The latest of Bruno Monsaingeon's films for Arte to cross my desk is this pairing of films centered on the Russian conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. Of greatest interest is the first one, Notes interdites (Forbidden notes, retitled The Red Baton, 2003), in which Rozhdestvensky and others narrate the story of musical life in the Soviet Union. It is an absorbing documentary of sound and images. For example, Rozhdestvensky reads from a copy of Prokofiev's biography, with two versions of the same page, the edited one completely revising an anecdote attributed to the composer. This is followed by Rozhdestvensky conducting a performance of Prokofiev's absolutely creepy cantata Zdravitsa, composed in 1939 for the Stalin's 60th birthday, accompanied by pictures from propaganda films.
Available at Amazon:
The Red Baton / Gennadi Rozhdestvensky: Conductor or Conjuror, directed by Bruno Monsaingeon
(released February 12, 2008)
Idéale Audience International 3073498
The propaganda clips are terrible and ominously seductive to watch: a stage full of white-dressed little girls playing Bach, David Oistrakh saying he was proud to advance Soviet musical culture, Tikhon Krhennikov addressing the Soviet Composers Union, a musician recalling conservatory students madly erasing their scores, removing dissonances, when it was announced in 1948 that the government would monitor student compositions. A clip of an insipid song by Krhennikov is a stitch, immediately following Rozhdestvensky bitterly wondering what Prokofiev must have thought of Krhennikov's music. I am unlikely ever to hear Shostakovich's 4th symphony again without remembering what Rozhdestvensky says he told the Cleveland Orchestra about it: that the percussion pattern at the end of the scherzo movement could be thought of as prisoners communicating by tapping on pipes. The footage of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Rostropovich playing is worth seeing, too.
The second film is less likely to be of general interest, as it focuses exclusively on how Gennadi Rozhdestvensky conducts, which is, to say the least, idiosyncratic. We see him in rehearsal and in concert, as well as speaking about his ideas of what conducting is all about, and even leading classes with his conducting students. If you find the minutiae of how conductors do what they do fascinating (yes, guilty), you will enjoy it. Bonus features include more footage of Rozhdestvensky conducting: first, his own Suite for Orchestra (based on the film music of Alfred Schnittke), and second, a complete performance of that hideous Prokofiev cantata, Zdravitsa, for Stalin's birthday (hideous because it is so beautiful).