August 3, 2008

Videos, CDs Stop Summer Performance Withdraws

By Mark Kanny, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Aug. 3--Concert life evaporates almost completely in August in Western Pennsylvania, but there are plenty of alternatives for those who refuse to write off this month, or other dry periods for that matter.

Many top local musicians head out of town during the summer to perform at music festivals across the U.S. and around the world. The pattern here is not likely to change anytime soon -- not with the Cleveland Orchestra's Blossom Festival just more than a two-hour drive from the Point and the increased cost of gasoline making this an inauspicious time to start a new festival.

Yet we have plenty of alternatives thanks to new and old technologies -- the Internet and iPod, and recordings on DVDs and CDs.

The YouTube Web site has an immense offering of classical video clips that range from new music to standard repertoire performed by legendary performers of the past and top performers today -- not to mention the search delights of finding less famous musicians who also are rewarding.

Those who missed Steve Schick's fabulous performance of "Psaphha" by Iannis Xenakis at the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble in July, or want to experience the music again, can find an earlier performance by him on YouTube. If you search by Schick's name you'll find three pages of other contemporary percussion music.

The postings of historical performers include such classics as Glenn Gould playing music by Johann Sebastian Bach and Arturo Toscanini conducting the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

There are many performances online that were never available commercially. For example, although Jascha Heifetz made hundreds of recordings and is still regarded as being in a class by himself, he never recorded any string quartets by Beethoven. Yet on YouTube there is a reading of a movement of an early quartet with three students. One is 14-year-old cellist Nathaniel Rosen, who later was principal cellist of the Pittsburgh Symphony until he won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and began a solo career.

Search too for pianist Leon Fleisher, who can be seen playing Maurice Ravel's Concerto for Piano Left-Hand and other repertoire.

There's lots of opera, too. Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Leontyne Price are just three of the great singers of the past well represented, but contemporary stars such as Anna Netrebko and Stephanie Blythe are posted too. But you won't find Blythe singing "Samson and Delilah," because she makes her role debut as Delilah at the Pittsburgh Opera in October.

Conductor Carlos Kleiber never came to Pittsburgh, but on YouTube you can see parts of his famous performances of "Carmen" and "Der Rosenkavalier."

Having checked out Kleiber on the Internet, you might want to acquire his DVDs and CDs. The advantages are significant. The operas and symphonic works are complete and with much better video and audio. Apart from special (and slower) high-quality downloads, music on the Internet and iPods have inferior quality by design in order to compress the digital files. It is a classic convenience vs. quality tradeoff.

The catalog of operatic DVDs has grown immensely in the past few years. Older performances from the Metropolitan Opera led by James Levine are mainly safe choices for superb performances and productions that are true to the operas being presented. But for those more interested in a stage director's concepts there are plenty of choices, especially in German productions.

And the range of repertoire on DVD is fabulous. Russian works led by Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Opera include not only the famous "Boris Godunov" by Modest Mussorsgsky but also the even more rarely performed "Prince Igor" by Alexander Borodin. And nearly all opera DVDs have on-screen translations available in several languages.

While the transition to purchasing downloads instead of CDs is difficult for the recording industry, CD releases continue with some irresistible sets.

Some are just ridiculous bargains, such as Decca's complete operas of Richard Wagner in stereo performances from the Bayreuth Festival in Germany -- 33 CDs with a list price of just over $2 per disc. The performances include complete accounts of "Tristan and Isolde" and "The Ring of the Nibelungs" with soprano Birgit Nilsson and conductor Karl Bohm.

EMI has issued several five-CDs sets that are nearly as inexpensive, just over $3 a CD, including complete sets of chamber music by Gabriel Faure, piano music by Francis Poulenc and the complete concerti of Camille Saint-Saens.

Even in a drought of concerts, there's enough music around to drown in for those who believe, with Oscar Wilde, that nothing succeeds like excess.


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