Titles by Category

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

Feb 11.  Finally we have a good grade (A-) to brag about for the new Don Quixote from the Vienna State Ballet.  Recently we posted a F+ grade for the new C Major Bruckner Symphony 3 and an F- grade for that C Major Mahler S1-10 Box performed by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. How can a major publishing house turn out something that gets an F-?

We recently posted more than you wanted to know about that Brahms Cycle Box from Belvedere. Now you can buy the 3 discs in the box independently. We bunched the 4 different deals together near the top of the Journal.

We just updated our manifesto about the best ballet and dance videos.



La Bohème (HD DVD)

Giacomo Puccini La Bohème opera to libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Directed 2006 by Giancarlo del Monaco at the Madrid Teatro Real. Stars Inva Mula, Aquiles Machado, Laura Giordano, Fabio Maria Capitanucci, David Menéndez, Felipe Bou, Gonzalo Fernández de Terán, Juan Tomás Martínez, Alfredo Mariotti, Federico Gallar, Mario Villoria, and Francisco Pardo. Jesús López Cobos conducts the Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Real (Chorus Master Jordi Casas Bayer) and the Children's Chorus of the Comunidad de Madrid (Chorus Master José de Felipe). Design of set and costumes by Michael Scott; lighting by Wolfgang von Zoubek. This was an HD DVD product released in 2008. Disc has 5.0 Dolby TrueHD sound. This was apparently never made available in the U.S. through normal distributions channels. It plays just as well, we think, as the Blu-ray version that came along later. Grade: A

For a mini-review, see our Blu-ray report on this title.


Berlioz Symphonie fantastique

Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique. Michael Tilson Thomas directs the San Francisco Symphony in a  performance of Symphonie Fantastique as part of the "Keeping Score" outreach program of the San Francisco Symphony. In addition, Thomas narrates a 55-minute Public Television educational program about Berlioz and the Symphonie fantastique. Released 2009, this disc is 99.5% in high-definition video and has Dolby TrueHD 7.1 sound. Grade: 

Although I always loved Harold in Italy, I hated most other music by Berlioz, including Symphonie fantastique. Would watching the Keeping Score documentary about Symphonie fantastique make a difference?  Thomas is almost as good a speaker and teacher as he is a conductor. The documentary has all the production values you could hope for like gorgeous shots of Paris and other locations in France and Italy, excellent writing based on careful research, and expert movie making. Thomas tells about the life of Berlioz, and he makes the Symphonie fantastique come alive as he explains the themes and aspects of the music in relation to the dramatic loves of young Hector. I then listened 3 times to the live performance of Symphonie fantastique by the San Francisco Symphony. On first listening I was surprised to discover that I didn't hate the symphony any more---so the documentary was working. On second listening I began to wonder, "Is this better than the recording of Symphonie fantastique in HDVD by Ozawa and the Saito Kinen Orchestra?

So for my third listening I did many movement-by-movement comparisons of the Thomas and Ozawa versions. According to Gramophone magazine, the San Francisco Symphony is the 13th best in the world, and the Saito Kinen ranks 19th. And surely you wouldn't expect any festival orchestra to be competitive with the likes of the San Francisco band when they are recording in their own lair (Davies Hall) with its state-of-the art recording facilities. Well, the Saito Kinen group is competitive, and I now have even more respect than before for their singular accomplishments. But the comparison showed me that the Thomas recording is the better of these two HDVDs.

Seeing the musicians perform in HDVD makes what you hear more impressive than merely listening to the music, say, from a CD. The video record of the San Francisco Symphony performance of Symphonie fantastique is probably as good as could be expected with today's technology. The light was bright enough to allow high resolution camera work, but also warm enough to avoid eye-strain and give everybody and everything a healthy glow. The Davies Hall stage is equipped with the normal long range cameras plus special cameras that move about by remote control within the orchestra. Davies Hall also has a command center for the video work that was invented by Dr. Strangelove. It gives Strangelove (here TV director Gary Halvorson, I think) the ability to plan and make many different short close-ups of the musicians in rapid succession throughout the show.

