Articles and Reviews

This website is about high-definition video recordings of opera, ballet, classical music, plays, fine-art documentaries, painting, and sculpture. We call these recordings "HDVDs." Below are hundreds of stories about HDVDs, including critical reviews that are hard to find on the Internet. But first check out our Title Index/Alphalist, the world's only list of all fine-arts videos available in high-quality HD.

It's September 30. We just gave a "C-" to the Mariinsky Romeo and Juliet ballet and provided screenshots. We recently updated and added screenshots to our review of the Daniel Barenboim Chopin Warsaw Recital which we graded "A."

We recently posted a review with screenshots and increased our grade to "B+" for the Martin Kušej production of the Schumann opera Genoveva. This is a superb HDVD of an obscure opera that deserves to be better known. The new Ariadne auf Naxos from Glyndebourne is splendid and gets an "A+." 

Did you know that Cerberus, the monster watch-dog, still lives at this website? He bites any newly published Blu-ray title that's really an imposter (like an upscaled DVD) and sends it to our "excluded" area at the bottom of the Alphalist. Of 9 new Blu-rays to come to our attention on a recent day, Cerberus bit 7! So far,  Cerberus has snagged 87 impostors. So if you are asked to pay prime-steak price for a disc but you think it might be left-over meatloaf, check our excluded list. (Just use a key word or catalog number with your PC "find tool.")

We have the best reviews anywhere of ballet and dance HDVDs. So we recently posted a "hit-parade" story boasting of this.

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Tuesday
Sep302014

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet ballet. Music by Prokofiev. Libretto by Leonid Lavrovsky and Sergei Prokofiev. Choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky as staged 2013 at the Mariinsky Theatre under the direction of Yuri Fateyev. Stars Diana Vishneva (Juliet), Vladimir Shklyarov (Romeo), Ilya Kuznetsov (Tybalt), Alexander Sergeyev (Mercutio), Islom Baimuradov (Benvolio) , Yuri Smekalov (Paris), Valeria Karpina (Juliet's Nurse), Vladimir Ponomarev (Capulet), Elena Bazhenova (Lady Capulet), Pyotr Stasyunas (Montague and Friar Lawrence), Nikolai Naumov (Duke of Verona), Grigory Popov (Jester), Elena Firsova (Paris' Page), Yekaterina Osmolkina (Juliet's Companion), Maxim Zyuzin (Troubadour), Elena Chmil and Daria Lomako (Beggers), Yekaterina Devichinskaya, Yekaterina Mikhailovtseva, and  Olga Balinskaya (Courtesans), Maria Adzhamova, Maria Lebedeva, and Nadezhda Batoeva (Tavern Girls), Mikhail Berdichevsky, Denis Zainetdinov, and Nikita Lyashchenko (Servants to Capulet), Ivan Sitnikov and Soslan Kulaev (Servants to Montague), Xenia Dubrovina, Olga Belik, Boris Zhurilov, and Anatoly Marchenko (Folk Dancers). Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra. Set and costume design by Pyotr Williams; directed for TV by Olivier Simonnet. This title includes a Blu-ray disc and a separate DVD disc in a "double play" package. Released 2014, music was recorded using 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling, but the Blu-ray disc only has PCM stereo output. Grade: C-

I understand this production is essentially the same as when it received its world premiere in Russia in 1940. The Great Terror was winding down. WW II had not yet reached the country. The Communist Party had total control over all aspects of life. All the fine arts had to support the "Stalinist line." Below the opening set for Romeo and Juliet is an example of the "social realism" favored by the Reds. Strangely, this plain but slightly nostalgic or romantic look was also favored by Hitler in Germany and could also be seen in at the time in Post Offices and other public buildings all over the United States. This look has been out-of-style for a long time:

Here's a close-up of the set with Romeo (Vladimir Shklyarov) out for a early-morning walk. The HD video is quite soft. Note also how flimsy and shabby the wood steps are. I have a hunch these are the exact same steps that Joseph Stalin saw when he attended this Romeo and Juliet 74 years ago:

Here are the tavern girls (Maria Adzhamova, Maria Lebedeva, and Nadezhda Batoeva). The Mariinsky Ballet commands an impressive number of beautiful girls and handsome men. But it looks like each girl has to make her own costume:

Even the beggar children (Elena Chmil and Daria Lomako) have costumes that don't look real (too clean):

Here's Tybalt (Ilya Kuznetsov) fighting Montague men in the square. His costume and wig are designed to make it easy for anyone in even the cheapest seats to identify the bad guy. As bad as the costume is, the expressions on his face are worse. They are the most extreme examples of overacting that I can recall outside the early silent movies. I think even Sergei Eisenstein would wince at this:

 

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Monday
Sep292014

Mahler Syphonies Nos. 1 and 2

Mahler Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 2. Paavo Järvi conducts the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. Released 2014, 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
Sep292014

Martha Argerich Evening Talks

Martha Argerich Evening Talks documentary film by Georges Gachot from 2002. This film explores the life and work of pianist Martha Argerich. Released 2014, disc claims 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

This documentary was made in 2002 and was successful as a DVD that came out in 2008. It has, of course, a lot of old SD video of legacy material. The DVD has Dolby Digital surround sound. The question is whether the 2002 film will benefit from re-release in Blu-ray or whether the better thing is to just buy the DVD.  Please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title.

