Of all classical composers, he has the most symbolic storyline. As his work became more baroque and beautiful, scaling heights of epic sonic glory, the man's hearing slowing deteriorated. By the time of his last symphony, the glorious and moving No. 9, he was completely deaf. With his signature mop of hair and statutory clichés (his bust is always a representation of the artist as angry madman), he continues to cut a compelling figure. While films have been made of his life, cinematic records of his music are few and far between. Thankfully, countries like Germany have been presenting concerts of such seminal works, filming them for TV broadcast, and as a direct result, posterity. Thanks to DVD, we now have a chance to witness some of these shows - and the experience is unforgettable.
It contains the famous "Ode to Joy". It's represents the last completed symphony of the famed composer. Its fourth movement has been rearranged into the official anthem for the European Union. It's even made appearances in films such as Help! , A Clockwork Orange, and Die Hard. Yet few outside the realm of classical fandom have actually heard Beethoven's complete 9th Symphony. CD examples are prevalent, but full video performances by professional orchestras are rare - until now. As part of an ongoing project to bring seminal works to the digital format, Unitel/Classica has opened up its vaults to bring this amazing 1977 television concert to DVD. As one example of over 700 hours of original productions, the 70 minute summing up of the German virtuoso's last great work stands as a stunning example of the archival excellence contained in this incomparable collection.
Wow...just...wow! Beautiful, timeless music played in a pristine flawless manner. What more can you say? Well, there's a lot, actually. What we are looking at here is technology from 1977, tweaked thanks to 31 years of advancing technology, into a presentation that appears pristine and contemporary. As an example of what Unitel /Classica and EuroArts can do with analog footage from a live New Years Eve telecast, this DVD is astonishing. For the sounds and musicianship on display alone, it's like a gift from the gods. Rarely is the symphonic experience captured in such a manner - up close, intimate, uncomplicated. But thanks to a symbolic setting, and the presence of one of Germany's most contentious and celebrated talents, what could be nothing more than a filmed concert becomes a study in style, an elegant illustration of how man and music merge to shape a flawless union of sound and symbolism.
The star of this particular presentation is maestro Herbert Von Karajan. When the 81 year old died in 1989, he was considered one of the most renowned conductors of the 20th Century. Watching the way he works here, a little more than a decade before his death, it's easy to see why. Karajan leads the Berliner Philharmoniker like a man possessed, entering into a kind of trance and never reemerging until the last note is played. He literally coaxes the sounds out of his sections, hands flowing in a manner that illustrates decades in pursuit of musical purity. His gaze never leaves the floor, his eyes never wandering to meet a certain player or person. Instead, when he does differ his stance, it's to look skyward, face full and open to the aural joys flowing over him. Since this is not a documentary, elements of Karajan's knotty reputation are not offered for consideration. Research shows he was a member of the Nazi Party (from 1933 to 1945) and is often blamed for the inflated fees paid to conductors and soloists in Europe. But he was also responsible for the recordings of Richard Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra" and Johann Strauss' "An der schönen, blauen Donau" that Stanley Kurbick used in what is undoubtedly the greatest film of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey. He was clearly a complicated man.
Without said context, however, all we have to judge Karajan on is his presence, and it's powerful, to say the least. He looks the part, hair swept back in a genius' crown, face locked in an unending battle with the muse running rampant inside him. There is one particularly astonishing moment when Karajan completely drops the façade and lets the human being inside shine through. As the "Ode to Joy" is reaching its apex, as the chorus chimes in with the familiar melody, the conductor looks at them. From our angle, we see a two-thirds profile, and the look of professional appreciation is stunning. The glare is gone, the stony stance of indifference disappears. In its place is obvious ecstasy, rapture derived from brilliant performers executing a masterpiece magnificently. It's a rare crack in composure, a chance to see Karajan out of the strictures of his position. It also indicates the majesty within the composition and the pristine presentation of same. Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 is definitely a work of art - and so is the Berlin Philharmonic's presentation of same.
Okay, someone has to be lying. The cover art claims that this concert is from 1977, and the historical accuracy of such an assertion bears out. But when you look at the astonishing 1.33:1 full frame transfer, taken from a German television broadcast, you'll be convinced that the date is three decades off. This DVD looks amazing, the image bright and shiny without a single significant defect, especially the ones we'd expect from an old analog source. The colors are bright, the contrasts clearly controlled. With only the clothing styles and fashions to date it, this is one contemporary looking picture.
Breathtaking in its depth and concert hall recreation, the three different mixes offered here provide a trio of interesting options. The standard PCM stereo recreates the broadcast basics. The Dolby Digital 5.1 broadens the sonic canvas significantly. But it's the unnerving DTS version of the multichannel choice that really sends the shivers down one's spine. Everything, from the quietest moments to the loudest chorales comes across with an urgency and energy that is hard to believe. For those interested in a translation of the Ode's lyrics, there are easily understood subtitles in English, German, French, and Spanish.
Sadly, there is no major added content as part of the DVD itself. The cardboard gatefold sleeve does contain an insert, but that is all. As part of the pamphlet, we are treated to an essay by Richard Osborne, focusing on Karajan and his career. It's a tad too short, but at least provides some necessary insight into the man. The disc itself could use more of this.
How does one gauge such a grand musical statement? Clearly, the content here alone mandates DVD Talk Collector's Series consideration. It's just that monumental. But we are here to judge the digital presentation as well, and while the look and sound of the disc are amazing, the lack of additional content (as well as the slight 70 minute running time) undermines the commercial value. So a compromise is in order. As long as readers remember that this is an outstanding concert with fabulous audio and video specifications, the Highly Recommended rating won't seem so harsh. In fact, this is a must-own musical memento, a chance to see a controversial figure lead an inspiring group of musicians through one of the major works of modern composition. Even if you're not a classical fan, Herbert Von Karajan's efforts here will definitely make you an orchestral convert.