So while Thomas is frantically conducting the mass of players before him, Strangelove is engaged in equally frantic  efforts to follow the score and the music in making his movie. The players know this.  At any time, and especially when musical ball is passed to him, anybody can become the star! This must be an exciting and intimidating new aspect of working as as classical musician.

Although the mikes are almost invisible, the quality of this recording proves that Davies Hall is extraordinarily well equipped to record the sounds of the musicians.  As is pointed out in one of the extras on this disc, when the video shows, say, the concertmaster, his violin is what the viewer hears. Because the TV director in Davies Hall has such extraordinary control over that you see and hear, the TV director becomes a kind of second conductor! Thomas is the conductor from the perspective of the players and the live audience. But Strangelove determines what we get in our home theater. The difference between a great recording and an reference recording comes from the quality of the gear and the skill of staff placed under the control of Strangelove.

This mini-review is getting too long, so I will end by saying that "Keeping Score" changed me from a hater to lover of Symphonie fantastique.  Because of the excellent documentary and the brilliant recording, this HDVD belongs on every shelf. This earns for this HDVD the grade of A+.


The Berlin Concert: Live from the "Waltbühne"

The Berlin Concert---Live from the "Waltbühne". Stars Plácido Domingo, Anna Netrebko, and Rolando Villazón singing opera favorites at the Berlin Waltbühne, (or Forest Theater) in 2006. Marco Armiliato conducts the Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin. Here are the selections performed:

1. Verdi Overture to Nabucco

2. Cilea "È la solita storia del pastore" from L'Arlesiana

3. Puccini "O mio babbino caro" from Gianni Schicchi

4. Massenet "Ah! Parais! Parais, astre de mon ciel" from Le Mage

5. Verdi "Già nella notte densa" from Otello

6. Bizet Entr'acte from Carmen

7. Bizet "Au fond du temple saint" from Les Pêcheurs de perles

8. Rossini Overture to Semiramide

9. Grever Júrame

10. Lehár "Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiss"  from Giuditta

11. Ernesto de Curtis "Non ti scordar di me"

12. Puccini "O soave fanciulla" from La Bohème

13. Mascagni Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana

14. Furio Rendine Vurria

15. Bernstein "Tonight" from West Side Story

16. Rossini La Danza

17. Puccini "Quando men vo" from La Bohème

18. Pablo Sorozabál "No  puede ser" from La tabernera del puerto

19. Verdi "Libiamo ne' lieti calichi" or "Brindisi" from La traviata 

20. Lehár "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" from Das Land des Lächelns

Directed for video by Frank Hof. Released  2008, disc has 5.1 PCM and 5.1 dts-HD sound. Grade: B+

The Waldbühne, part of the Olympic Stadium complex in Berlin, seats 20,000 in Greek-style outdoor amphitheater discomfort. There's a utilitarian stage topped by a high-tech circus tent canopy---Berlin is famous for these edgy/ugly architectural experiments. To their credit, the producers of this event dressed up the stage quite well, the orchestra wore white tie, and the show looked as elegant as possible outdoors. Still, this one-shot performance had be miked and amped with wires everywhere supporting giant screens with images of the action.

The weather is rarely perfect for these events---this time it was hot and humid with Armiliato about to die from heat stroke. The singers had to mug and ham it up in an effort to connect to the vast sea of ants all over the mountain side before them. All this doesn't mesh too well with the new high-definition cameras showing what everything really looks like.

Well, nobody could complain too much about the 3 stars doing stuff like "O mio babbino caro." But we still got the impression that our heroes seemed a bit harassed, unrehearsed, and jet-lagged. And why not? This audience is interested in celebrities, not arias. We note also that the producers included more than a few shots taken with standard definition cameras, and this is anathema to us HDVD fans. If you want to add a singing concert to your collection, we suggest you skip this title and start at Baden-Baden with the Deutsche Grammophon The Opera Gala. But if you can afford two discs of opera favorites, you will probably be happy with the Berlin Concert also.