Monday
Sep292014

Parsifal

Wagner Parsifal opera to a libretto by the composer. Directed 2014 by Stephen Langridge at the Royal Opera House. Stars Simon O'Neill (Parsifal), Angela Denoke (Kundry, Voice from Above), René Pape (Gurnemanz), Gerald Finley (Amfortas), Willard W. White (Klingsor), and Robert Lloyd (Titurel). Antonio Pappano conducts the Royal Opera Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Designs by Alison Chitty. Released 2014, disc claims 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
Sep292014

Verdi Messa da Requiem

Verdi Messa da Requiem concert.In 2013, Mariss Jansons conducts the Bavarian Radio Chorus and Symphony Orchestra from the Golden Hall of Vienna’s Musikverein. Soloists are Krassimira Stoyanova (soprano), Marina Prudenskaja (mezzo-soprano), Saimir Pirgu (tenor), and Orlin Anastassov (bass). Released 2014, disc has 5.0 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
Sep252014

Chopin Warsaw Recital

Chopin The Warsaw Recital. Daniel Barenboim performs the following solo Chopin pieces in 2010 at the Warsaw National Philharmonic Hall:
1. Fantasia in F minor
2. Nocturne in D flat major
3. Sonata in B flat minor
4. Barcarolle in F sharp major
5. Waltz in F major
6. Waltz in A minor
7. Waltz in C sharp minor
8. Berceuse in D flat major
9. Polonaise in A flat major
10. Mazurka in minor
11.Waltz in D flat major

Directed for TV by Michael Beyer; Director of Photography was Nyika Jancsó; Audio Producer was Georg Obermayer. Claudia Groh and Günter Atteln were Disc Producers with Executive Producer Paul Smaczny. The music was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling. Released 1011, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A

Daniel Barenboim is probably the most important musician working today. He has had separate fabulous careers as (1) star pianist and (2) esteemed symphony conductor. He has also taken controversial political positions that make him an important figure on the world stage. He campaigned to play Wagner in Israel. He  fervently supports Palestinian rights. According to Wikipedia, he was the first (maybe still the only) Israeli citizen to be granted honorary citizenship by Palestine. But most importantly to us, he has been hyperactive in making HDVD recordings that we cover on this website. Our search tool yields 37 HDVDs for Barenboim. (Netrebko is next with 25 HDVDs, then Kaufmann with 24, and Abbado with 22.)

Barenboim was 67 when he found time to play 11 Chopin solo pieces in Warsaw at the Polish National Philharmonic Hall. This was a highlight in Poland of The Chopin Year---the 200th anniversary of Chopin's birth. Where else could Barenboim find a tougher audience than this for such a recital?

Here's a picture of the Philharmonic Hall I found on the Internet:

On October 14, 2011, confrere William Huang wrote his review of what we call the Chopin Warsaw Recital. At that time we were not using screenshots in our reviews. Huang is a professional piano player. His report makes it obvious that Barenboim's performance would be competitive (in a field with hundreds of recordings) even if it were only available on a CD. Huang also praises the video recording as best he can without having pictures to show. Well, after you read Huang's review, I'll undergird it with some recent screenshots.

Huang's review:

In this performance Barenboim summoned all of his physical and intellectual prowess---and charm. Robert Schumann's famous criticism of Chopin's second piano sonata (four unruly children bound together)  seems less valid thanks to the precision and sense of architecture Barenboim brings to it. The finale doesn't have the cosmic, manic energy Alfred Cortot brought in a popular EMI account, but Barenboim’s control is remarkable. Until the last note, he plays the whole movement in velvet pianissimo (and with astonishing clarity), showing the finale's journey through the pleasant harmonic changes written in.  It makes the final notes that much more of a surprise. Barenboim's wealth of life experience must have brought a warmth and maturity to the Barcarolle, which is uncommon among most competition winners these days. Perhaps the most delightful pieces on this disc are the waltzes---I've never heard Barenboim play with so much grace and finesse.

This concert has a very pleasant and uncommonly no-nonsense camera direction--- I love it.  It's not erratic and pretentious like Barenboim's acclaimed 2005 EMI DVD set of the Beethoven Sonatas (which needs to be re-edited and released on blu-ray). In this Chopin video, we always get great shots of his hands or profile which never linger too long or too short. It's just really well thought out compared to the otherwise superb EMI Beethoven cycle. Recorded with modern technology, the handsome Steinway concert grand sounds very real.

