Visiting The Gods
A new video documentary series celebrates century's greatest artists.
Thursday, June 10, 1999
At Do Re Mi Music, they can''t keep ''em on the shelf. From Warner Video, the producer that brought you the award-winning "Art of..." documentaries on great conductors and opera singers, now comes a new series, "Great Artists of the 20th Century." These documentary films by Bruno Monsaingeon focus on the lives of pianist Sviatoslav Richter, violinist David Oistrakh and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
Since their telecasts on public TV, the videocassettes on Richter and Fischer-Dieskau have been snapped up by area music lovers. And no wonder. Monsaingeon has done a superb job with "Richter: The Enigma" and "Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: An Autumn Journey." (We''re still waiting to see the Oistrakh tape.) In both cases, Monsaingeon has interspersed lengthy interview segments with existing documentary material, capturing his subject from both third-hand and first-person perspectives. In the case of Richter, the two vantages are pitted against each other on similar points, with sharply contrasting and sometimes amusing results.
Richter gave the filmmaker a lengthy and comprehensive interview at age 80, two years before his death in 1997. Though mentally sharp, the pianist many consider the greatest of the century admits to physical decline. At one point, he wistfully says, "My hearing has gone out of tune. It''s a disaster. I used to have perfect pitch."
In penetrating the Richter enigma, Monsaingeon squeezes out the telltale clues behind this astonishing career. From the start, Richter describes his awesome memory (though later he is always seen to play from the printed page, complaining that markings are difficult to recall). He says he believes there is one right way to play a piece, that which is found in the score.
Much of the footage found in the film''s 154-minute playing time documents collaborations with other artists, among them David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich, Oleg Kagen, Benjamin Britten, Heinrich Neuhaus (his one professional teacher), Andrei Gavrilov, Fischer-Dieskau, and his wife, the singer Nina Dorliac (who offers commentary of her own). Peculiarities of Richter''s life include the murder of his father, the taking of his last name by his step father, his lifelong refusal to play scales and exercises, his embrace of Wagner as one of his most important teachers (Richter memorized and played all of Wagner''s music at the piano), and his strong preference for Haydn (over Mozart) and the often ignored late sonatas of Schubert.
Two videocassettes comprise the Fischer-Dieskau program, a 100-minute documentary and an 85-minute recital of Schubert lieder accompanied by Helmut Hll. Forty-five years after he began it, the magnificent German baritone abruptly ended his singing career following a New Year''s Eve concert at the Munich Opera in 1992. He has continued his teaching career, however, and works in that capacity with, among many others, his wife, the soprano Julia Varady.
Fischer-Dieskau has always drawn his interpretive and dramatic instincts from the music itself, and, equally, the words. "Opera stage directors should be able to read music," he says. "Only a few of them today can do that. Most of the conductors I dealt with knew their pieces completely by heart. Furtwngler knew (from memory) all the words of all the parts of the operas he conducted. Ferenc Fricsay had a lovely tenor voice and gave examples fabulously well. (Wolfgang) Sawallisch the same, with his excellent baritone voice."
To elaborate the point (and with footage as a backdrop), he continues, "To work with Gunther Reinnert was a wonderful experience because the stagings were so musical. They were really faithful to the work. Today, the word faithful is imbued with a derogatory overtone. But I believe that for young people the sense of what is right or wrong on the opera stage must be revived with more accurate staging."
The documentary is lavished with historic and contemporary excerpts of the artist singing Bach, Berg, Henze, Mozart, Puccini, Reimann, Verdi, Wagner and the great lieder composers Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler, Strauss and Wolf. An emotional highlight is Fischer-Dieskau''s participation in Britten''s War Requiem performed at the dedication of the restored Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by the Germans during the war.
Fischer-Dieskau also sheds light on his artistic discipline. "How can we make things singable?" he asks. "It is not easy. Especially, for instance, in the middle period of Schoenberg where some turns of phrase are so rough that the unfortunate normal mortal who reads these notes has not the slightest clue how they can be sung. I have always tried to set myself a certain point within a phrase towards which one can project the singing and another one from which the next phrase will arise. That makes a phrase which, however broken by wide intervals and pauses, acquires some kind of singability. In other words," he adds with a Cheshire cat smile, "there is no such thing as unsingable music." cw
Last Week''s Quiz: What prominent composer wrote a piano version of Bach''s violin Chaconne in D Minor for the left hand only? Answer: Johannes Brahms.
This Week''s Quiz: To what 19th-century conductor is attributed the snipe, "A tenor is not a man but a disease"?
San Jose State Choraliers Sunday, 3:30pm. Charlene Archibeque conducts Byrd, Dowland, Brahms, Barber, Distler, Copland, Vasiliauskaite, others. Northminster Church, 315 E. Alvin Dr., Salinas. Free-will offering. 449-2717.