Articles and Reviews

Here's news about high-definition video recordings of opera, ballet, classical music, plays, fine-art documentaries, and painting. We call these recordings "HDVDs." In the journal below are independent (and hard-to-find critical) reports on hundreds of HDVDs. Learn what's available. Pick the titles that suit you best for your personal excelsisphere. It's always been relatively easy to educate yourself about world literature, but hard and expensive to learn about the fine arts. But now with a decent TV, surround sound, and this website, you can at modest cost vastly expand what you know about the arts.

August 24. I just posted a review of The Grand Organ of Coventry Cathedral, an impressively played and produced, grade "A" title of organ music with fabulous bonus features from Priory Recordings.  The folks at Priory feel they have a calling to make good records of organ and other church music.

I recently posted a review of Death and the Powers, filmed last year at the Dallas Opera using unique sets created primarily by scientists and artists at the MIT Media Lab. This is one of the most challenging and spectacular opera videos ever, and my review has almost as many odd things about it as does the subject title. Stay on your toes when you read this one.

I recently posted a review with screenshots and an "A-" grade for the new Mark Morris L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato dance title. My first priority, as always, is to keep the Alphalist up-to-date. My next priority is to cover  all ballet/dance titles that meet our quality standards. Then I work on operas and the rest.

We have the best reviews anywhere of ballet and dance HDVDs. See our "hit-parade" story with our top picks. ____________________________________________________________________________

Saturday
Aug292015

The Passenger

Mieczysław Weinberg The Passenger opera to libretto by Alexander Medvedev after a novel by Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz. (The title in German is Die Passagierin.) Directed 2010 by David Pountney at the Bregenz Festival. Stars singers Michelle Breedt (Lisa), Roberto Saccà (Walter), Elena Kelessidi (Wartha), Artur Rucinski (Tadeusz), Svetlana Doneva (Katja), Angelica Voje (Krzystina), Elżbieta Wróblewska (Vlasta), Agnieszka Rehlis (Hannah), Talia Or (Ivette), Helen Field (Alte), Liuba Sokolova (Bronka), Tobias Hächler (1st SS Officer), Wilfried Staber (2nd SS Officer), David Danholt (3rd SS Officer), Richard Angas (Elderly Passenger/Steward), Heide Capovilla (Senior Overseer/Capo), David Gabl, Michael Koch, Juliusz Kubiak, and Anton Schwärzler (4 Soldiers), Michelle Lau and Matthias Zuggal (Soldiers on watchtowers), and violinist Andreas Semlitsch (Double for Tadeusz in violin scene). Also stars stage musicians Raphael Brunner, Stefan Mikic, Roger Szedalik, Dominik Neunteufel, and Michael Schatzmann. Teodor Currentzis conducts the Weiner Symphoniker and the Prague Philharmonic Choir (Choirmaster Lukáš Vasilek). Set design by Johan Engels; costume design by Marie-Jeanne Lecca; lighting design by Fabrice Kebour; video direction by Felix Breisach. The opera is sung in German, English, French, Russian and Yiddish. There is also a documentary film "In der Fremde" in German with English subtitles. Released  2015, disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound and the documentary and extras are in stereo. Grade: A

[Special Note: This is the same title that was released by Neos in 2010 and which has apparently been discontinued by them. Arthaus has a history of picking up orphaned HDVDs and republishing them with new artwork. This is an important title, so we plan to buy the Arthaus version. The Neos disc package had a multi-language subtitle option as well as translation subtitles in German, English, French, Polish, and Russian. Neos also had a good documentary. It will be interesting to see which bells and whistles Arthaus will continue.]

The Passenger is based on the eponymous novel written by Zofia Posmycz, a Polish writer and survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Although Weinberg wrote The Passenger in 1967-68, it didn't get performed until 2010.  Here is basic plot: After WW II,  Martha (Elena Kelessidi), a one-time SS overseer at Auschwitz, unexpectedly meets Lisa (Michelle Breedt), a former prisoner with whom Martha had contact. In flashbacks we learn about what happened in Auschwitz and about the relationship between the two protagonists.

I mentioned the multilingual subtitles. The inmates at Auschwitz came from many countries and often had difficulty understanding both their captors and their fellow prisoners. This opera shows subtitles in the language that is being sung by various prisoners, requiring the viewer to know or read along in every language used.  Out of respect for the memory of the inmates, I watched The Passenger cold with the multilingual subtitles. I had considerable trouble following the story. Later I switched to English and German subtitles and had no more difficulty.