Benvenuto Cellini

Hector Berlioz Benvenuto Cellini opera to a libretto by Léon de Wailly and Henri Auguste Barbier. Directed 2007 by Philipp Stölzl at the Salzburg Festival. Stars Burkhard Fritz, Maija Kovalevska, Laurent Naouri, Brindley Sherratt, Mikhail Petrenko, Kate Aldrich, Xavier Mas, Roberto Tagliavini, Adam Plachetka, and Sung-Keun Park. Also features dancers Gabrio Gabrieli, Francesco Pedone, Marie Seeger, Tobias Wozniak, and acrobats Silke Adolph, Andy Arndt, and Thomas Dürrfeld. Valery Gergiev conducts the Wiener Philharmoniker and the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor (Chorus Master Andreas Schüller). Stage design by Philipp Stölzl;  costumes by Kathi Maurer; lighting by Duane Schuler; video projections by Stefan Kessner and Max Stolzenberg; dramatic advisement by Ronny Dietrich; choreography by Mara Kurotschka; video direction by Andreas Morell. Released 2011, 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.


Barenboim West Eastern Divan Salzburg Concerts

Barenboim West-Eastern Divan Salzburg Concerts. Daniel Barenboim conducts, in 2007, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in performances of the  following works:

1. Beethoven Leonore Overture III

2. Schoenberg Variations for Orchestra

3. Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 "Pathétique"

4. Mozart Sinfonia concertante in E flat major (bonus)

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra was founded as a peace initiative by Barenboim and the late Edward Said with musicians from Israel, Palestine, other Arab countries, and Iran. The works listed were conducted by Barenboim at the 2007 Salzburg Festival; soloists in the Sinfonia are Mohamed Saleh (oboe), Kinan Azmeh (clarinet), Sharon Polyak (horn), and Mor Biron (bassoon). TV direction by Agnes Méth. Released 2011, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound.  Grade: C+

The picture quality is rather mediocre for the three major numbers, probably due to low lighting, equipment issues, and modest budgets for cameramen and editing. In contrast, the video in the Sinfonia is quite good as the lights were brilliant in the small hall and there is much less to cover with the resources available. The sound in the three major numbers is also uninspiring with miking and editing problems that we don't encounter often in recordings of the major orchestras. But again, the sound for the Sinfonia is excellent.

This is a unique orchestra. It is a political and social experiment in that it brings together players from many countries who might well be at other times arming themselves to fight one another. To help overcome rehearsal obstacles faced by the group, Barenboim has recruited top musicians from Europe to teach and play similar to way the Saito Kinen orchestra operates. Guy Braunstein (1:26:07), the lst Concertmaster with the Berliner Phliharmoniker and who grew up in Tel Aviv, sits in the middle of the first violins in all of the selections on this disc. I also recognize in all the selections Kyril Zlotnikov (1:31:06), a Russian cello star who often plays in Barenboim's Berlin Staatskapelle. The performer who benefits the most from from this disc is Mor Biron, who plays all the bassoon solos. He was 25 when this was made and looks like a student, but he's not. He was taken into the bassoon section of the Berlin Philharmaniker early in 2007.

Trivia comment: mixed in with this eclectic group, I spot my first HDVD female tatoo (1:03:21), and it's a doozy. (Eric Underwood, an American ballet dancer with the Royal Ballet, is proud owner of our first HDVD male tatoo.)

A lot of the "festival" HDVDs we have been getting don't have much more music on them than was traditional for single LP recordings. We have been giving bad grades to most of these skinny titles. To their credit, C Major does put together several different shoots from 2007 to present 2 hours of music on this title. By far the best of the selections provided is the bonus Sinfonia. The Leonore III suffers from the technical weaknesses mentioned earlier; if you have the Opus Arte Fidelio opera HDVD you don't need subject Leonore as well. Moving on to the Schoenberg, I question if anyone should try to record this other than a fully-qualified major orchestra with resources to thoroughly rehearse the thorny piece and present it with complete authority. Then the listener knows he's hearing it the way it's supposed to be, and the listener can form his opinion with confidence. I've been through this twice with the Divan Orchestra, and I don't know what to think. I suspect the Divan Orchestra didn't play it all that well because it's just too hard.
Finally, the Divan orchestra did a decent job with the Tchaikovsky "Pathétique." The problem is, however, that we already have 3 superior "Pathétiques" by famous orchestras in HDVD, so there's no need for this one. If you are interested in the Tchaikovsky 6, a better choice is the Karajan Memorial Concert.

