Here's news about high-definition video recordings of opera, ballet, classical music, plays, fine-art documentaries, and painting. I call these recordings "HDVDs." In the journal below are independent (and hard-to-find critical) reports on hundreds of HDVDs. Pick the best titles for your excelsisphere.

Oct. 24. The ineffable Vespro dela beata vergine from the Monteverdi Choir gets a flare designation. I also recently gave a flare to  Tango! Everybody seems to like Tango! My gear guru, John Fort in Dallas, TX, uses it as a HT demo. Recently some executives from a high-end gear company visited John and asked to audition something on his best system. From maybe 1000 titles available, John picked Tango! The visitors watched the whole album.

EuroArts will publish the new Nozze di Figaro from the Salzburg Festival (Pisaroni/Fritsch) in 4K Ultra HD (with 96kHz/24-bit sound) available November 4 in Europe.

The flare icon goes to titles of special merit and significance.  The Vincent Bataillon  flare Orpheus und Eurydike was the first recipient. Other recipents are the flare McGregor Triple Bill, the flare  Bolshoi Sleeping Beauty,  the flare Saito Kinen Brahms Symphony No. 2  the flare Saito Kinen Mahler Symphony No. 1 , and the flare  NHK Schumann Piano Concerto and Bruckner Symphony No. 9.



Vespro della beata vergine

Monteverdi flare Vespro della beata vergine (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin) concert performance in 2014 at the Versailles Chapelle Royale. Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloists (orchestra). Olivier Schneebeli conducts the Juvenal Choir of the Versailles Center for Baroque Music. Directed for video by Stéphan Aubé; produced by Frédérick Allain. Combo pack has a DVD and a Blu-ray disc.  Released 2015, it appears the Blu-ray was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling. The keepcase package has a Dolby Digital logo. But it appears from disc metadata that disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. There are no bonus features or subtitles. But there is an excellent booklet which has the Vespro text in Latin, French, and English. In addition to normal stereo and surround choices, there is also a special sound file for "3D" playback.   Grade: A

This is an astonishingly high-quality recording because it's:

  • Sir John Eliot Gardiner's last (of 3) recordings of the Monteverdi Vespers
  • The first HDVD to be recorded completely in the Chapelle Royal at Versailles
  • Our first chance in HDVD to see the Monteverdi Choir in concert
  • The first time the English Baroque Soloists Orchestra has recorded in HDVD
  • Our best opportunity yet to see ancient instruments in HD
  • The first recording you can enjoy in true "Binaural Sound" (if you can figure it out)
  • A dual-disc title with a Blu-ray and DVD. Watch both and you'll never watch another DVD

We'll cover all these points in some detail (out of order) as we enjoy some screenshots.

The venue for this concert is the Royal Chapel (Chapelle Royal) at Versailles, seen below in the first picture (a stock photo). It's the church where Marie Antoinette married Louis XVI. I've visited Versailles 3 times, but I've yet to see the Royal Chapel. It's connected to rest of the castle, but I think it's too small to expose to throngs of tourists. You have to take a special guided tour.  Now folks like Cecilia Bartoli and Lang Lang can rent the Hall of Mirrors to make a concert recording. But my impression is only sacred music can be performed in the Chapelle Royale:

This is obviously a spectacular place for a concert video. It's also a place creating dramatic sound effects. You can see a balcony above the altar that holds tall organ pipes and runs all around the main floor. For this performance, the orchestra is on the ground floor in front of the altar and the main floor is covered with seats for the audience. From time to time members of the orchestra and the chorus leave the temporary stage to take positions on the balcony and to the sides and to the rear of the audience. Below is a shot with a member of the choir on the balcony opening the work:

Below is the shot above as it appears in the DVD. Can you tell the difference?

Next below is a view with all the singers on stage. It's hard to put into words how beautiful this music is. John Quinn, writing for MusicWeb International, says, "Watching and listening to this performance of the Monteverdi Vespers has been a thrilling experience." The best way I can explain it is this: the pictures you see here are from one of the most beautiful music videos ever made, and the musicians sound even better than they look:

Monteverdi published his Vespro della beata vergine in 1610, the same year Shakespeare wrote The Winter's Tale. Vespro soon fell into obscurity and was rarely performed. 350 years later, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, while attending college, founded the Monteverdi Choir and revived Vespro in a famous concert (performed in 1965). Since then Gardiner has been in the vanguard of the early music movement and also served many orchestras as conductor in most genres of music. He has made hundreds of distinguished recordings including highly-regarded versions of the Vespro.  Subject title is Gardener's attempt to republish Vespro della beata vergine one last time using state-of-the-art video and sound to outshine all recordings of this work made before:


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The image of the back of the package below looks a bit odd because the keepcase itself is white and you can't see its edges here. Thanks to Challenge Classics for the clean and easy-to-read designs on their packages:

flare Tango! concert of Ástor Piazzolla tango nuevo music performed January 13, 2013 by the Isabelle van Keulen Ensemble at the MotorMusic Studios in Mechelen, Belgium. The Isabelle van Keulen Ensemble is a chamber music group formed primarily to play Piazzolla compositions; it consists of van Keulen on violin, Christian Gerber on bandoneón, Ulrike Payer on piano, and Rüdiger Ludwig on double bass.