This is an excellent production of an earnest and commendable work about a difficult topic: the allocation of guilt for what happened at places like Auschwitz. The libretto, though vastly simplified from the novel by Zofia Posmycz, demands respect because it's based on the actual experiences of a political prisoner at Auschwitz who managed to survive. The music compares well to the opera scores of Shostakowich.

Since 2010, The Passender has been staged several more times and more people know about it than ever before. Still, this is likely to remain the only recording of this for some time.

Monday
Aug242015

The Grand Organ of Coventry Cathedral

In 2014, Kerry Beaumont plays the following selections on the grand organ of the Coventry Cathedral in Coventry, England:

1. Lemmens "Fanfare"
2. Holst "Mars, the Bringer of War" (The Planets)
3. Mendelssohn "Prelude and Fugue" in C minor
4. J. S. Bach "Come Sweetest Death" (Komm, Susser Tod)
5. Handel "For unto us a Child is Born"
6. Walton "Orb and Sceptre"
7. Messiaen "Jesus accepte la souffrance"
8. Boellmann "Toccata" from Suite Gothique
9. Brewer "Triumphant Song"
10. Beethoven "Moonlight Sonata (1st Movement)"
11. Davies "RAF March Past"
12. Durufle "Prelude and Fugue sur le non d'Alain"
13. Cholley "Rumba sur les grands jeux"

Each of these pieces were put on the program to celebrate the following theme (my invention): Hail to the people of Coventry, valient in war and forgiving in peace. As the program is performed, exclusively by Beaumont, each selection is tied into this theme in various ways.

The Grand Organ of Coventry Cathedral is an impressive recording package with a Blu-ray video disc, a DVD, and a CD of the music. Each of the 13 musical selections is accompanied with video showing Beaumont playing plus numerous clips of the Cathedral and the town of Coventry with it's history and landmarks. There is an excellent keepcase booklet which gives you guidance as to what you see in the video for each musical number. Then in another section of the booklet you get a discussion of the musical aspects of each of the 13 selections. Finally, the booklet has two pages of technical data on the Covantry organ! So far I've covered only the main program. There are also 4 bonus extras, all with Beaumont as docent: (1) a 19-minute narration of the musical program, (2) a 44-minute detailed rundown on the features of the Coventry Grand Organ, (3) an 8-minute explanation of the challenges faced by the organist in playing "Rumba sur les grands jeux", and (4) a 12 minute discussion of two chamber organs that the Cathedral also owns and uses! Recorded and produced by Paul Crichton; filmed and edited by Richard Knight; Associate Producer was Callum Ross; Executive Producer was Neil Collier. Released 2015, Blu-ray disc has 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound. Grade: A

I would not be qualified to comment on Beaumont's performance as I know nothing about organ music. Nor do I plan to show you screenshots of Beaumont sitting with his hands at different positions on the organ. As is customary (I think) for organ virtuosos, Beaumont reads from sheet music and turns the pages himself. It's hard for me to believe that anyone can play an organ with 5 keyboards (4 manual and 1 for foot-pedals) and 3 staffs to master simultaneously. But Beaumont seems to juggle it all flawlessly. The program has a lot of variety and no piece lasts longer than 7 minutes. So musically, I find this program and Beaumont's playing completely absorbing. And in the extensive bonus extras, we hear enough from Beaumont to see what a pleasant and unassuming person he must always be.

But what I can show you in this review is how much information Priory has packed into this disc in addition Beaumont's performance. Here's a view of Coventry, the "City with Three Spires." The spire of the old cathedral is the tallest on your right:

The old Cathedral was destroyed in a bombing raid by the German Luftwaffe on November 14, 1940. Construction of a new Cathedral was started almost immediately. The new Cathedral found its way into the history books again on the day of its dedication when the Benjamin Britten War Requiem received it's world premiere at the Cathedral. Here's a view of the ruins after the infamous 1940 bombing raid:

This next picture below was made sometime later. It shows how much larger the new cathedral was to be:

And here's what you see as you enter the new building. The organ pipes are on both sides of a huge tapestry four stories tall. There are many batteries of pipes on each floor behind the visible pipes:

Let's turn our attention now to a few images (of many) we are offered about the history of Coventry. Below is a memorial to citizens who sacrificed their lives  "for the sake of conscience" during the reign of King Henry VIII. I have no idea what this is about. But I can tell the people commemorated here were not of the ruling class. They seem to have been humble folk who were tailors, shoemakers, tanners, leather workers, and the like. If you know why they died, please help us with a comment about this:

Here is the tomb of a prelate who helped build the old Cathedral.  The cathedral building in his hand outlived the real thing:

 

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Sunday
Aug232015

Kerberos at Work---Erwin Schrott and Rojotango

Kerberos is our vicious dog who sniffs out Blu-ray impostors, sinks his teeth in them, and drags them to our Excluded Titles section on the Navigation bar. Most of Kerb's victims are DVDs reissued in Blu-ray drag in an effort to trick customers. Kerb has been working round-the-clock lately. I thought I should give you an example of what I'm talking about.

