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.

May 26. For the first time in a long time we are caught up on posting the qualifying new HDVD titles. I recently posted a review of the disappointing Don Quixote from Teatro alla Scale. I also recently posted a review of the wonderful Vespro della beata vergine from Alpha Records, the best recording of this music ever made. After all the bad grades we have been giving for DVDitis, it's nice to have some classical music to brag about.

Bryan Balmer recently contributed a review (and C+ grade for DVDitis) of the new Berlin Phil Beethoven Symphonies 1-9 box.  Balmer also recently posted reviews of the Sibelius Symphonies 1-7 box from the Berlin Phil and the EuroArts Berlin Phil and Isabell Faust playing Beethoven. Thanks again to Bryan for all his hard work!  I recently posted a D+ grade and review of Thieleman Conducts Faust, another title with near terminal DVDitis.

Help up stamp out DVDitis! But how do you spot the  symphoms of this dread disease?  Check out the new Wonk Worksheet that lets you play doctor! Fill one out, send it to us, and maybe go viral!

There's too much DVDitis out there infecting our classical music Blu-rays. But there are exceptions. Here's a list of the best classical music HDVDs, all with 96kHz/24-bit sound, no DVDitis, and mostly grades of A+:

  1. Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 from NHK with the Berlin Philharmonic under Ozawa
  2. Mahler Symphony No. 1 from NHK with the Saito Kinen Orchestra under Ozawa
  3. Brahms Symphony No. 2 from NHK with the Saito Kinen Orchestra under Ozawa
  4. Schumann Piano Concerto & Bruckner Symphony 9 from NHK with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under  Haitink.
  5. Mozart Symphony 35 & Haydn Cello Concerto from NHK with Mito Chamber Orchestra under Ozawa
  6. Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1 and Midsummer Night's Dream Music from NHK with Mito Chamber Orchestra under Ozawa
  7. Tango! from Challenge Records---Piazzolla tango nuevo by the Isabelle van Keulen Ensemble
  8. Winterreise from Challenge Records with tenor Prégardien and Gees on piano
  9. Mutter Live---The Club Album from DG. (This only got a" B+")
  10. Capuleti e i Montecchi opera from San Francisco Opera and EuroArts
  11. Porgy and Bess opera from San Francisco Opera and EuroArts
  12. Mozart Chamber Music from AIX Records with the Dover Quartet + guest artists. (This one got an "A")

The table below shows typical metrics for the best NHK symphony HDVDs mentioned above and can serve as benchmarks for diagnosing DVDitis:

Title Pace   Supershots   Conductor Shots
Tchaikovsky Symphony 6    14.5 seconds per clip   38%   24%
Mahler Symphony 1 9 seconds per clip   21%   11%
Brahms Symphony 2 11 seconds per clip   39%   13%
Bruckner Symphony 9 13.5 seconds per clip   34%   20%
Mito Chamber Orchestra 11 seconds per clip   40+%   18%


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. Conductor shots should be less than 20% (way less really) of all the clips.
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Thursday
May262016

Gianni Schicchi

Puccini Gianni Schicchi to libretto by Giovacchino Forzano. Directed 2015 by Woody Allen at the LA Opera. Stars Plácido Domingo (Gianni Schicchi), Andriana Chuchman (Lauretta), and Arturo Chacón-Cruz (Rinuccio). Grant Gershon conducts the LA Opera Orchestra. Associate direction by Kathleen Smith Belcher; set and costume design by Santo Loquasto; lighting by York Kennedy; video direction by Matthew Diamond. Released 2016, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

Please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title.


Thursday
May192016

La Gazzetta

Rossini La Gazzetta opera to libretto by Giuseppe Palomba. Directed 2014 by Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège, Belgium. Stars Cinzia Forte (Lisetta), Enrico Marabelli (Don Pomponio), Edgardo Rocha (Alberto), Laurent Kubla (Filippo), Julie Bailly (Doralice), Monica Minarelli (Madama La Rose), Jacques Catalayud (Anselmo), and Roger Joakim (Monsù Traversen). Jan Schultsz conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of Opéra Royal de Wallonie (Chorus Master Marcel Seminara). Set designs by Jean-Guy Lecat; lighting by Franco Marri; costume design by Fernand Ruiz; choreography by Luciana Fumarola; video direction by Frédéric Caillierez. Released 2016, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

Please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title.