The executive producers were Anne de Jong and Marcel van den Broek. Project coordinators were Jolien Plat and Inge De Pauw.

The video was shot with digital cameras at 24 fps. The film director was Pancake (Hans Pannecoukce). There were 5 cameramen: Norman Baert (DOP), Patrick Tilkens, Konrad Widelksi, Steven Van Volsem (steadicam), Oliver von don Broeck (assistant steadicam) and Maxime Von Hove (technical assistant). Video editing was by Pancake and Pieter Peeters.

Music director was Felicia Van Boxstael and the recording producer was Steven Maes for Serendipitous. Although the disc package strangely is silent on the subject, a Challenge sound engineer stated to me: "the [concert] recording was made with 96kHz24 bit sound sampling.  On the Blu-ray there are 5.1 & 2.0 dts-HD Master Audio 96kHz24bit files. You can also find [for a bonus documentary] AC3 Dolby files at 48kHz24 bit." My Oppo player confirms these sampling rates. The Blu-ray package has a bonus audio CD of the concert + several songs that are not on the Blu-ray.

[Special note: as an update, we have added interesting material about the history of tango nuevo and this recording written by Rüdiger Ludwig, the bass player on this disc. This material was in the CD booklet but is not in the Blu-ray package.]

Grade: A+

Here's the Blu-ray program (62 minutes of Piazzolla compositions and 22 minutes of documentary). The songs are listed by track numbers on the Blu-ray (there are more tracks on the bonus CD):

1. Escualo  (Shark)
2. Invierno Porteño  (Buenes Aires in Winter)
3. Tristezas de un doble A (Sorrows of a Double A. This is in honor of Alfred Arnold, who made Piazzolla's favorite bandoneóns)
4. Michelangelo '70  (The name of a nightclub in Buenes Aires)
5. Contrabajísimo (Written for Piazzolla's favorite bass player. Probably untranslatable; I like Boss of the Bass)
6. Libertango (A popular name for Piazzolla's formal style of writing tangos) (Arranged by Christian Gerber)
7. Tangata (Perhaps just a play on the word "tango")
8. Tanti anni prima (Means "many years ago" in Italian; is often called the Piazzolla Ave Maria)
9. Concierto para Quinteto (Concerto for Quintet. For this group, it's a Concerto for Quartet)

Music from the Heart Documentary

I swear I don't have stock in Challenge Records. I've only played two of their titles, this Tango! and their Winterreise. But I can make a case that both of these are better than any other classical music record ever made (September 2013) by anyone outside of the Japanese home market. Here's the case: both records have more than an hour of classical music from leading international musicians + a worthwhile back-stage bonus +  decent HD video + sound recorded at 96kHz24bit or higher. Nobody else in the West has put this together even once, so Challenge is now in class by themselves. (RCO Live tried to make a excellent boxset of all the Mahler symphonies played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra; but that project got swallowed up in a sinkhole of bad video and mistakes in disc authorship.)

Can tangos be classical music? Much of classical music can be traced to dances. The dances died centuries ago, but the music lives on. Ástor Piazzolla started playing in dance halls. But he was a universal musical talent who acquired traditional classical music training and composed many kinds of music. Eventually he merged dance tangos into mainstream classical music in the form of tango nuevo or libertango. The pieces you hear on this record are tango nuevo. They can only be played by master musicians, are intended for serious listening, and have been accepted as a genre of modern classical music. (Piazzolla typically performed the music presented here with a quintet that included an electric guitar.  Per Rüdiger Ludwig, van Keuren parcelled out the guitar part on Tango! to the piano, violin, and bandoneón.  Piazzolla was constantly experimenting with everything, so we can assume he would approve.)

Here's the set up at the recording studio. The idea was to create a "smoky", slightly soft indie-film look that might remind one of a dance hall. From left to right are Rüdiger on bass, Ulrike on piano, Christian with his Bandoneón, and Isabelle:

The setup makes it hard to get video of the ladies. Here's a better shot of Isabelle who plays and conducts standing up (in heels!):

The musicians seem to have enough room, but the recording space quickly gets crowded and a bit chaotic, I think, with the addition of 3 camera crews. This results in slightly nervous, unpredictable, improvise-on-the-fly photography that reflects the moody, dramatic nature of the music. With this in mind, I'll not be too upset with occasional focus and composure errors that pop up.  The black and white shots are from the documentary. The color shots are of the concert:

To work in this environment, it helps to be able to converse in Spanish, Dutch, German, French, and English simultaneously:

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Bruckner Symphony No. 9 and Schumann Piano Concerto

flare Bruckner Symphony No. 9 and Schumann Piano Concerto. Bernard Haitink conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2009. Murray Perahia is the piano soloist. The title is the first effort by NHK to produce an HDVD of Western classical music with performers who have no special connection to Japan. The front cover is in English. But the rest of the disc is in Japanese. There are extras with persons speaking in English, but only Japanese subtitles are provided. So this disc is not aimed at the world market, but just for domestic consumption in Japan. Released 2009, the sound on the title was recorded with 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling,  and the disc has 5.0 LPCM output.   Grade: A+ for both the Schumann Piano Concerto and the Bruckner Symphony No. 9.

