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DVD Review

The Golden Age of the Piano

A Documentary on the Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century

Produced, directed and edited by Peter Rosen
Written and narrated by David Dubal
Philips 075092-9 115m NTSC Multiregion DVD
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This is a tantalising DVD, hard to ignore or to recommend freely. It is undoubtedly a moving experience to see a panorama of the last century, now gone into millennial history, through film snippets of these great pianists in action. But the best reason to purchase is the so-called 'bonus', a magisterial performance of Beethoven's G Major Concerto, well filmed and recorded, directed by a young Muti (we are not told where or when it took place) with an aged Arrau, whose concentration and detailed expressiveness make this an account to treasure.

The rest is very much in the context of a documentary for a general television audience, with a quite dreadful commentary by David Duval, knowledgeable expert though he be, interrupting many of the pieces with banal hagiography. His basic premises are dubious (there will never be their like again, etc) and there are no specifics about the actual playing to characterise the individual pianists. Its value is diminished also by the poor documentation, the bane of so many DVDs; no dates of the pianists' births and deaths, nor the essential information about the dates and locations of these filmed records of pianists in youth and old age.

Yet The Golden Age of the Piano is still mesmerising to view. I go back a long way, so had seen very many of them live, those mentioned briefly like Pachmann (who chattered whist he played), Wanda Landowska (shown playing her monstrous Pleyel harpsichord) and Myra Hess, seen again at the wartime National Gallery – the pictures removed to safety, the frame behind her empty (I went to some of her concerts there). Others I had seen often, Rubinstein, Serkin & Arrau – but to write off by implication all the pianists of today is a travesty; the musical world changes, but it is not all downhill.

For those who do not completely reject pre-digital recording, and know some of these pianists mainly through CD reissues of variable quality, glimpses of them playing are invaluable to complement their record collections; if each of the pieces had been given complete, and free of talk-over, the value of the DVD (short measure at 80 mins) could have been far greater, especially if the engineers had included an interactive capability to slow down particular passages, for pianist viewers to study fingerings and technique.

There is another 'bonus' on the DVD which, against expectations, I found myself enjoying; a lengthy advertising sequence of extracts from numerous Universal DVDs – operas and ballets, the Three Tenors, lastly a classics-pop appearance at the Royal Albert Hall of a scantily clad quartet of lissom young string players – all put together seamlessly with considerable skill and no commentary or titling, leaving you to guess which is what, the only clues being catalogue numbers shown in small print to look up afterwards.

Copyright © 2003, Peter Grahame Woolf