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen), employs very much the same visual techniques to a different end. Here we are exploring Mahler, the man and the composer, principally through his Ninth Symphony. Riccardo Chailly in his farewell performance as principal conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra gets the lion's share here - along with Mahler's main biographer, Henri-Louis de la Grange, a man who probably knows more about his subject than anyone living and who is particularly articulate in knocking down some of the hoary old shibboleths that have built up around Mahler. Here, too, Scheff allows the music to speak as loudly as the commentators in elaborating his thesis. This is admirably non-interventionist film-making, even though it has strong, profound, fascinating and sometimes controversial things to say about its subject.

I really do feel that this is a much more fertile use of video to elucidate classic music than the usual fare we get. One would like to see much more of its ilk. In the meantime, this pair of excellent films on one disc comes highly recommended.
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