Gramophone magazine in 2011 ranked the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra as the best in the world. Haitink was long the conductor there before he was succeeded by Mariss Jansons. Haitink was invited back as guest conductor, so this was a sentimental event for everybody. The Gebouw itself also seemed to enjoy the evening by emitting its own mysterious aura. It's the most magnificent music venue I've seen. It has the same "shoebox" shape as the Vienna Großer Musikvereinssaal. But it is larger and grander even than the Vienna hall and appears consecrated, as if it were a church. It features staircases that emerge from the top of the back wall and fall sweeping past the huge organ through the performing stage to the conductor's podium. When the conductor and soloists descend these steps, you think of Judgement Day. 

Next are comments from Wonk William Huang about this title. After that come screenshots and "statistics" from Hank McFadyen. Finally, don't overlook a valuable comment below by Wonk James Kreh.

William Huang:

Whenever a new musician or ensemble gains significant recognition in the classical music world, eventually there is a recording contract. But, alas, the contract usually only shows how uncreative record companies are in producing a stream of recordings ---of Bach's violin concertos, Liszt's Piano Sonata, or another cycle by Brahms or Mahler, etc.---all with the same lacquered, homogenized sound.

Another sector within the recording industry is even more frustrating and tepid---video production. Concerts are seldom filmed well (watch any of the Berlin Philharmonic's annual “European Concert” series) and often have little more music than an LP. Archival footage is released at a trickle, with companies mostly re-releasing the same film, format after format. The greatest rarities are well-designed films of great performances made in the present. Considering how the industry treated laser-disc, VHS tapes, and DVD, it's no surprise that they've also used Blu-ray technology as just another profit center.

To be sure, Blu-ray videos are indisputably clearer than any concert DVD available. In a typical classical music Blu-ray, one can see almost every single audience member within a frame and sweat dripping off the musicians. The video is so clear you can sometimes read the score.  Even with a good seat at a concert hall, it's almost impossible to see most of these details. Still, until now, no Blu-ray made a convincing case that it was a real step up from DVD.

Then came our review disc from NHK Classical, a Blu-ray featuring the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, and Murray Perahia.  Its release for the Japanese market probably restricted awareness in the West, which is sad.  For there has never before been a recording of classical music that so thoroughly captures the magic of live orchestral music! The concert features Schumann's Piano Concerto and Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, well-known specialties of Messrs. Perahia and Haitink. The synthesis of the Concertgebouw Orchestra's otherworldly performance and NHK-Classical's conscientious production is not just a concert film with a sharper visual than DVD. It is a portal to another world!

As produced by the careful hands of NHK-Classical, Blu-ray is the best format yet for the presentation of classical music. The roughly two-hour-long soundtrack on this single disc holds five times as much data as a commercial CD.  Using eighteen microphones and Blu-ray’s larger storage capacity, NHK-Classical was able to meticulously record this concert at 96 kHz/24-bit. A Blu-ray disc miked as well as this one can capture one or one hundred acoustic instruments with abundant details and resonance.  Thus virtually every harmonic line or note that Bruckner or Schumann wrote can be heard on this disc.

Complementing the disc's audio, NHK-Classical also made spectacular use of Blu-ray's high-resolution video to show how the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra performs. This is often achieved with stylish long-range shots of the whole ensemble or large sections. Even these long-rang shots are so clear that no musician looks minuscule or distorted.  Like sitting in a good terrace seat, such angles give the viewer the freedom to see at whoever is playing---no matter how far apart---and make a judgment on what to pay attention to.

It's a joy in the Shumann concerto to see the concentration and poise of Murray Perahia and to hear the fluidity and nuances of his playing. Listeners might prefer a more brisk tempo in the fashion of Sviatoslav Richter or Martha Argerich, but it is obvious to me that Perahia's regal tempo is an artistic choice rather than a physical compromise. His crystalline finger work is marvelous, and the tempi are never lethargic or hurried. When I hear Perahia play Schumann, I hear the composer speak. When I hear Martha Argerich perform the same concerto, I hear her. Perahia's performance, the scenic camera angles, and the rich, layered sound make me think of Clara Schumann's observation of her husband's concerto  "[…] it must give the greatest pleasure to those who hear it. The piano is most skillfully interwoven with the orchestra--it is impossible to think of one without the other."

