Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

For the past five years or so I've posted reviews of classical music CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays, in various places on the web: Amazon.com, iTunes and other sites. I'll collect those earlier reviews, and add four or five new ones every month.

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Monday, November 2, 2015

A comic masterpiece, with tragic relief

From March 19, 2015:


Watching the superb new BluRay version of this Royal Shakespeare Company production of the two parts of Henry IV, I thought of a quote by the late Terry Pratchett: “You can’t build a plot out of jokes. You need tragic relief.” Shakespeare balances the tragic and the comic, the historical and the situational, perfectly and deftly in the first part, if a tiny bit less so in the second. Comedy is the key ingredient, but strategic doses of tragic relief move the history along and make us care for the characters. Shakespeare creates a great figure in Sir John Falstaff, and presents him in the round, literally and figuratively. Antony Sher’s portrayal is outstanding: comic, and often hilarious (rather than Elizabethan clown/jester “funny”), but also sometimes cruel, and a figure in the end of deep sadness and regret.

The true measure of this production’s success, though, is in the integration of both parts of Henry IV’s story through the most amazing cast, who all work together to present Director Gregory Doran’s (and Shakespeare’s) vision. Many cast members take multiple roles, and actors portraying noblemen might show up in the next scene as carriers or soldiers. Trevor White, outstanding as Hotspur in Part I, plays the small but key role of Lord Mowbray in II. Antony Byrne impresses as the Earl of Worcester in I, and actually get three roles in II: Rumour, a Porter, and an outrageous Pistol. Nia Gwynne is touching and sad as Lady Mortimer in the first part, and plays a hilarious and sad Doll Tearsheet in the second. This is an ensemble play in the best sense.

The plays as history present the passing of the crown from Henry IV, usurper and uneasy king, to his son, the wastrel Prince Hal who becomes Henry V. Jasper Britton is an impressive King: distracted by guilt, deathly ill, and never easy in his role. His son begins as callow as can be, and only starts his journey to true Kingship by the end of the second part. Alex Hassell retains a bit of the upper-class twit through most of both plays, with glimpses of greatness on the battlefield in Part I, and with his dying father in Part II. Henry V will have his apotheosis in his own play, and I’d love to see Hassell continue this role in that play. Meanwhile, there are plenty of sparks between Hassell and White as Hal and Hotspur have their thoroughly dramatic final confrontation at the Battle of Shrewsbury at the end of Part I. The stage fighting here is absolutely amazing, turning up the tension to a fever pitch, accelerating the action to its inevitable end.

The presentation on BluRay from Live from Stratford upon Avon is really special. The camera always seems placed just where it needs to be, whether adding sweep to a battle scene, or focussing without moving on the back of Falstaff’s head as he is rejected and humiliated by his once-friend, the new King. When the King passes and Antony Sher slowly turns to the camera, tears streaming down his face, we witness a great theatrical moment. These two discs are full of those moments. Through the magic of HD video and sound we feel that we're right there in Stratford watching.

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