"PASSION CALLAS" - A film by Gérard Caillat exploring the life and career of Maria Callas

"Yehudi Menuhin - The Violin of the Century" - A film by Bruno Monsaingeon including archival footage documenting Menuhiin's career.

POULENC: Sonata for Flute and Piano (Jean-Pierre Rampel, flute/Poulenc); Excerps from La voix humaine (Denix Duval, soprano); Excerpts from Les mamelles de Tirésias. Excerpts from La courte paille (Denise Duval, soprano); Concerto in D minor for 2 Pianos (Jaques Févier/Poulenc, pianos); 3 Mouvements perpétuels (Poulenc); Concerto in G minor for Organ, Strings & Timpani (Jean-Jacques Grunenwald, organ); Orch/Ens/ORTF National Orch/Georges Pretre, cond.

"A Trail on the Water" - A film by Bettina Ehrhardt and Wolfgang Schreiber linking three musicians: composer Luigi Nono, pianist Maurizio Pollini, and conductor Claudio Abbado

There are perhaps 10 basic DVDs of Maria Callas (1923-77) available to devotees, often duplicating excerpts from performances in Germany, Paris and London between 1958 and 1965. EMI dominates the list, and this year has added another – a 1997 French film by Gérard Caillat with a scenario by Claire Alba. This is my first experience of Callas on DVD, although a newly remastered version exists of Tony Palmer’s superb 1987 film for the BBC – my own first choice of exposure to Callas the artist and person for those who don’t know her singular artistry on some 163 currently available CDs. Many are multiple EMI remasterings of commercial discs, by and large produced in Il Teatro alla Scala by Walter Legge, a reluctant, late-blooming convert to stereo (after the prime years of Callas!). If I have only her Carmen from Paris (that one in stereo), the storied Tosca of 1953 conducted by Victor de Sabata, and a dozen or more pirated CDs, some of which are credible replications of the voice and the art that drove it, it’s because I knew Maria from 1954 thru 1959, well enough that Marlene Dietrich changed from an ice princess to veritable cooing dove in 1956 when Callas greeted me cordially, and introduced us at a post-performance party following her Met debut in 1956. The next day, when we met at Callas’ hotel on Park Avenue for a long visit, Dietrich called in medias res to say that gossipist Dorothy Kilgallen had given Maria’s Norma a rave in her column. (The Times and Herald-Tribune reviews were mixed, chiefly because deadlines forced the critics’ to leave after the second act, and Maria didn’t really blossom until Acts 3 and 4.) Covering the mouthpiece, Maria asked, “Who’s Dorothy Kill-something?” I responded with a thumbs-down. When the conversation finally ended, Callas said matter-of-factly, “That was Dietrich. She’s a lesbian and thinks she’s in love with me.” Oddly, the Callas speaking voice in English was quite nasal, whereas her French and especially Italian were impeccably idiomatic (she also spoke Greek, but not Teutonic languages). Her complexion without makeup except lipstick was rather pimply, and she wore a floor-length, vaguely oriental house coat that is in one of Caillat’s few color scenes – but not the turned-up sultana slippers she also wore.

Back to Passion Callas, which prominently features a cousin if memory serves, whose scrapbook is a trove of the ‘30s and ‘40s photos from Athens, even a copy of her long-mystifying Manhattan birth certificate (Dec 2, not 3 or 4 or 5, 1923), with her lengthy maiden name in Greek, beginning not with “C” but “K.” There is part of an interview with her chain-smoking teacher, Carmen Melis, also mezzo Irma Colassi, French critic Bernard Gavoty, producer Michel Glotz (Karajan’s go-fer for years), storied director Luchino Visconti, and of course Aristotle Onassis, including a brief scene of them dancing at a party on his yacht – he who dumped Callas when she was singing “Vissi d’amore” instead of “d’arte,” and the widow Kennedy became available as his second wife. “Ari” was a collector of famous women, and it’s fitting that Jackie K. spent his money prodigally before his death. “The Final Years” section is uncommonly touching, including a brief excerpt from a concert on that vocally catastrophic world tour in 1973-74. There is a brief scene of the posthumous auction (but not the doors suddenly bursting open although the weather was clement), and a bit of the memorial concert at La Scala. The DVD is subtitled in several languages, definition is as crisp as original photographic materials allow, and the sound is likewise digitally enhanced with minimal distortion. It could have been longer than 74 minutes, but in conjunction with Tony Palmer’s Callas is a vivid reminder of a singing artist non-pareil at her peak. (That Franco Zeffirelli has made a fantasy-film verges on necrophilia, and manages to libel “Larry Kelly” who was one of the three founders of Chicago’s Lyric Theater, and insisted on Callas as their opening night star in 1954 rather than Renata Tebaldi. Larry was dead of cancer before Callas’ own passagio.) Passion Callas is essential, I’d say, but then I consider Maria Callas the supreme actress in my experience as a theater as well as music critic, and her two Medeas at Dallas in November 1958 the ne plus ultra vocally in a life of opera-going from 1934 until 1984.