Haitink, a Bruckner expert, leads a noble and dedicated performance of the Master's Ninth.  It’s almost surprising how his gentle, grandfatherly stage-presence inspires such concentration and intensity from the Dutch players. Rather than making an overly dramatic reading, the conductor lets the music speak for itself. The scherzo has a fiery brilliance. It's thrilling to hear the effortless legato playing of the woodwind players and the rich unisons of the strings. The outer movements are spacious and deeply expressive. And Bruckner's awe-inspiring orchestral tuttis make the Concertgebouw orchestra a force to behold.

This is the most impressive recording of classical music yet produced in the twenty-first century.  

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Le nozze di Figaro

The top of this story is about the Blu-ray version. See information on the 4K Ultra HD version at the bottom. Both entries on the Alphalist link to this story.

Mozart Le nozze di Figaro opera to libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. Directed 2015 by Sven-Eric Bechtolf at the Salzburg Festival. Stars Luca Pisaroni (Conte Almaviva), Anett Fritsch (Contessa Almaviva), Martina Janková (Susanna), Adam Plachetka (Figaro), Margarita Gritskova (Cherubino), Ann Murray (Marcellina), Carlos Chausson (Don Bartolo), Paul Schweinester (Don Basilio), Franz Supper (Don Curzio), Christina Gansch (Barbarina), and Erik Anstine (Antonio). Dan Ettinger plays piano and conducts the Wiener Philharmoniker and the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor (Concert Chorus of the Vienna State Opera). Chorus Master was Ernst Raffelsberger; sets by Alex Eales; costumes by Mark Bouman; lighting by Friedrich Rom; directed for TV by Tiziano Mancini. Released 2016, has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

The back of the keepcase for this Blu-ray speaks of 2 DVDs. That's a mistake. It appears we will have this title available in DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K Ultra HD! That will give us our first opportunity to compare classical music in the 3 formats using the same real-world material. All the reviews of the live production on this are glowing, so it would appear this is a safe choice to inaugurate 4K in the fine arts. It will take a while to get this, view it correctly, and especially to get some screenshots in the new format! If you have seen this in Blu-ray or 4K Ultra HD, we would love to hear from you.

If you are trying to buy this, be super cautious. With 3 different versions of this floating around, there will be massive opportunity for vendors to make mistakes in the offering and fulfillment of orders.

For the 4K edition:



The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker ballet. Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Marius Petipa. Choreographed by George Balanchine. Performed December 14, 2011 at the David H. Koch Theater in Lincoln Center. Stars Megan Fairchild (Sugar Plum Fairy), Teresa Reichlen (Coffee), Daniel Ulbricht (Candy Cane), Ashley Bouder (Dewdrop),  Joaquín De Luz (the Cavalier), Colby Clark (Nutcracker, the Prince, and Drosselmeyer's Nephew), Fiona Brennan (Marie), and Adam Hendrickson (Drosselmeyer). Directed for TV by Alan Skog. Released 2016, disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: Help!

I'm suspicious of this. Consider this quote from Wikipedia:

During the 2011 Christmas season, PBS, for the very first time, presented the complete Balanchine Nutcracker on Live from Lincoln Center, although it was not seen on all PBS affiliates, since the affiliates have a choice of which programs they will air locally. This was . . .  the production's latest revival, and the production was telecast by PBS on December 14, 2011. This presentation, directed by Alan Skog, marked the first U.S. telecast of the Balanchine version . . . in more than fifty years. It was nominated for an Emmy Award in July 2012.

So this was probably shot in 1080i with stereo sound for television. But a surround sound recording could also have been made. The artwork on the keepcase package looks cheap to be point of being tawdry. And some pictures of this I've seen on the Internet suggest that the sets and costumes might date back as far as 1954 when Balanchine premiered his Nutcracker.

If you are familiar with this 2011 revival and/or have seen the film, please let us know whether the recording benefits from presentation in Blu-ray or if it is legacy material.


Beethoven Symphonies 1-9

Beethoven Symphonies 1-9 box set. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducts the Danish National Symphony in all nine Beethoven symphonies. As bonus extras you also get:

1. Rodrigo  Concierto de Aranjuez
2. Berlioz  Symphonie fantastique
3. Strauss  Eine Alpensinfonie

Featured performers  are Albina Shagimuratova (soprano), Charlotte Hellekant (mezzo-soprano), Scott MacAllister (tenor), Johan Reuter (bass), Pepe Romero (guitar), and the Danish National Concert Choir.

Wow! This box will keep you busy for the weekend! And the price is right. Does anyone out there know anything about the quality of these recordings?

Grade: Help! 