So where do we wind up? If you're interested in youth orchestras or the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, this is a decent title that you will enjoy despite the only fair technical aspects of all of the selections other than the Sinfonia concertante. You could justify buying this is your really, really want a Sinfonia concertante in HDVD. Otherwise, we don't have much enthusiasm for this title, and we give it the grade of "C+."



Giuseppe Verdi Aida opera to libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni. Directed 2009 by Sonja Frisell at the Met (HD Live) with Stage Director Stephen Pickover and  Assistant Stage Director J. Knighten Smit.  Stars Roberto Scandiuzzi (Ramfis), Johan Botha (Radamés), Dolora Zajick (Ammeris), Violeta Urmana (Aida), Stefan Kocán (The King), Adam Laurence Herskowitz (A Messenger), Jennifer Check (A Priestess), Carlo Guelfi (Amonasto), Christine Freeman (Solo Dancer), and Bradley Shelver (Solo Dancer). Daniele Gatti conducts the Metropolican Orchestra and Chorus (Chorus Master Donald Palumbo). Production by Sonja Frisell; sets by Gianni Quaranta; costumes by Dada Saligeri; lighting by Gil Wechsler; choreography by Alexei Ratmansky; stage band directed by Gregory Buchalter; dramaturgy by Paul Cremo. Video Direction by Gary Halvorson; Music Producer was Jay David Saks; Supervising Producers were Mia Bongiovanni and Elena Park; Producers were Louisa Briccetti and Victoria Warivonchik. Released 2011, 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.



Handel Belshazzar opera to a libretto by Charles Jennens. Directed 2008 by Christof Nel with Martina Jochem at the Aix Festival. Stars Kenneth Tarver, Rosemary Joshua, Bejun Mehta, Kristina Hammarström, Neal Davies, Christina Sampson, Lucy Taylor, Andrew Radley, Richard Wilberforce, Vernon Kirk, and Andrew Davies. René Jacobs conducts the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and the RIAS Kammerchor (Chorus Master Tim Brown). Sets by Roland Aeschlimann; costumes by Bettina Walter; lighting by Olaf Freese; filmed by Don Kent. Released 2011, 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.


Beethoven Symphonies 7-9

Beethoven Symphonies 7-9 concert. Christian Thielemann conducts the Wiener Philharmoniker in Symphonies 7-9 for a total of 157 minutes of music. Soloists (9th Symphony) are Annette Dasch, Mihoko Fujimura, Piotr Beczala, and Georg Zeppenfeld. Michael Beyer was video director for Symphony 7 and 8, both recorded in 2009. Agnes Méth was video director for Symphony 9 recorded in 2010.

Also comes with three Discovering Beethoven documentary films, one for each symphony, with conversations between Thielemann and music critic Joachim Kaiser. The documentaries Symphony 7 and Symphony 8 were made by Christoph Engel. The documentary film Symphony 9 was made by Anca-Monica Pandelea & Christoph Engel. Each documentary lasts for almost an hour for a total of 169 minutes.

The total running time for the music and documentaries is 326 minutes on one disc. Released 2010, disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio for the music. Documentaries are in high-definition video with PCM stereo sound. Grade: Blended grade for three symphonies: B-

This is the third title in the C Major three-title set with all nine Beethoven symphonies. For general information, see the mini-reviews for the Symphonies 1-3 concert and the Symphonies 4-6 concert.  PQ and SQ for the last three symphonies is good to excellent. Bad video content remains the problem.

The records of Symphonies 7 and 8 are similar because both were filmed by Michael Beyer in 2009. I ran the numbers on Symphony No. 8. This piece lasts only 28 minutes, but there are 307 clips for blistering pace of 5.4 seconds per clip. There were 6 near-whole orchestra shots,  25 decent part orchestra views, and a number of multi-section clips. This proves that Beyer could have made an HDVD out of this. But he didn't take advantage of the opportunity. Instead there's the usual DVDitis road race with 153 shots of solos or small groups of players clustered around 76 shots of Thielemann, plus 26 instrument-only shots and lots of unnecessary panning and zooming about. So I'm going to give a C+ to Beyer's work on Symphonies 7 and 8.