Thursday
May192016

Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Mozart Die Entführung aus dem Serail opera to libretto by Johann Gottlieb Stephanie (from Christoph Friedrich Bretzner). Directed 2015 by David McVicar. Stars Sally Matthews (Konstanze), Edgaras Montvidas (Belmonte), Tobias Kehrer (Osmin), Mari Eriksmoen (Blonde), Brenden Gunnell (Pedrillo), Franck Saurel (Pasha Selim), and Jonas Cradock (Klaas). Robin Ticciati conducts the Glyndebourne Chorus and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Designs by Vicki Mortimer; choreography by Andrew George. Released 2016, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

Please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title.

 

Thursday
May192016

La rondine

Giacomo Puccini La rondine opera to libretto by Giuseppe Adami. Directed 2015 by Rolando Villazón. Stars Dinara Alieva (Magda de Civry), Charles Castronovo (Ruggero Lastouc), Alexandra Hutton (Lisette), Alvaro Zambrano (Prunier), Stephen Bronk (Rambaldo), Noel Bouley (Périchaud), Matthew Newlin (Gobin), Thomas Lehmann (Crébillon), Siobhan Stagg (Yvette), Elbenita Kajtazi (Bianca), Stephanie Lauricella (Suzy), and Carlton Ford (Maggiordomo). Roberto Rizzi Brignoli conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin (Chorus Master William Spaulding). Set design by Johannes Leiacker; costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel; lighting by Davy Cunningham; choreography by Silke Sense. Released 2016, disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio. Grade: Help!

Please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title.

Thursday
May192016

Le nozze di Figaro

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 conducts the Wiener Philharmoniker & Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor. Released 2016, has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

Please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title.

Tuesday
May172016

Don Quixote

Don Quixote ballet. Music by Ludwig Minkus arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchbery.  Choreographed 2014 by Maina Gielgud after Rudolf Nureyev at the Ballet Company of Teatro alla Scala (Ballet Director Makhar Vaziev). Stars Giuseppe Conte (Don Quixote), Gianluca Schiavoni (Sancho Panza), Natalia Osipova (Kitri/Dulcinea), Leonid Sarafanov (Basilio), Matthew Endicott (Lorenzo), Riccardo Massimi (Gamache), Lusymay Di Stefano and Denise Gazzo (Two friends of Kitri), Vittoria Valerio (Street dancer), Christian Fegetti (Espada), Nicoletta Manni (Queen of the Dryads), Serena Sarnataro (Cupid), Antonino Sutera (Gypsy), Deborah Gismondi and Emanuela Montanari (Two Gypsies), Luigi Saruggia and Caroline Westcombe (King and Queen of the Gypsies), Vittoria Valerio and Christian Fagetti (Fandango soloists), and Virna Toppi (Bridesmaid). In addition, students of the Ballet Academy of Teatro alla Scala were directed by Frédéric Olivieri.  Alexander Titov conducts the Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala. Set design by Raffaelle del Savio; costume design by Anna Anni; costume design supervised by Irene Moti; lighting design by Marco Filibeck; video director was Patrizia Carmine. Released 2016, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: D+

The aim of Maina Gielgud (following Rudolf Nureyev) in this production is not to get laughs but to cram as much elite dancing as possible into every bar of music. So if you are a dance professional, this title could be an important document for you. Alas, for the rest of us the designs here are too monotonous and the lighting too meager in Acts 2 and 3 for this to be enjoyable in the HT.

Here's Don Quixote (Giuseppe Conte) in chambers. Note the shadows and the red-maroon-brown color scheme. These are the colors of Spain. But 2 hours of nothing but this gets wearisome:

The square in Barcelona. This is about as bright as the production will get and everything is red, orange, or brown:

Meet Basilio (Leonid Sarafanov) and his sweetheart Kitri (Natalia Osipova), who dance this as well as anyone:

Gamache (Riccardo Massimi) appears in a rare burst of green:

Espada (Christian Fegetti) is the famous toreador:

His partner is called A Street Dancer (Vittoria Valerio), but I think everyone knows her as Mercedes:

 

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Saturday
May142016

Vespro della beata vergine

Monteverdi 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 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:

Below is Jakob Lindberg, one of the world's most distinguished lutists, playing a chitarrone. There are many passages in this recording that demonstrate the astonishing range and sound of this lute-like instrument:

 

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Tuesday
May102016

Beethoven Symphonies 1-9

Beethoven Symphonies 1-9 (or Complete Beethoven Symphonies) box set. Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in all nine Beethoven symphonies. Other performers featured in Symphony No. 9 are Annette Dasch (Soprano), Eva Vogel (Mezzo-Soprano), Christian Elsner (Tenor), Dimitry Ivashchenko (Bass), and the Rundfunkchor Berlin (Simon Halsey, Chorus Master).  Grade: C+ (average for the 9 symphonies, based on specific grades for 6 titles as well as other general observations)

This review applies only to the Blu-ray video and not to the CDs or Blu-ray audio disc included in the box. The box contains:

  • 5 CDs (i.e. PCM 44.1kHz/16-bit)

  • 1 Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc (audio is listed on the box as 96kHz/24-bit – in both 2.0 PCM Stereo and 5.1 DTS-HD MA)

  • 1 Video Blu-ray Disc (audio is listed on the box as 48 kHz/16 bit – in both 2.0 PCM Stereo and 5.0 Surround upmix DTS-HD MA)

  • Download code for obtaining high-resolution audio files (up to 192kHz/24-bit FLAC files)

  • 7-day ticket for Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall

  • 74 page booklet (in English and German) with track listings, brief notes on each symphony, 2 articles, a listing of orchestra musicians, and production details and credits

The video directors vary among the titles as follows:

  • Symphonies Nos. 1, 3, 4, & 7 – directed by Tilo Krause

  • Symphonies Nos. 2, 5, & 9 – directed by Andreas Morell

  • Symphonies Nos. 6 & 8 – directed by Torben Schmidt Jacobsen

The recording location was the Philharmonie Berlin. The booklet and the Berliner Philharmoniker’s archive concert listings both indicate that these works were performed on the following dates:

  • 6, 12 October 2015 (Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3) – Blu-ray Video Disc features the October 12 performance

  • 7, 13 October 2015 (Symphonies Nos. 2 & 5) – Blu-ray Video Disc features the October 13 performance

  • 3, 9, 15 October 2015 (Symphonies Nos. 4 & 7) – Blu-ray Video Disc features the October 15 performance

  • 8, 14 October 2015 (Symphonies Nos. 6 & 8 – performed in reverse order) – Blu-ray Video Disc features the October 14 performance

  • 10, 16 October 2015 (Symphony No. 9) – Blu-ray Video Disc features the October 16 performance

An option is included for Symphony No. 9 with subtitles in German, English, and Japanese. In addition, movement titles are shown on the screen for all works.

The Berliner Philharmoniker and Rundfunkchor

Sir Simon Rattle’s contract with the Berliner Philharmoniker expires in 2018, and he appears to be tackling recordings of a number of masterworks while he has the opportunity to work with these fine musicians. While the LSO is no slouch, the reputation of the Berliners is somewhat more auspicious! To quote Sir Simon from one of the disc’s special features, “When you have an orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic, of course you have a huge advantage because of the basic personality of the orchestra . . . which is one of a colossal – almost superhuman – energy. And this, for Beethoven, is the very first thing you need, because otherwise he asks from you more than you can give.”

Beethoven’s symphonies have been well represented on HDVD, with reputable complete cycles by Thielemann, Jansons, and Fischer published in recent years. I own the Fischer/RCO set, and while I find his performances to be very compelling (folk-like elements, perhaps a more lighthearted conversational approach) . . . I have connected quite differently to Rattle’s Beethoven.

 

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Tuesday
May102016

Saul

Handel Saul opera to libretto by Charles Jennens. Directed 2015 by Barrie Kosky at the Glyndebourne Opera House. Stars Christopher Purves (Saul), Iestyn Davies (David), Lucy Crowe (Merab), Sophie Bevan (Michal), Paul Appleby (Jonathan), Benjamin Hulett (Abner/High Priest/Amalekite/Doeg), and John Graham-Hall (Witch of Endor). Ivor Bolton conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Leader Alison Bury) and The Glyndebourne Chorus (Chorus Master Jeremy Bines). Designs by Katrin Lea Tag; choreographed by Otto Pichler; lighting by Joachim Klein. Directed for TV by François Roussillon; produced by George Bruell. Released 2016, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

Please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title.