La Dame aux camélias

[I wrote the original of this review in 2013, and this has always been one of my favorite ballets discs. I just rewatched this with a Ballet/Dance Wonk Worksheet to get a better idea about the video content provided by Thomas Grimm. Neumeyer has 4 very fine HDVDs out, all of which I admire. Grimm did the video on all of them, so I'm confident Grimm is producing his video exactly as Neumeyer wants it. Now I suggest you read the 2013 review, which holds up OK, although I see now that's it's a pretty simple treatment of a very sophisticated work of art. Then I cover in []s at the end how surprised I was by what the Wonk Worksheet reveals.]

La Dame aux camélias ballet. Choreography by John Neumeier. Music by Frédéric Chopin. Produced 2008 by Paris Opera Ballet at Palais Garnier. Stars Agnès Letestu, Stéphane Bulllion, Machaël Denard, Dorothée Gilbert, Delphine Moussin, José Martinez, Eve Grinsztajn, Karl Paquette, Laurent Novis, Béatrice Martel, and Simon Valastro. Michael Schmidtsdorff conducts The Paris Opera Orchestra. Solo pianists are Emmanuel Strosser and Frédéric Vaysse-Knitter. Set and costume design by Jürgen Rose; lighting by Rolf Warter; directed for TV by Thomas Grimm. Disc also has a good Opus Arte synopsis and a valuable documentary by Reiner E. Moritz and Stéphane Loison. The show and documentary last more than 4 hours on 2 discs. Released 2009, show has 5.0 PCM sound. Grade: A+

La Dame aux camélias was created by John Neumeier in 1978. It is based on the often-told story of Marguerite Gautier and Armand Duval from the novel The Lady of Camellias by Alexandre Dumas (the younger). You will want to play the Opus Arte synopsis early because this is not just a retelling of the Verdi opera La Traviata. Neumeier drew primarily on the the novel, and Neumeier's libretto uses flashbacks that force you to pay attention.  Neumeier added a "ballet inside the ballet" based on the also often-told story of Manon Lescaut. To help you keep the stories straight, the Manon elements are color-coded in dream-like icy blue, gray, and silver tones.

Neumeier drafted Chopin for his music (two piano soloists and orchestra)---all of which is completely familiar and yet startlingly fresh and poignant in this context. The completely new element is Neumeier's choreography. As my real estate broker would say: it's "updated soft contemporary romantic" dancing that is always in exquisite good taste (even the slightly naughty parts). Neumeier also requires acting ability from all his dancers because he is artistically and psychologically on the opposite end of the spectrum from abstract ballet. Every gesture and facial expression is important. Sets are kept simple; but this is the only ballet I've seen that had me drooling over gorgeous costumes.

Agnès Letestu is magisterial in the title role for her dancing and mesmerizing acting. Stéphane Bullion,  a Premier danseur at the time, is the perfect choice to play the younger man to cougar Margarite. He's beautiful to see and see dance plus he's strong enough to gracefully handle Letestu (who probably weighs as much as he) through a multitude of complicated lifts, carries, and crashes. The other 9 dancers credited above all turn in brilliant character portrayals. It's unfair to 8 to comment on only 1. But I especially liked Michaël Denard as Armand's father, who comes to chastise Marguerite, but leaves a melted man. 

Meet (to your right) Marguerite Gautier (Agnès Letestu) and her friend Prudence Duvernoy (Dorothée Gilbert), both courtesans:

The ladies are at the theater to see a ballet (within the ballet) based on the story of Manon Lescaut. Manon was a pretty teen who ran away rather than enter a Catholic boarding school and who, after a short, glamorous flowering, died young and hard. Armand Duval (Stéphane Bulllion) attends the show because he admires Marguerite and hopes to meet her:

The sad death of Manon foreshadows the early death of Marguerite, who has consumption, the same illness that killed Chopin. (All the music of Chopin is haunted by the specter of consumption, something that might not occur to you until you hear it as the music for this ballet.) Here we meet Manon (Delphine Moussin) and her lover Des Grieux (José Martinez). This ghostly pair will pop up from time to time throughout our ballet representing the thoughts or dreams of our protagonists:

Marguerite meets Armand and invites him to visit her later that evening with friends.  At home, she is shocked by her visage in the mirror. That cough is turning into the dread consumption:

Marguerite contemplates whether her fate will be like that of Manon. Seeing Letestu recline on this bench is by itself worth the price of a Blu-ray disc:

But the party never ends with Marguerite. Armand gets access to her chambers and declares his feelings. Marguerite is hit with the question, "Could there be a true love for me?" This begins one of several ferocious pas de deux scenes which probably left Bullion needing several days of recovery:


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Berlioz Symphonie fantastique and Mahler Symphony No. 1 ("Titan")

Berlioz Symphonie fantastique and flare Mahler Symphony No. 1 ("Titan"). Seiji Ozawa conducts the Saito Kinen Orchestra (Saito Memorial Festival Orchestra). The Berlioz was recorded at the 2007 Festival; the Mahler was recorded in 2008. Released in 2009, this title has 5.0 PCM 96kHz/24 bit sound. About 99% of the printed material with this disc is in Japanese. If you don't know that language, it's a humbling experience to navigate your way through the titles and extras, but you can do it.   Grade: A-  for Symphonie fantastique  Grade: A+ for Mahler Symphony No. 1

Hideo Saito (1902-1974) almost single-handedly introduced Western classical music to Japan. His most famous protégé was Seiji Osawa, who was conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 27 years. Osawa was a kind of world citizen who seems to be always everywhere except that each September he returned to Japan to lead the Saito Kinen Memorial Festival Orchestra.