Above you see the front cover of a Blu-ray package for the title Ervin Schrott---Live in Berlin---Rojotango. It's available in DVD also. I tried without success on the Internet to get the specs for this title. That's a red flag, of course. But I yielded to temptation. Even though Kerb was having a fit, I bought this Blu-ray.

Kerb was right. On the back cover of the keepcase, the art work says "PCM Audio." That's code for "stereo." When you put the disc in the player, the only sound track is in 48kHz/16-bit LPCM stereo. There's no surround sound. Even though this was shot in 2013, it was filmed for DVD 720x480 presentation. When repackaged in blue, you get the same old fuzzy images of yesteryears.  It's a decent concert event. But if you're used to stuff recorded with 1080 resolution and high-quality surround sound, seeing this Rojotango is like watching those ancient pop concerts PBS runs with their obnoxious fund-raising drives. (For those of you outside the USA, I'll explain this better by stating that seeing this Rojotango made me slightly ill.)

How do you protect yourself from Blu-ray impostors? You can't rely on the old brand names. Also the vendors (including Amazon) have many mistakes in their postings of title for sale. Well, one way to protect yourself is to check our Excluded Titles list on the Navigation Bar. Use the "find" tool in your web browsers to speed this up! We are working hard to steer you away from Blu-ray impostors.

And, please, if you discover an impostor we have missed, please tell us about it! Help us keep our Alphalist as accurate as possible.

Monday
Aug172015

Beethoven String Quartet No. 16

Beethoven String Quartet No. 16 arranged for string orchestra. Leonard Bernstein conducts the Wiener Philharmoniker in a famous concert. I originally put this recording on our "excluded list." But confrere James Kreh dropped me the following (somewhat edited) note:

"This is actually a half-HDVD. The back cover views on Amazon indicate that the Beethoven performance is derived from an HD source. On that basis I bought it because I’ve long admired the Bernstein/Vienna performances of the string quartets Op. 131 and 135 (available together on CD). Too bad this release didn’t include both, but the good news is that the Beethoven obviously was filmed rather than videotaped, allowing for the production of this true HD video. Except for the fact that it’s in a 4:3 aspect ratio (and that Bernstein died in 1990), it could have been filmed last year—it’s a gorgeous video from the Musikverein in September 1989. The director was Humphrey Burton, and he includes lots of long, lingering views of Bernstein, some lasting over a minute. Sure, the audio is probably upsampled from a 16-bit/44.1kHz master, and the surround track is undoubtedly synthesized from the stereo source, but it’s really quite good. The audio encoding is 24-bit/48kHz for both the PCM stereo and the DTS-HD MA 5.1 tracks.

As far as I know, this is the only HDVD we have of Bernstein’s conducting, and the performance is just wonderful. Because of that unique aspect, I suggest you add this to the Alphalist. (You would have to emphasize that the Haydn is clearly upscaled from a standard-definition videotape source. There’s no point in belaboring this one—it’s not HDVD, although it’s not terrible.)

I’m glad to have this Beethoven recording as a wonderful souvenir of Bernstein the conductor, and I suspect that some of your readers may be interested as well."

Thanks James! I told Kerberos not to get upset, and I'm putting this back on the Alphalist. We have to draw lines somewhere. Sometimes I wind up making decisions based on skimpy information. It's great to have confreres to help us out with their actual knowledge about close-call titles. I'm going to grade this as "B" because of the limitations you mentioned. I note that the Amazon customers seem to feel the same way you do about this Bernstein film.

Monday
Aug172015

Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1

2004 Europakonzert: Sir Simon Rattle conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker this year in its traditional "Europakonzert" on May 1 celebrating the founding of the orchestra on May Day. This event occurs in a different European city in a beautiful venue of historical significance. For 2004 the concert took place at the Herodes Atticus Theatre in Athens. Features Daniel Barenboim on piano. Here's the program:

1. Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 1 (Daniel Barenboim)

2. Brahms, Piano Quartet No. 1 (Orchestration by Arnold Schoenberg)

Released 2014, disc has 5.1 dts surround sound. Grade: Help!

