Berlioz Symphonie fantastique and 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!
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.
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. But the exciting news is in the realm of picture content.
I ran the numbers on this Mahler Symphony No. 1. I count 378 cuts in the video. Here's a rundown on these cuts starting with shots that could be used both in HDVD and DVD:
41 shots of the conductor only
6 shots of the conductor made over the backs of musicians
46 small-section shots (4 or fewer players)
38 part-section shots
Next, here are the "super-shots" that look great on HDVD but are too long-range to look good in a DVD (due to the lower DVD video resolution):
4 large-section shots
7 multiple-section shots
22 part-orchestra shots
50 most or whole-orchestra views
A Mahler symphony is full of action. So you would expect a lot of cuts. The average cut in this recording lasts more than 9 seconds. Many of the super-shots (groups 6 thru 9 of the above) last considerably longer than 9 seconds. So the pace of this video is about 2 times to 3 times more 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 of a good HDVD video of a symphony.
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 use many 75% to 90% angles:
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: