The Final Chorale & Five Orchestral Pieces (DVD)

0 of 5 stars

Films on Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces – directed by Frank Scheffer

Netherlands Wind Ensemble
Reinbert de Leeuw

Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Michael Gielen

With contributions from Robert Craft (Stravinsky) and Charles Rosen

Stravinsky film made in 1991, Schoenberg in 1994

Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler

Reviewed: November 2005
Duration: 1 hour 44 minutes

Given that I have always tended to be more of a Stravinskian than a Schoenbergian, I was interested to see how these two films would compare in their approach to two seminal works from the early twentieth-century.

Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments is considered from a number of angles. The composer’s faithful colleague and interpreter Robert Craft explains the work’s revolutionary approach to structure, and recalls the part it played in his first meeting with the composer. Conductor Reinbert de Leeuw is seen at the piano preparing the score for a performance (it is his words, presumably, that are spoken in the accompanying voice-over, though we are not told), then rehearsing the work with the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, working particularly on the tempo relationships between the different sections, and on the sonority of the concluding chorale.

These two strands are intercut with each other, with shots of members of the Wind Ensemble assembling instruments, preparing reeds and practising, with archive film of Craft and Stravinsky discussing tempo, and earlier (1930s?) footage of Stravinsky rehearsing the work with an un-named band, in murky sound, and punctuated by close-ups of Picasso’s painting “The Three Musicians”.

Craft and de Leeuw both have interesting things to say about the piece. Craft describes it as Stravinsky’s “farewell to his early Russian style”, and as a “lament for the change in his life” following the First World War and the Russian Revolution. De Leeuw points to the music’s static, ritual nature as a rejection of previously accepted structural principles in Western concert music.

The performance by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble at the film’s close is both sonorous and rhythmically incisive, clearly recorded, but it would have benefited from more of a pause following the rest of the film.

The Schoenberg film focuses on the Five Orchestral Pieces, Opus 16, taking each one in turn. There are comments from conductor Michael Gielen, whom we also see in rehearsal and performance with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, pianist Charles Rosen, and scholar Carl Schorske. Much is made of the music’s cultural context in pre-First World War Vienna, with Schorske neatly summing up the atmosphere of the time as “chaos within; over-organised, rational culture without.”

The fourth Piece comes across as pivotal not only in Opus 16 but also in Schoenberg’s oeuvre as a whole. Its title, ‘Peripeteia’, comes from ancient Greek theatre, the name for the drama’s point of no return. For Charles Rosen, this piece represents Schoenberg’s “plunge into the self”, beyond which “the old principles are not valid anymore”. He plays Schoenberg’s Piano Piece Opus 11/3 to reinforce his comments. Paintings by Gustav Klimt and Schoenberg himself provide visual reference-points.

I came away from this DVD understanding a bit more about what makes both these pieces tick, but particularly with my feeling reinforced that, instead of Schoenberg’s music being written off as a dead end, as it so often is now, that, rather, it’s time is still to come. Or, as Michael Gielen puts it in, arguably, the film’s most thought-provoking comment: “Modernism is still alive and kicking, even in a post-modernist world.”

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