DVD reviews of the inaugural releases from The Masterclass Media Foundation

Review Published: 28 February 2008

HaitinkProducts of the recently-established Masterclass Media Foundation, these five DVDs preserve four very different sets of classes between famous musicians at the top of their field and young musicians at the start of their careers, plus a lecture-demonstration from the great pianist András Schiff. The Masterclass Media Foundation is described as 'a non-profit organisation whose goal is the creation of a unique archive of the world's greatest musicians filmed teaching or giving masterclasses' and the best of these DVDs certainly uphold that aim. The films are currently being made available as a pedagogical resource for music students in colleges and conservatoires and are also available to purchase online by the general public. All the musicians give their time for free and are not out to make money, which, given their high-profile status, is commendable; the Foundation hopes to become self-sufficient within a few years.

By coincidence, I watched what turned out to be the best of them first. The masterclass with Bernard Haitink is one of the most engrossing films of its type I have ever seen. Three and a half hours of film go by in a flash as the great maestro works with six young conductors and the orchestra of the Royal College of Music on Brahms' Third Symphony in F major, Op.90. The experience is riveting, not least because it really does demonstrate just how difficult the art of conducting is; when Haitink takes over the baton to illustrate a point, it almost sounds as if the orchestra is playing a different piece of music (or even perhaps as if it's a different orchestra playing the same piece). He turns out to be a talented and humane teacher, both strict with the students and sympathetic with the problems they encounter (to one he says 'I may be your most critical admirer'). The students all have significant ability and are all at different stages of development, yet at the time of filming it would seem that they are none of them quite on the brink of an international career (though obviously if they were, they wouldn't need to participate in such a masterclass). The DVD shows us various problems of conducting and some of Haitink's solutions to them - such as conserving physical energy, starting rehearsals by playing through the piece rather than making the orchestra think 'Oh God, another talker' and maintaining the pulse - as well as the conductor's insights into the symphony itself. The disc is enhanced by a sixteen-minute interview in which Haitink explains the challenges of the piece, such as the textural complexity of the outer movements and the chamber-like quality of the inner movements (and in particular, the slow movement's many solo passages). One really feels that Haitink is there to teach rather than show off, and through his completely ego-free approach to the students he seems to get the best out of them.

Thomas QuasthoffFor sheer entertainment value, you couldn't beat Thomas Quasthoff's masterclass at the Verbier Festival Academy. Unlike Haitink, Quasthoff very much plays to the audience, which is not to say that he neglects or is insensitive to the singers; rather, because of the Festival setting, he makes sure that even those who are just watching the class can get something out of it (which extends to those viewing the DVD at home). He works with five students on songs and arias by Mozart, Schubert and Wagner, and again the time seems to flash by (a shame that this disc lasts only one hour and forty minutes). Again, Quasthoff is a hugely talented teacher and his great sense of humour puts the students at ease. He deals with all aspects of language, vocal technique and presentation, persistently asking the soprano Pauline Sabatier to repeat the word 'te' in Mozart's 'Laudamus te' from the C minor Mass until she pronounces it correctly and encouraging the Wagnerian singer Courtney Mills (who has a formidable voice) to lift her posture and apply more tone to the peak of the line in 'Dich teure Halle' from Tannhäuser. Whilst exuding his enormous personality, Quasthoff is also very modest about his abilities and shares his own experiences and problems with the students; to hear him singing parts of these pieces is thrilling.

Probably of slightly more limited interest are the three remaining DVDs, all of which still have much to offer but are also problematic in some ways. First up is Steven Isserlis' class with Guy Johnston, former winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year, on Rachmaninov's Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, Op. 19 (filmed at the International Musicians' Seminar, Prussia Cove). Isserlis' grandfather played the piano part of the sonata with Anatoly Brandukhov, the cellist for whom the composer wrote the piece, and he plainly has very clear ideas about how it should be performed. Yet I didn't personally get very much from watching this class. Isserlis' imposing personality and formidable skills seem to intimidate Johnston, who doesn't appear to make much progress during the class; I don't think it helps that Isserlis stops Johnston so often that he can scarcely relax in the already stressful setting of a masterclass. To me, there is a tendency for Isserlis to try and impose his interpretation of the piece on Johnston, rather than to help Johnston improve his own interpretation, and I wasn't persuaded by Isserlis' inclination to justify that interpretation by describing how the music should sound through the subjective means of flowery adjectives and metaphors, rather than the markings in the score. The pleasure of the DVD is in being able to hear Isserlis play parts of the piece himself and people who are studying the sonata will undoubtedly find it an important resource, but it is otherwise of limited interest to a general audience.