Finally, there I just watched again the Agnes Méth video of Symphony 9 recorded in 2010.  Georg Zeppenfeld has the thrill of being the first singer in history to open his mouth in a Symphony No. 9 recorded for HDVD. Although others have criticized him, to me Zeppenfeld is aurally and visually up to the task. It was also fun to see Piotr Beczala (the Duca di Mantova in our Arthaus Rigoletto HDVD) sing tenor solo.

Well, if there was ever a time to exploit the capability of HD cameras to give a broad view of a symphony, it would be the monumental Beethoven Symphony 9. The cozy (cramped most would say) stage at the Golden Hall was packed solid with the agumented orchestra, big chorus, and 4 famous soloists.  Méth does give us enough whole ensemble and near-whole ensemble to prove that she also have made a fantastic HDVD. But again, she chose, or was not allowed, to do so. The film she made had to work for the DVD market first, and we get the left-overs. In addition to a road race, we also get road rage, i.e., she all but flogs her cameramen to keep the lenses moving. Something has to be happening at all times! Of course, you really can't very well pan or zoom the lone Thielemann standing on the podium. And there was one wonderful, still, quiet, long, steady shot of the four soloists singing together near the end of the Ode to Joy---no possible way to break that up! I should give Méth an even worse grade than Beyer; but the music here is in a class alone, so I'll relent and call this a "B."


Beethoven Symphonies 4-6

Beethoven Symphonies 4-6 concert. Christian Thielemann conducts the Wiener Philharmoniker in Symphonies 4-6 for a total of 133 minutes of music. Agnes Méth was video director for Symphony 4 recorded in 2009. Karina Fibich was video director for Symphony 5 and Symphony 6, both recorded in 2010.

Also comes with three  Discovering Beethoven documentary films, one for each symphony, with conversations between Thielemann and music critic Joachim Kaiser. All the documentary films were made by Christoph Engel. Each documentary lasts for almost an hour for a total of 171 minutes.

The total running time for the music and documentaries is 304 minutes on one disc. Released 2010, disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio for the music. Documentaries are in high-definition video with PCM stereo sound. Blended grade for 3 symphonies: C

This is the second title in the C Major three-title set with nine Beethoven symphonies. See the mini-review for the Beethoven Symphonies 1-3 concert for general information.

It's fun to see how the orchestra changes with each symphony (something you would never think about listening to CDs). For example, the Wiener Philharmoniker is still a pretty chauvinistic outfit. There is not a single woman on the stage for the Symphony 4 concert. But Symphony 5 requires larger forces, and 4 women get to join the men. Symphony 5 is the weightiest yet in the series: a contra-bassoon, a piccolo, a three trombones appear for the first time. And the bones are marshalled as scored: a tomboy sister alto, a big brother tenor, and a bigger papa bass.

I should also mention that the documentaries have clips of performances by other famous conductors of the past. For example, Thielemann and Kaiser discuss a short passage from Symphony 6 marked "più mosso" or "move a bit faster." Thielemann gives his opinion how to play it, and then you see recordings of the same passage by five other great conductors. Now lets focus on each of the symphonies on this disc.

Beethoven Symphony No. 4

This was shot by Agnes Méth in 2009 at the same time she recorded her Symphony No. 3 in this series. I said in that review that Méth was presenting a DVD in HDVD clothing, and I gave it a "C" grade. I urge you to read that review now.

I just finished watching subject Symphony No. 4 and feel that all the comments I made earlier generally apply also to it. I do note that the pace in  No. 4 is somewhat less feverish than it was in No. 3, no doubt due to the more lyrical nature of No. 4. I usually criticise the TV directors for paying too much attention to the conductors. But Méth's depiction of Thielemann leading the Adagio of No. 4 would be an exception---Thielemann looks as if he is begging for his life, and the musicians show mercy. 