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

Monday
Aug172015

Sibelius Violin Concerto

2015 Europakonzert: Sir Simon Rattle conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker this year in its traditional "Europakonzert" on May 1 celebrating the founding of the orchestra on May Day. Normally, this event occurs in a different European city in a beautiful venue of historical significance. For 2015, the concert was held at the Megaron in Athens. Also features violinist Leonidas Kavakos. Directed by Henning Kasten. Here's the program:

1.  Rossini, Overture to Semiramide

2. Sibelius, Violin Concerto (Leonidas Kavakos)

3. Bach, "Largo" from Sonata No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005

4. Schumann, Symphony No. 3  "Rhenish"

Released 2015, 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.

Monday
Aug102015

Death and the Powers 

Tod Machover Death and the Powers opera to a libretto by Robert Pinsky (from a story by Randy Weiner and Robert Pinsky). Directed February 2014 at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas, Texas by Andrew Eggert (with assistance from Allegra Libonati) using original stage directions of Diane Paulus. Stars baritone Robert Orth (Simon Walter Powers, an aging Jillionaire), mezzo-soprano Patricia Risley (Simon's Trophy Wife), soprano Joélle Harvey (Miranda, Simon's step-daughter), tenor Hal Casalet (Simon's protégé whom Simon rescued as a deformed infant foundling), counter-tenor Frank Kelley (The United Way, an important charity in the United States), baritone David Kravitz (The United Nations), and bass Tom McNichols (The Administration). Nicole Paiement conducts The Simon Walter Powers Post-Organic-Age Orchestra (a small ensemble of unidentified mechanical devices and electronic gadgets), the Miseries Chorus, and the Chorus of Operabots. Visionary technology provided by Opera of the Future Group and MIT Media Lab. Production designs by Alex McDowell; choreography by Karole Armitage; costumes by David C. Woolard; lighting by Donald Holder; sound design by Chris Full; wig and make-up by David Zimmerman; visual design and software systems by Peter Torpey; media design by Matt Checkowski, sound technology by Ben Bloomburg; robot mechanical design and technical development by Bob Hsiung; robotic control systems by Michael Miller; interaction design by Elena Jessop.

The credits in the previous paragraph relate to what the live audience in Dallas saw. In addition, there was a simulcast of the opera to some 10 locations in Dallas and other cities. It appears WFAA, a Dallas TV station, was responsible for the vision and sound simulcast transmissions and that the Blu-ray recording we review here is the same electronic document as the simulcast. TV credits: Jerry Cadigan was the Production Manager; Don Hazen was Facilities Manager; and Aaron Butler was Director with Assistant Director Rob Horning; cameras were operated by Chris Brock, Chris Cook, Bryan Walor, Chuck Crosswhite, Jim Conrad, Bill Sons, Bobby Hester, and Dode Bigley.

It appears this title is published jointly by the Dallas Opera and the MIT Media Lab. There are no bonus extras, but the keepcase booklet has a lot of information including a detailed synopsis. Sung in English. There are subtitles in English only. The video is 1080i. Released 2015, the LPCM stereo sound was recorded at 48kHz/24-bits. The surround audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital recorded at 48kHz (no word-length given).

This title is currently available only from www.cdbaby.com, a company that sells recordings from independent sources at reasonable prices. Grade: B+ (but "A+" if you like science-fiction, contemporary opera, poetry, or robots)

Background: This piercing-point opera is set in the not-too-distant future but after the demise of the human race and the end of the Organic Age. Operabots conduct a ceremony they are hard-wired to perform in which they recount the end of us: Simon Walter Powers, an American inventor and industrialist, became the richest man ever. Falling gravely ill from a stroke, he used his wealth to create The System, an artificial intelligence heaven. He passed into the System in a bid for immortality. But then things got out of control.

Time for screenshots. Below are Operabots, perhaps the only sentient beings left in the universe in the new Inorganic Age. They are gathered for their periodic In Memoriam celebration of the end of the era of fat and sugar. Death and the Powers is, I assert, the only opera in history in which the real stars are the set and the props, all of which were created by and now belong to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab. (The MIT Media Lab is an important media think-tank and agar disk for advanced (read digital) communication science).

The Operabot below is puzzled. Death and the Powers (hereafter "D/a/t/P") touches on a huge number of science-fiction clichés and tropes in a clever and (I think) light-hearted libretto by poet Robert Pinsky. Some have suggested that D/a/t/P is an opera of ideas. I think that's asking too much of opera. I see this work as a brilliant send-up or satire of the science-fiction genre of literature. The libretto was published in Poetry (magazine) in 2010, and it's a fairly easy read. There were some cuts and changes in the original poem for the Dallas production. If you don't know the poem, it would be tricky to follow this live or in video. So the subtitles in English help a lot:

As the ceremony begins, four of the Operabots receive downloads of the minds and memories of the four main human characters. Below we see Simon Walter Powers (Robert Orth) relive the stroke which set him on his mission to gain immortality by inventing the System. (Simon is not a new character for us. He's the same grumpy, rascally, insanely-rich cuss we encounter in The Perfect American, where Walt Disney is sung by Christopher Reeves. And he's a clone of J.Howard Marshall II played by Alan Oke in Anna Nicole.

Now Nicholas is downloaded. He was grievously maimed and starving when Simon found and took pity on him. Simon later invented artificial limbs and other cures for Nick, who grew up being treated like the son Simon never had. Nick was fanatically loyal to Simon and followed him into the System:

Now Simon is close to death and headed for the System. Nick (Hal Casalet), part robot himself, is now in charge of saving Simon. Evvy, Simon's "third and final wife" (Patricia Risley) is saying good-by. In the shadows is Miranda (Joélle Harvey) who is dubious:

Word-play from poet Pinsky:

As a small diversion, here's the similar scene with Walt Disney in The Perfect American. But poor Disney came too early. He was trapped in a world of mechanical and chemical science. Powers comes later in an electronic world full of virtual virtues and digital delights:

D/a/t/P is an opera, so the big four line up like in Verdi for a quartet celebrating The System. For a moment the music sounds like a fugue from Bach after he hit his thumb with a hammer:

 

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Monday
Aug102015

The Bayreuth Edition

Wagner The Bayreuth Edition box set with 6 operas performed at the Bayreuth Festival. Below are the titles. Each of them has already been reported on this website, and you can get more details by using the links provided:

1. Der Fliegende Holländer. 2014. (Grade NA)

2. Tannhäuser. 2015. (Grade NA)

3. Lohengrin. 2011. (Grade NA)

4. Die Walküre. 2011. (Grade C+)

5. Tristan und Isolde. 2010. (Grade D)

6. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. 2010. (Grade B)

Released 2015. Grade: Help!

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

Monday
Aug102015

Rusalka 

Dvořák Rusalka opera to libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil. Directed 2014 by Laurie Feldman reviving the 1933 Otto Schenk production. Stars Renee Fleming (Rusalka), Piotr Beczala (Prince), Dolora Zajick (Jezhibaba), John Relyea (Water Gnome), Emily Magee (Foreign Princess), Julie Boulianne (Kitchen Boy), Vladimír Chmelo (Gamekeeper), Alexey Lavrov (Hunter), Dísella Lárusdóttir (First Wood Sprite), Renée Tatum (Second Wood Sprite), Maya Lahyani (Third Wood Sprite), and Amir Levy (Noble). Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducts The Metropolitan Opera and Chorus. Sets by Günther Schneider-Siemssen; costumes  by Silvia Strahammer; lighting by Gil Wechsler; choreography by Carman De Lavallade; sound editing by John Bowen, directed for TV by Barbara Willis Sweete; produced by Mia Bongiovanni. Released 2015. Grade: Help!

Early information above needs to be verified. I hope this is not another Decca false alarm. This will be the same as the Rusalka recently broadcast by the Met to movie theaters. Because the Met has already recouped at least some of its investment in this, the retail price will likely be attractive.

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

Monday
Aug102015

Bruckner Symphonies 4-9

Bruckner Symphonies 4-9 box set, also called The Bruckner Mature Symphonies series. Daniel Barenboim conducted all 6 symphonies between June 20 and June 27, 2010 with the Staatskapelle Berlin.  The total running time is 428 minutes on six discs. Released 2015, each disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. 

Each symphony is available individualy and you can use the links below to get for information about each recording:

1. Bruckner Symphony No. 4 (Grade: NA)

2. Bruckner Symphony No. 5 (Grade: NA)

3. Bruckner Symphony No. 6 (Grade: C+)

4. Bruckner Symphony No. 7 (Grade: NA)

5. Bruckner Symphony No. 8 (Grade: NA)

6. Bruckner Symphony No. 9 (Grade: NA)

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