A few interpretational quirks in this concert will definitely offend most Chopinists (I didn't particularly admire the repetitive "DING!" sounds Barenboim made in certain notes during the A-minor waltz).  His habit of producing thumping sonorities in grand passages (as he does in the Brahms Concertos or Beethoven Sonatas) is present---but are fortunately tolerable. And it's true; there have been other pianists who have brought out more mysticism from the Sonata or drama in the Fantasy. But because Barenboim played all of these works with such convincing authority and the concert was filmed and recorded so well, no connoisseur should forgo experiencing this.

Almost inarguably, this is one of the best classical music Blu-ray discs. This is a milestone in Barenboim's illustrious career and a thoroughly enjoyable product.  It fully deserves an "A" grade.

The first thing our new screenshots give you that a CD can't is information about the venue. The photo above of the Philharmonic Hall shows a practical and traditional exterior free of ostentation. Same for the interior:

 

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Monday
Sep222014

Genoveva

Robert Schumann Genoveva opera with libretto by Robert Reinick and the composer. Directed 2008 by Martin Kušej at the Zurich Opera House. Stars Juliane Banse  (Genoveva), Shawn Mathey (Golo), Martin Gantner (Siegfried), Cornelia Kallisch (Margaretha), Alfred Muff (Drago), Ruben Drole (Hidulfus), Tomasz Slawinski  (Balthasar), and Matthew Leigh (Caspar). Nikolaus Harnoncourt directs the Orchestra and Chorus of the Zurich Opera House (Chorus master Ernst Raffelsberger). Set by Rolf Glittenburg; costumes by Heidi Hackl; lighting by Jürgen Hoffmann; TV director was Felix Breisach. Released  2009, disc has 7.1 dts-HD Master Audio. Grade: B+

This is Schumann's only opera, an obscure work that has been seldom produced and few people have seen. The orchestra music is interesting. Annette Dasch sings some of the soprano music in her new HDVD recital recording. But the libretto is both thin on logic and bloated with old-fashion German Romanticism. So why not take a chance and see if you can spike the bowl with design and directing? Now pipe on board enfant terrible Martin Kušej, whom we know from HDVDs of Electra, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Der Fliegende Holländer, and Rusalka.

Kušej likes to build a box within the stage; and within the box he creates his own abstract universe of symbolic and surreal images and actions---with emphasis on dislocation, inexplicable moves, garish violence, nudity, smearing, splatter, and the like (you know you're in trouble if the box says you have to be 12 years old to see the show). To the expert and the initiated, this can be bracing and profound; to the conservative viewer, it's challenging and sometimes even called Eurotrash.

Too bad we can't fetch Robert Schumann in a time machine and watch the expression of his face. My early inclination was to dial out the Kušej Genoveva --- except for one thing. The videography on this disc is preternaturally superb. Kušej and Felix Breisach obviously worked hard together to come up with a film that might make a much bigger impact on opera fans than the 2008 live show possibly could have.

The Arthaus keepcase booklet has an excellent plot summary, so I will not dwell much on the story line. I'll focus on Kušej's psychological approach to opera directing and the video images Kušej and Breisach came up with.

Below is the Kušej box within a box. It fills maybe 30% of the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the opera stage, and it is set fairly far back. You should be able to see the stage floor in front of the box as well as part of the proscenium walls on both sides. And there are two boxes in the box in the box. I refer to the door frame, which has two doors hung on it (you will see that later) and the black horizontal box, which is a magic mirror:

Now for a near view of the Kušej box. Below is the opening scene. On the left praying is Duchess Genoveva (Juliane Banse). Her husband, Duke Siegfried (Martin Gantner), stands in the center. On the right stands the Knight Golo (Shawn Mathey), an illegitimate member of the aristocracy who is considered a Lord of the estate and is admired and trusted by Siegfried. Lying on the floor is Margaretha, an old wet-nurse turned witch who raised Golo but was banished from the realm long ago. I should mention that none of these people is actually there. At this point, Kušej is just showing you his main cast. Whether a character is actually there depends entirely on whether the character is doing something called for by the plot. At this point nothing has happened yet, so nobody is actually there. The four main characters are inside the box, which is stark white, most of the time. Supporting characters live in the gloom outside of the box, and we see them only when they enter the box for their lines. It's appropriate to keep the four main characters visible in the box because each of them stands for a different aspect of human nature.  To keep all this straight, you have to pay attention. But Kušej give you lots of clues---if a character is not really there, he may lie on the floor or stand with his back to the action (hang in there):

A portrait of the Duchess. When I see this in my HT, I think of fine portrait photography (like when you pay $5,000 for a studio session and then get to pick one of 5 or so proofs to put on your desk):

A portrait of the Duke:

Trusted friend Golo is religious and conscientious---and also utterly vile:

A better shot of Margaretha. The blackface has nothing to do with race. Commoners who do not at least do noble things get blackface (pure Kušej):

 

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