Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"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.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Another flawed film, with fine bits

I'm a big fan of the classical music documentaries Ken Russell made for the BBC's Monitor program in the 1960s. I agree with John Bridcut that the 1968 Delius film Song of Summer was the best of these, but there are so many: about Prokofiev, Bartok, Debussy, and, another favourite, Elgar.  Here is the Delius film; Max Adrian's portrayal of the invalid composer is a comic masterpiece.

When the success of his feature films brought him larger budgets (Women in Love, for which he was nominated for a Best Director Oscar, was only 2 years after the Delius film), he unleashed his imagination and began filling his films with an endless series of Russell tropes: Nazis, naked women, fire, crucifixion. It wasn't long before he was officially Over the Top. Here's a typical scene, from 1974's Mahler.

There's a point to this clip, of course, but it goes on rather long. At least Russell's sense of humour is still in operation here; it goes on and off during his career. It can take a long time for Hollywood to run out of patience with a wayward director, but by 1983, when he was once again making classical music films for television, this time for ITV's The South Bank Show, the bulk of the money had run out. So Ken Russell's View of The Planets is a low-rent affair. A (very fine) recording of The Planets from The Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy is matched with "found", or stock footage, cleverly edited.

Finally available on DVD and Blu-ray, the Holst film shows how far Russell had come since The Music Lovers, Mahler and Lisztomania in the 1970s. The means are very slender now, but Russell's imagination is often lit up. All the same obsessions are there, this time in a low-tech environment not too different from a YouTube amateur of today. There are still flashes of humour: the great Barbie Doll ending of Venus, and the surfing beginning of Mercury are both fine gags. But there is also great artistry in his Saturn sequence, a brilliant environmental satire of planned obsolescence. This is another flawed film with fine bits, by a director who specialized in just that.

There are fine bits in the official trailer from ArtHaus for the DVD/Blu-ray as well:

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