Judge Russell Engebretson is hard at work on his Concerto in D Minus for Ukulele and Baboon continuo.
John Williams, one of the world's most accomplished classical guitarists, plays a few of his favorite classical and flamenco pieces in the Royal Alcázar Palace in Seville, Spain.
John Williams—no relation to the purveyor of Lucas/Spielberg soundtracks—shows off his marvelous classical guitar technique on this recently released DVD that originally aired on British TV in November 1993. It was also issued on now out-of-print Laserdisc and VHS video. The concert (perhaps more properly a recording session, since no audience was in attendance) was shot in November 1992 at the Royal Alcázar Palace in Seville, Spain. For the Vivaldi and Rodrigo concertos Williams is accompanied by the Orquesta Sinfónica de Sevilla conducted by José Buenagu.
The second part of the disc includes an hour-long profile of John Williams that was filmed in 1992.
The play list:
The Alcázar Palace, a Christian palace built in Moorish style that looks like a set for an Arabian Nights fantasy, is a gorgeous setting for Williams's delicate and precise musical interpretations. Each piece is played in a different room of the castle that mirrors the mood of the composition. For instance, Yoquijiro Yocoh's "Sakura Variations" is played in an outdoor courtyard filled with trees and greenery, while Vivaldi's "Concerto for Lute in D Major" is performed beneath a multi-colored dome in the spacious Hall of Ambassadors. Director of Photography Les Young and Director David Thomas fashioned a nice balance between slow, sweeping shots of the palace interiors and mid-range shots of John Williams. They also included numerous close-ups of Williams's hands in action. Because Williams for some reason does not see fit to publish his transcriptions, it is a boon to classical guitar players to be able to study his fretboard fingerings.
Most of the compositions will be familiar to students and enthusiasts of the classical guitar repertoire. The Andalusian styled "Sevilla" by Isaac Albéniz, better known as "Leyenda," is instantly recognizable, as is the "Concerto de Aranjuez" that has seduced innumerable guitar lovers into the realms of classical music. Williams' interpretation of Barrios's " Sueño en la Floresta" is achingly beautiful. I prefer it over the gorgeous David Russell rendition, although just barely. Koshkin's "Usher Waltz" (a sort of tone poem inspired by Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher") is an interesting avant-garde piece, but it pales in comparison to the rest of the program.
The single bonus feature is an excellent short documentary, and it's worth more than a sprinkling of undistinguished featurettes that are the usual fare on a musical performance DVD. From his upbringing in Australia to his family's move to London so he could begin an internship with Segovia, it's an insightful look into Williams's life and musical philosophy. One of the highlights for me was Williams's trip to luthier Greg Smallman's isolated Australian home to pick up a newly handcrafted guitar. I never suspected that the maker of guitars that cost more than an in-ground swimming pool would reside hermit-like in a ramshackle dwelling in the wilderness. Also of interest were Williams's remarks about his childhood teacher Andrés Segovia. It takes more than one viewing to ferret out his politely convoluted criticism of the famous guitar maestro. He is clearly uncomfortable putting down his old mentor, but is at loggerheads with Segovia's "my way or the highway" approach to guitar teaching and repertoire. In all respects, the documentary is a well-rounded and edifying glimpse into Williams's career and personality.
I disagree with the critics who call Williams a mechanical player. I find his playing to be tightly controlled, but with an emotional intensity lightly reined in for the sake of virtuosity. Despite John Williams's reserved stage presence, his joy in musical creation should be obvious to anyone watching his performance on this disc. And that brings me to the sticking point: the disc itself.
At best, the DVD transfer is inexcusably mediocre. The two hours of video are compressed onto a single layer DVD, and it shows. Aliasing on panning shots is so bad the entire screen is awash in jaggies. The non-anamorphic picture suffers from such a loss of detail on distant shots that it looks like a VHS dupe. During long shots the treble guitar strings disappear in the murk (but thankfully are clear in close-ups). The color is decent, but not vibrant
The only audio option is an indifferent Dolby 2.0 stereo mix. Why not LPCM, or at least a DTS soundtrack? The compressed sound is quite evident when listening to an orchestral piece at louder volumes. The bowed strings on the Rodrigo concerto sound more like a thick slab of audio than a collection of discrete instruments. The guitar sound is adequate, but once again reveals its mp3-like lack of quality at high volume.
My suggestion is to pick up the DVD for the excellent documentary and the chance to see John Williams play. For the music, purchase the remastered CD. With a bit of trial and error you can synchronize the CD with the DVD picture, don a pair of headphones, and treat yourself to a satisfying listening experience. Sure, it's a bit cumbersome, but it's worth it to hear Williams's performance as it should have been presented in the first place. As for the picture, all I can suggest is to sit a good distance from the TV and squint.
Were there no decent prints available for a transfer, or was this DVD sloppily thrown together because an Asian bootleg has been in circulation for several years? It's a mystery to me, but if it weren't for the inferior transfer I would give this disc a perfect score. I still have to recommend it to the legions of fans that find John Williams's guitar playing irresistible.
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