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Eroica (UK) (DVD Details)

Unique ID Code: 0000071374
Added by: Alan Titherington
Added on: 8/5/2005 00:42
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    8 / 10


    This is a semi-factual account of the first ever play through of Beethoven`s Symphony No.3 in 1804 at the residence of Prince Lobkowitz in Vienna. It is, basically an excuse to have the marvellous Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, performing the whole symphony, in period costume (but with some very 21st century haircuts - although perhaps we`re now retro-early 1800s again). Jack Davenport, Tim Pigott-Smith and Frank Finlay (as Haydn) are rather overshadowed by both the music and a rather fine performance by Ian Hart (Beethoven).


    As with other Opus Arte productions, the disk is presented in a region free 16:9 anamorphic transfer and NTSC format.

    Despite it being a recent TV production I was disappointed in the general overall quality of the picture. External shots are fine, using plenty of natural light, but once the action moves to the inside of the palace, it seems that a lack of artificial lighting has caused a very grainy appearance in some shots.

    It is also not the most colourful of period `dramas`, although this makes the the green surroundings of Beethoven and his pupil out walking, and indeed Haydn`s red-scarlet outfit all the more noticeable. Perhaps someone`s trying to tell us that the music gives us all the colour we need.or perhaps not.


    The sound in this production, as I would expect, is excellent and when we watch the symphony being played, the balance is very carefully handled and true to life, but is spoiled somewhat in a scene `downstairs` when Beethoven has just been turned down by Therese. We can hear the orchestra begin to play the third movement in the distance, and there is absolutely no difference between the volume of the quiet and loud passages. This leads me onto another very slight irritation, but only as I know the piece so well and I want to get things out of my system (ok, I`m a jealous fiddler who would have jumped at the chance of playing in a production like this!)
    For the amount of players used in this production, the sound is far too rich and loud, and so I suspect (using some clever digital trickery, or whatever the technical term is) the orchestra most likely played live, but have been overdubbed by the recording which was produced side-by-side with this programme. I suspect this was the only way to have the women in the orchestra involved, as it`s only the men allowed on film (understandably so, if we need some historical accuracy).

    However, we do see a glimpse of what probably did happen when they first played through the first movement (it all falls apart), and the `false` horn entry is given due prominence when Beethoven`s pupil shouts at the poor soloist for getting it wrong (he didn`t), but from then on everyone suddenly knuckles down and plays through the whole thing rather too much as if they know the piece backwards, which they obviously do. Everything is too tidy, and the fact that all the violins are doing the same bowing is a dead giveaway! There are plenty of well-rehearsed bemused faces in certain passages though, and David Watkin (principal `cello) has perfected the concentrated frown.


    The DVD comes with a booklet containing an essay by Misha Donat on `Beethoven, Napoleon and the Eroica Symphony`. For those who are unfamiliar with the life and times of Beethoven, then this is definitely worth a read before watching the main programme.

    The only extra on the disc is a complete performance of the symphony (not interrupted by dialogue). It would have been nice to have a proper filmed performance (in modern dress), but we are left with the recording being played over the same scenes in the film in which it was played, tied together by some camerawork following what looks to be Beethoven`s original score and some handwritten orchestral parts. How they sight-read that first time is a miracle! (but more on that later).

    Again, as with other Opus Arte disks, menus are unfussy and easy to navigate.


    The acting in the non-musical sections (and indeed while much of the performance itself is going on) is probably as good as it could be, given a fairly dire, and sometimes acutely embarrassing script by Nick Dear, although one or two moments almost rescued it, namely the one horn player`s comment "Bloody Hell!" when he has a peek at what`s been written for them in the third movement (something that`s been echoed by horn sections for 200 years!), and a footman`s aside halfway through the first movement, "A Haydn would have been over by now."

    Unfortunately, the same footman (who seems to have a fine grasp of classical symphonic structure - which may well have been the case of course in households where they employed their own orchestra and paid for private performances of new pieces) comes out with "He`s buggered about with it hasn`t he…you know, the shape and that." And this doesn`t ring particularly true. It seems that Nick Dear has gone a little too far in trying to explain the connection Beethoven has with `the common man` (whoever that is) and shots of servants hanging around the palace crying at the sad bits and smiling and dancing at the happy, dancy bits (you can tell I`ve got a music degree can`t you) seem to be reinforcing someone else`s ideas about what we should be feeling when listening to a piece such as this. And if he has run out of sub-GCSE `descriptions` of the music, then the director treats us to surprised looks and shocked stares at anything which may have seemed out of the ordinary within the music. The reactions were probably more severe in real-life, but here they just seem patronising to the viewer.

    Jack Davenport plays Prince Lobkowitz as the nicest bloke in Vienna, who insists that his musicians refrain from standing when he enters the room, and makes sure they have plenty of beer on hand (always a good ploy with orchestras). Unfortunately, despite squandering most of his family`s fortune on his orchestra and commissioning new works, he doesn`t appear to know too much about music.

    This is left to his very smily, and highly annoying wife (or perhaps that`s just my reaction to Fenella Woolgar), who at any mention of Beethoven, appears to react as a young girl would around someone slightly famous who`s been on TV once, and appears to reach orgasm at any hint of excitement or unexpected harmonic change in the music.

    Tim Piggot-Smith plays Count Dietrichstein as a supporter of the old-school with the necessary disdain for anything new, but of course, almost comes around to appreciating what he`s just heard by the end.

    Frank Finlay (Haydn - generally known as `the father of the symphony`, so they had to bring him into the story somehow) is unforgiveably underused. He enters the programme just before the Finale begins and sits there, apparently not understanding what`s going on in the piece (highly unlikely), to deliver what is obviously meant to be the tag-line of the whole programme, "Everything is different from today".

    Ian Hart, as I have mentioned, does a fine job in bringing the character of Beethoven alive, despite the limitations of the script, which drips cliches in trying to squeeze in everything we know about the man somewhere along the way. The understated discussion about his deafness (he already knew his hearing was going completely) is actually quite moving, and he even manages to stand in front of the orchestra and `conduct` the piece without looking out of place, most of the time.

    The Symphony though, is quite rightly the centrepiece of the film, and we are treated to a complete performance in amongst the dialogue. I would definitely recommend this DVD as an exercise in musicianship (on the part of Beethoven and the orchestra), it`s just a shame the script gets in the way.

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