Sunday
May082016

Faust Symphony and Overture

Liszt A Faust Symphony and Wagner A Faust Overture. Christian Thielemann conducts the Staatskapelle Dresden and Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden (Chorus Master Pablo Assante).  Endrik Wottrich is tenor soloist in A Faust Symphony. Recorded live 2011 at the Semperoper, Dresden. Produced by Günter Atteln at Accentus Music; directed for TV by Tilo Krause. Released 2011, music was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling, and disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: D+

One neat thing about HDVD is you often get brilliant travelog images of venues where famous orchestras play. The Semperoper building in Dresden is decorated with the piece below called "Faust" celebrating the Goethe poem and music inspired by it:

So when the Staatskapelle management was casting about for a Liszt commemorative program, it probably didn't take long to zero in on the Liszt A Faust Symphony. As chocolate chips for the cookie, they scheduled Wagner's A Faust Overture as warmup. This was more than just a good fit. The Wagner Overture was first played, with Wagner himself as conductor, in Dresden by the Staatskapelle (under an earlier name). You may recall that Liszt was Wagner's father-in-law. After Wagner dropped his plans to write a complete symphony on Faust, Liszt eventually took up the the task himself when he settled in Weimar, Goethe's home (not far from Dresden).

There are now many CDs of both of these Faust compositions. But subject HDVD appears to be the only video of both works together, and there are only a couple of older DVDs of A Faust Symphony. So now we have a fine performance of two symphonic works that have previously perhaps been neglected on film. Robert Cowan reviewed this title in the April 2012 Gramophone at page 47. He said the sound was on a par with the finest SACDs. He also praised the picture quality (although you can't tell from the article if he watched a DVD or the Blu-ray version).

Eine Faust-Ouvertüre (A Faust Overture)

Wagner was 31 when he finished A Faust Overture. In 11 meager minutes Wagner demonstrates his mastery of  orchestral composing. I agree with Cowan that PQ and SQ are excellent in this recording. But this title (and the Liszt A Faust Symphony) were also published in DVD form. Alas, in 2011, symphony recordings were typically shot as DVDs and then later republished in Blu-ray dress, leading often to the problem of DVDitis confounding the HDVD version published in Blu-ray.

As explained in an article just linked to above, 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 video 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.

Using a Wonk Worksheet, I ran the numbers on A Faust Overture, which flunks all the tests above for DVDitis. The pace is an almost unbelievably fast 4.6 seconds for the average clip. Only 14 percent of the clips are supershots.  And 32% of the clips (almost a third!) feature Thielemann and show nothing of musicians playing.

Now let's see some screenshots from A Faust Overture. The first two shots show the hall and the set up of the orchestra for the whole program. Everyone is in place except the organist and harp player who appear later in the Liszt symphony:

The view above is a weak whole-orchestra (WO) shot. The next view below is a better WO shot. But this view is never provided by Tilo Krause long enough for the viewer to get oriented to how the orchestra is seated. As the small-scale shots of tiny pieces of the orchestra reeled past, I was rarely in this segment able to clearly understand what I was seeing and often unable to grasp where the sounds I was hearing were coming from. This was a huge impediment for me because Wagner's musical concepts are unusual and fast moving. If I had been sitting in the audience, I would have been able to quickly see how the sections were set up and where the musical ideas were coming from:

Krause's organization and display of the video clips therefore basically defeats and cheats me of what I paid for: a chance to see the great Dresden orchestra play A Faust Overture. Here briefly are statistics on Krause's helter-skelter musical storyboard:

Conductor shots 35
Conductor-over-backs (C/B) shots 11
Small-scale shots 76
*Large-section shots 6
*Part-orchestra shots 8
*Whole-orchestra shots 6
Instrument-only shots 2

There are only 20 supershots (those marked with an *). And most of them are cut so short as to be largely worthless to the viewer. There are a total of 144 clips in this segment. 20/144 shots yields 14% supershots. There are 46 total ofter pointless and frustrating conductor shots. 46/144 yields 32% conductor shots.

Krause had the ability to make wonderful part-orchestra, large sections, and large-scale multi-section shots. The next view below is brilliant part-orchestra view showing all the 1st violins, the basses, and cellos:

This same camera can move in and and get all the cellos:

And next below is a great shot of most of the woodwinds:

 

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