Most of the members of the SKMFO were Japanese regulars. But there was also a sprinkling of stellar musicians from the West, some of whom had already appeared on HDVDs reported on this website. For example, from this disc I recognize Rainer Seegers (tympany) and Gábor Tarkövi (trumpet) of the Berliner Philharmoniker. They appear in the Karajan Memorial Concert HDVD. Also, Jacques Zoon, who plays principal flute in the Mahler Symphony No. 1, appears in the HDVD of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. The SKMFO appears to be quite inclusive. There are a lot of women in the orchestra. But the big surprise is the blind violin player who regularly appears.

Each year the SKMFO gathers and frantically rehearses to prove they can play major works in a manner competitive with the great Western symphony orchestras. I would say they succeed on this disc. And from the way the performers act after each number, it's clear they also think they have pulled it off. Gramophone magazine in October 2009 declared the SKMFO to be number 19 among the best 20 symphony orchestras in the world!

Symphonie fantastique

The performance of the Berlioz piece is fantastically good. The SQ is excellent with 96kHz/24 bit sampling. The HNK engineers put special emphasis on getting accurate information for each individual voice and section in the orchestra. There are two pages in the keep case booklet with details about the microphones used. The result is a clean and vivid audio report with especially impressive dynamic range.  

The PQ is pretty good for 2007. But by current standards it is over-exposed and the resolution is too soft. Picture content is also not quite what we now hope to see.  I think the NHK TV director and engineers in 2007 were still learning how to take advantage of the power of high-definition TV cameras to make HDVDs. The Berlioz piece has a generous number of whole orchestra and multiple section shots that would not have been workable for a DVD recording. That was a big step forward. But the shows still has some DVD bad habits such as too many cuts, too many conductor views, too many backs of musicians (while really featuring the conductor),  and too much panning and zooming.

This title could have qualified for an A+. But for weakness in picture quality and content, I mark the Symphony fantastique down to the grade of "A-" even though the sound is terrific.

Mahler Symphony No. 1

A year later, in 2008, the NHK team got another chance to perfect their HDVD recording chops.  This time they came up with a real winner in their recording of the Mahler Symphony No. 1. The SQ remains as good as what they had achieved before. PQ is superb with perfect lighting (no glare or bleaching), convincingly accurate resolution, real-looking color balance, and masterful control of depth of focus. The musicians have been exhaustively rehearsed and are ready to prove to the world they can play this as well as anyone. But the really exciting news is in the realm of video content. 

I just used a Symphony Wonk Worksheet to analyze this Mahler Symphony No. 1. Here's a description of the video content I found:

  • Conductor shots (C) – 47 clips

  • Conductor over backs (C/B) – 2 clips

  • Solos, small sections (S§), small groups (SG), & misc. small-scale or DVD-like views –128 clips

  • Large section (L§), large groups (LG), & misc. large-scale or HDVD-like views – 47 clips

  • Part orchestra (PO) – 24 clips

  • Whole orchestra (WO) – 37 clips

  • Instrument only (IO) – 3

We have in a special article set out the requirements for a good HDVD of a symphony as follows:

A good HDVD should have a slow pace with more than 10 seconds per video clip on average (longer the better). 20 to 40% (higher is better) of the clips should be large-scale "supershots" (whole-orchestra, part-orchestra, multiple-section, and large-section shots). Conductor shots should be less than 20% (way less really) of the clips in the video.

As seen above, this Mahler S1 has a total of 288 clips found in 54 minutes of music (between 53:00 and 01:49:56) on the disc. This yields a pace of 11.25 seconds per clip. Supershots (L§, LG, PO, WO) = 38% of the total clips of clips. Further, conductor shots (C + C/B) = 17% of total clipsr. It follows then that this Mahler S1 fully qualifies as a exemplary symphony HDVD.

The average cut in this recording lasts more than 11 seconds. Many of the super-shots last considerably longer than 11 seconds. So the pace of this video is more than twice as stately than the pace of a typical Mahler DVD. The abundance of supershots in subject video gives you many opportunities to see whole sections and groups of sections working together as the video director follows the score. There are few similar opportunities in the typical DVD.