Perhaps had I known Francis Poulenc this review of him and Friends on EMI could be more insightful, but it begins with a 7-minute interview by Gavoty at a 1959 concert in which the composer’s homely but celebrated charm is both droll and deadpan. He is joined by his “favorite singer,” Denise Duval, who sings excerpts – one suspects in spite of a cold – from the three operas he created for her, Les Mamelles de Tirésias, La Voix humaine and Dialogues des Carmelites. With Poulenc accompanying, she also sings two songs from La Courte Paille, albeit with more art than voice. There are two works for solo instrument(s) and orchestra: the D-minor Concerto for 2 Pianos with Poulenc and his long-time keyboard colleague, Jacques Fevrier (December 1962), and the Organ Concerto with Strings and Timpani featuring Jean-Jacques Grunenwald (March 1968), both conducted by Georges Pretre with the Radio-Television Orchestre Philharmonique de France. Otherwise, cellist Maurice Gendron plays a Sérénade, Jean-Pierre Rampal the flute sonata, Fevrier Trois Mouvements perpétuelles, pianist Gabriel Tacchino two more solo pieces, while Gabriel Bacquier sings six songs accompanied by Fevrier. The sound, given various sources and their age, is satisfactory, and certainly 115 minutes is generous, albeit crayfish and snails musically for the connoisseur.

If one reads the credits carefully, EMI Classics’ Yehudi Menuhin – “The Violin of the Century” indeed – is an IMG Artists commercial coproduced with Ideale Audience International. That title is sufficiently off-putting (Heifetz? Stern? Neveu? All born in the 20th Century, along with a legion of others who often played better after Menuhin’s crise du coeur musical in his late teens, when suddenly he began to wonder “Why and How Am I Playing”? without even finding the complete answer.) His achievements on behalf of music and colleagues, however, are documented here with considerable care and often more honesty than one might expect from a promotional film, made by Bruno Monsaingeon in 1994, five years before Menuhin’s death in Berlin on May 12, 1999. And there is a great deal of music, ranging from Sarasate to the Fugue from Bartók’s Solo Sonata, which the violinist commissioned, and which ends the film. There is a 13-minute tribute to his sister Hepzibah, who died prematurely – a pianist of almost equal natural talent that her parents in effect downgraded because of Yehudi’s prodigal gift. His postwar-2 “sponsorship” of Wilhelm Furtwängler did much to re-validate the conductor’s reputation,
although it made Menuhin perhaps more enemies than friends at the time. His devotion to Israel is musically as well as verbally documented, although residences there and in Switzerland did not detract from British residence for many years. He was rewarded with the title Lord Menuhin on behalf of his services to British music, musicians, and education. But he was a citizen of world in the sense that he became a performing colleague of Ravi Shankar, Stéphane Grappelli and Duke Ellington. Menuhin was articulate and humane – it comes through with unforced clarity – and game enough to demonstrate his dedication to yoga. Alas, in the concluding decades of his life he took up the baton with uncommon ineptitude, and in evidence there is a Mozart Violin Concerto he plays better as soloist than he conducts. He was a man of genuine charm (although his wife I found merely loud and a shade vulgar, yet he sincerely loved her). “The Violin of the Century” may be hyperbole, but the video has compensations, samples in particular of the music Menuhin commissioned and the artists he sponsored.

“A Trail on the Water” from EuroArts is a posthumous tribute to Luigi Nono (1924-90), the Venetian 12-tone composer who vigorously championed the downtrodden and attacked those who made wars, most notably the Viet Nam debacle about which France had warned the U.S. a decade earlier. The idea for this film was the collaboration of pianist Maurizio Pollini and conductor Claudio Abbado, musical friends and political soulmates in a time of worldwide tragedies (still unresolved), and new ones since that have polarized continents. There are no major compositional survivors of that period in Italy – Nono was the loudest but the last. Musical excerpts on this technically beautiful film by Bettina Erhardt include brief examples of Nono’s “...sofferte onde serene...” for piano and magnetic tape, and Frammento dal Prometeo, as well as excerpts from Schumann’s Piano Concerto, Schoenberg’s pre-atonal Pelleas und Melisande, Luca Marenzio’s Il nono libro de madrigali for five voices, and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. If it has a kind of Deutscheskultur patina, not always clear even to the politically conscious listener, the film itself is beautiful, especially the scenes of Venice where Nono also died.

R.D. (May 2006)