Maxim VengerovThe same goes for Maxim Vengerov's hour-long class on Beethoven's Violin Sonata No 4 in A minor - if not more so, for Vengerov plays very little himself and is inclined to discuss minutiae of the music with his student while poring over the score, which we cannot see. Vengerov's charming personality comes across well and his student, Hayley Wolfe, is magnificently responsive and hugely gifted; even if we at home don't get that much out of it, it's clear that Wolfe enjoys herself and learns a lot. Again, though, there's a tendency to dictate the character of certain moments in the music through metaphors that are extrapolated from Vengerov's reading of the music, rather than discussing details of phrasing, dynamics and articulation on their own terms. It's good for musicians to have images in their heads to aid their interpretations, but ultimately technique is the only route towards realising the colour and atmosphere of a composer's score, and usually if musicians follow the directions of master composers, the colours will come of their own accord. Thus when Vengerov keeps talking about voices and characters and conversations between the two instruments in the sonata, he seems to me to enhance the performance less than when he points out how Wolfe might go about realising some of these colours. It's a shame, too, that the class lasts only an hour, because only the first movement of the sonata is discussed. Nevertheless, there's much to enjoy here.

It absolutely doesn't do justice to András Schiff's extraordinary musicianship to award his DVD, filmed at the Royal Academy of Music, only three stars. The subject for his 'illustrated analysis' is Beethoven's last three piano sonatas (Opp. 109-11), and when he starts to play extracts from them one can only marvel at his mastery of the pieces and his absolute control over the instrument. Yet to me, Schiff communicates everything he has to say about these pieces through his performances of them and the discussion parts of the lecture are often superfluous. His presentation style is rather awkward, sitting diagonally on the piano stool while speaking but not facing the audience full on, so that it can be difficult to engage with his discourse at times. And although it's an immense achievement to give a lengthy lecture-demonstration such as this in a foreign language without verbal or musical notes of any kind, I really wonder who the audience for his lecture is and how much they could get out of it. Schiff is of course famous for giving these kinds of demonstrations, and the conservatoire setting for this one means that his audience is mostly made up of students and performers.

Andras SchiffBut it seems strange that he says on the one hand that he assumes everyone present knows all the Beethoven sonatas while on the other hand relating quite basic information about the pieces such as the age-old saying about Beethoven's Sonatas being the 'New Testament' of the pianist's Bible to the 'Old Testament' of Bach's Forty-Eight Preludes and Fugues. Many of Schiff's comments are so personal and subjective that they aren't useful. For instance, he says that he objects to the idea that the syncopated third variation of the second movement of Beethoven's final sonata foreshadows the boogie-woogie - 'because I don't like boogie-woogie but I love this music!'. This is a moment of levity in the discussion, of course, but to me it's not untypical of a discussion which is dominated by Schiff's opinion of the music rather than insights into how to play it. Too often he merely describes basic musical process rather than saying anything new about the pieces, and too often he falls back on clichéd observations, for instance about the idea of composers writing 'trios' of works, but he doesn't really explain why the 'magic number of three' is indeed magic. Modern musicologists would tend to dispel this kind of myth and see analysts' searches for connections between works and organic development in composers' output as figments of their imagination, but Schiff merely restates traditional methods of thinking without particularly justifying them. Therefore, the attraction of this DVD for me is entirely in his extraordinary playing, of which I wish there was much more.

In sum, though, this is an impressive achievement for so young an archive, and one which deserves great support. The coming months promise further classes with Vengerov, Evelyn Glennie, Joan Rodgers, Trevor Pinnock and Stephen Hough, and the MMF's website offers a selection of video extracts to view online. Not to be overlooked.

By Dominic McHugh

External link: The Masterclass Media Foundation's home page