So now let's see some screenshots. During the warm up before the concert starts, the TV director is already at work. He shows us where the horns are on the stage. This is a nice courtesy. The horns can be anywhere, and the TV director wants to get us oriented to the horns as soon as possible:

Here is a full-orchestra shot that takes up 100% of the width of the picture. Because the orchestra is so large, this is just barely workable even with HD cameras. The TV directors will give some of these full views; but to let us see better, he will bring the cameras closer and shoot from several angles to show us most of the orchestra:

Here's a good 90% view showing all the 1st and 2nd violins and more:

And here is a similar but closer shot from the other side of the stage. This view lets you see all the violas, cellos, and basses:

Closer yet you can see the cellos and basses:

Of course, the TV director will also close in on smaller sections. Here we see 7 of the 8 horns in action:

Here are the lower brass, bassoons, and oboes:

Now for some soloists. In this recording, you can always hear the harp. That's because she has her own personal microphone, which you see in this picture:

In this recording, anytime a soloist is seen, the soloist is taking the lead musically and can be heard distinctly. In lesser recordings, you often see a soloist, but you can't hear what the soloist is playing. Well, you rarely have trouble hearing the tuba:

The gent in the left side of this image isn't reading from sheet music. He has his part memorized, because he is blind:

Here's a great shot with 2 soloists. This is the beginning of the Third Movement when the tympani plays quietly and the principal double-bass player comes in with a haunting melody. There's 100+ people on stage and only two are doing anything. Well, when you play this live, you quickly see the movements of the tympani player (last row, upper left) and the bass player (upper right, front row of basses, to your right). The HD camera is able to put both these soloists in one frame and everything is in focus. It's so neat when you see this---I don't think this would be possible in DVD:

Oh, here are those horns again at the end of the piece:

Here's another view of the end of the symphony with everybody blowing his brains out. You can see the extra trombone and trumpet standing next to the standing horn players. Maybe all those brass players lined up in the rear are the "Titans":

I hope these screenshots show you how beautiful a HD recording of a symphony can be. If you are also interested in the conductor, fear not. You will have plenty of opportunity to see him in shots like this:

I found only a few video errors in this Mahler S1. There are three instrument-only shots that that don't seem to be called on by the score for anything special or unusual. And there are two shots made over the backs of musicians. Shooting from behind is insulting to the players and normally accomplishes little or nothing.  Still, in the conductor-over-backs shot next below, you can at least see from the sheet music how good the picture resolution is:

In this title, the NHK TV director demonstrates his mastery of correct picture content for an HDVD of a symphony. I should also add there is much less zooming and panning around in this title than what we see on DVDs.  This recording and the Schumann Piano Concerto and Bruckner Symphony No. 9 from NHK are among the best dics I know of to illustrate our Standards for Grading Symphony Orchestra Concerts of Symphonies, Concertos, and other Large-scale Compositions.

This Mahler Symphony No. 1 has it all. It gets an A+, and I also award it our flare designation as a title of special merit and distinction. (Don't overlook Jim Kreh's comment on this below.)


Brahms Symphony No. 2 and Shostakovich Symphony No. 5

[Want to see the difference between an A+ symphony recording and one of the same piece that's graded F? Then read next here two updated stories about recordings of Brahms Symphony No. 2. I did Symphony Wonk Worksheets on both recordings to better illustrate what makes for a great recording and what makes for failure. We start with the Saito Kinen Orchestra version, which I've been raving about for the last 7 years. (There are also comments about a Shostakovich recording that is not relevant to my purpose here of contrasting the two Brahms recordings.) Then compare this story to the story next in the Journal about a video of Brahms S2 by the Lucern Festival Orchestral and published by Accentus.

Brahms flare Symphony No. 2 and Shostakovich Symphony No. 5. Seiji Ozawa conducts the Saito Kinen Orchestra. Released 2010, disc has 5.0 PCM 96kHz/24 bit sound for both symphonies and valuable bonus features. It is also one of the titles in the Seiji Ozawa 75th Anniversary Box Set. Grade:  for Brahms  A+  for Shostakovich B-

The Saito Kinen recording of Brahms Symphony No. 2 was made in 2009, and it was released in 2010. The NHK folks were trying hard; and with this title, they moved up to a new level of excellence in the recording of symphony music. Seeing this was the first time in my life when I felt I had supped with Brahms, a composer I usually listened to from a sense of duty rather than desire. This is one of the best played and recorded symphony performances I have experienced. 

Why is this recording so good? The Saito Kinen group was fired up (you see that best after the performance). The NHK engineers had perfected their 96kHz/24 bit sound recording techniques in the large venue, and the SQ is unexcelled. You can hear all the instruments all the time in isolation and combined in gorgeous sound-fields. In particular, you can hear wonderful renditions of string pizzicato playing in the background when the winds take the lead with the melodies. The PQ of the video is also unbelievable realistic and pretty. The cameramen were supported with plentiful lighting of the stage.  Every shot is well framed and possesses complete and perfect focus throughout the whole depth of the stage. Absolutely no videography monkey business is allowed such as repetitive shots of players who happen to be sitting in front of cameras. Finally, the picture content was expertly planned and recorded as described in our standards for HDVDs of symphonic concerts.

The Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 was recorded three years earlier in 2006 with a huge orchestra. (Probably only about 25% of the players in 2006 were also in the orchestra in 2009.) The musical performance is intimate, nuanced, mysterious, and spiritual. Due at least in part to the 96kHz/24 bit sound recording techniques used, the sound is clean and accurate.

The raw PQ is also fine. But, alas, this video suffers from a distinct case of DVDitis. There is way too much emphasis on the conductor and there are many of the dreary rear shots which show the conductor over the backs of 30 to 45 musicians. There are only a few whole orchestra shots and almost no shots of whole sections or groups of sections. For example, the video never shows you the five horns as a group.  Instead, we see too many small portions of sections. There is too much senseless panning within sections and zooming in and out just to be doing something. Many times we see weakly framed shots such as an instrument without its player or the concert master from behind. There are too many focus issues and shots that suffer from inadequate depth of field of focus. So this recording violates most of our standards for HDVDs of symphonic concerts. 

It appears that in 2006, not even the experts at NHK understood that HDVD shows of the symphony have to be photographed differently from DVDs. But by 2009 (when the Brahms Symphony No. 2 was recorded) the NHK folks had figured this out.

Now let's enjoy a few screen shots from the Brahms Symphony No. 2.

Here's a full-orchestra shot which fills the entire field of view. This is workable with 1080 lines of video resolution. But you can see that more resolution would be welcome at this range with this many players on the stage. Maybe one day we will have "4K" recordings that will allow you to see this image with the same resolution you get with your own eyes in the typical concert hall:

Below is my favorite whole-orchestra shot for this event. Here you can see every player and you can see most of them well because the camera is closer. But something has to give. The 1st violins are seen from behind; the 2nd violins must serve as proxy. But note also: this is one of the few views that lets you see all the violas. There are 10 violas in two rows next to the stage, but then there are 2 more in front of the double-basses:

Here the view looking looking across the orchestra from the other side of the stage. This is the best shot on the disc of the violins. If I had any constructive criticism of this disc, I would ask for at least one shot with every violin (1st and 2nd):

I'm not going to show any solo or 2 person sections. Instead I'll try give you a few good shots of multiple sections (which are rarely seen in DVDs). Here are trombones, clarinets, bassoons, and flutes:

Here's all the brass but the tuba:

The tympani and bones again:


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Brahms Serenade No. 2 and Symphony No. 2

All Brahms disc with three major works: Symphony No. 2, Serenade No. 2, and the Alto Rhapsody. Andris Nelsons conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Bavarian Radio Choir in 2014 at the Lucerne Summer Festival (KKL Concert Hall). Soloist is Sara Mingardo (alto). Gerarld Häussler was Chorus Master; video directed by Michael Beyer; produced by Paul Smaczny. Released 2015, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: D- blended grade for the whole disc

Richard Osborne, writing in the July 2015 Gramophone (page 30) offers caustic condemnation of this title saying that both the symphony and the serenade "fall prey to Nelson's slow and self-indulgent way with Brahms's music." He also complains that these are "performances to seen rather than heard." I think he must be referring to Nelson's hyperactive style of movement and making of faces. John Quinn, writing for MusicWeb International, liked the performance better than Osborne, but even Quinn squirms repeatedly about what he deems over-expansiveness by Nelsons.

Symphony No. 2

I have long praised the Saito Kinen Brahms Symphony No. 2 published by NHK. Now let's compare the Saito Kinen/NHK version to this recently recorded and published version by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Accentus. Here from my Wonk Worksheet for Symphony No. 2 is a summary of the types of video clips rendered by Michael Beyer:

Conductor = 74
C/B = 40
Solos, S§, SG, & misc. small-scale = 237
*L§, LG, & misc. large-scale = 14
*PO = 18
*WO = 3
IO = 9
Other low value = 3 “anthill” shots between movements

There's a total of 398 clips over 51 minutes of music, which yields a pace of 7.8 seconds per clip. Supershots (those marked * above) amount to only 9% of the total clips, while the 114 conductor shots come in at 29% of the total.

Here again are the rules-of-thumb to identify a Blu-ray with DVDitis:

A good symphony HDVD should have a slow pace with more than 10 seconds per video clip on average (the longer the better). 20 to 40% of the clips should be large-scale "supershots." Conductor shots should be less than 20% of the clips in the video (way less really).

This video fails on all 3 tests. It further has no introductory WO shot and too many IO shots.

Now let’s look at some screenshots. I've never seen a cello player with a glove before:

Below is the concertmaster. This shot is made from the wrong angle, a common error in symphony videos:

Next below are 3 more shots of Nelsons faces.

I assigned the shot below to the C/B category. This could be deemed a view of the lower strings,  but it was clear to me while watching this that the cameraman was focusing on Nelsons:


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