Méth does in No. 4 give us quite a few whole-orchestra shots and a couple of nice part-orchestra views. I wonder if Méth ever worked as a striptease artist. She knows how to do it. When you notice the men are drowning in their beers, you show it all---but before they can look up and focus their bleary eyes on you, the feathers are already back in place. And so it is with Méth's long-range shots: before you can think "whow," the shot is over and it's back to an image of the bell of a trumpet. I don't want to be too harsh on Méth. The exaltation of promise over performance is every woman's best strategy in dealing with the horrors of men. But the fact remains she is not recording an exotic dancer in this video---no, we are watching one of the world's best symphony orchestras, so why not let us see them fully in all their glory? Again, Méth is not to blame; she was ordered by a suit to make a DVD. And now I tell the suit: it's no sin to make a DVD, but please don't foist it off as an HDVD.

In parting with Méth, I grant there is one cut at the end of No. 4 that is worthy of an HDVD. See 38:53 to 38:07. This starts with a 60% part-orchestra view followed by a slow zoom out to a beautiful 100% view that is then held for another 3 seconds (total 14 seconds). At 28 seconds, this would be twice as good, but it does get over the threshold of a nice HDVD shot. Grade: C

Beethoven Symphony No. 5

This was shot in 2010 by TV Director Karina Fibich. By 2010, the state-of-the-art for PQ had advanced pretty far, and the PQ here will probably not be improved on much until we get 4k resolution. The SQ is probably  better also that the previous titles in this series. Too bad, so sad---poor video content drags down everything as this record has a virulent case of DVDitis.

All the horrible symtoms are there in the 388 video views I count:  the high fever of a change of video view every 5.4 seconds (on average),  94 conductor shots (24% of the show) including 37 low-blood-pressure shots made over the backs of the musicians, and 42 morbid instrument-only views. The patient can't keep his balance due to excessive panning and zooming around that makes his frame shutter. His body has been wasted by a diet of junk food consisting of short videos of solo players or small parts of the orchestra. None of his most important organs (the 1st violins, 2 violins, and the violas) appear to have ever been exercised. Nine attempts to do a whole-body scan of the patient all failed because the hospital camera was not located in a position where it could accurately see the patient. Even a candy-striper on her first day could tell that this poor soul will not survive even if the clinic spends his last dime trying to keep him alive. (If you are having trouble following this, please excuse me for trying to be funny. Read our standards for a symphony HDVD and everything should then be clear.) Grade: C

Beethoven Symphony No.  6

I did complete written "numbers" on the Fibich No. 5 above; I then played No. 6 yet another time more for enjoyment. It's such a beautiful performance sonic wise! The PQ remains high. Sadly, the video content is consistent with way Fibich recorded her  No. 5. I imagine it makes for an "A" quality DVD. I imagine the HDVD is "better" than the DVD because of the improvement in resolution. But it's still a mediocre HDVD. It doesn't follow Huang's law that a good HDVD should "use the flexible power of the the high-def camera to get a pleasant (not hyperactive) mixture of shots of the whole orchestra, groups of sections, large sections, small sections, groups of sections and individuals, and solo players---depending on what forces the composer commits at various places in the score." Grade: C


Beethoven Symphonies 1-3

Beethoven Symphonies 1-3 concert. Christian Thielemann conducts the Wiener Philharmoniker in Symphonies 1-3, plus the Coriolan Overture and the Egmont Overture, for a total of 156 minutes of music. Brian Large was video director for Symphonies 1 & 2 and the Coriolan, all recorded in 2008. Agnes Méth was video director for Symphony 3 and the Egmont, both recorded in 2009.

Also comes with two Discovering Beethoven documentary films with conversations between Thielemann and music critic Joachim Kaiser. The documentary film Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 2 was made by Christoph Engel. The documentary film Symphony No. 3 was made by Anca-Monica Pandelea & Christoph Engel. Each documentary lasts for almost an hour for a total of 170 minutes.

The total running time for the music and documentaries is 326 minutes on one disc. Released  2010, disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio for the music. Documentaries are in high-definition video with PCM stereo sound. Blended grade for 3 symphonies: B-

This title is the first in a set of three separate titles that will present all 9 Beethoven Symphonies + two overtures + 9 hours of commentary by Thielemann and music critic Joachim Kaiser. The recordings were made in live concerts from 2008 through 2010. This was an ambitious project: all of Beethoven's symphonies in high-definition video and lossless quality sound played in the world's most prestigious music venue by one of the best orchestra in the world led by one the the best conductors---all bolstered by documentary analysis!

Magisterial Thielemann set out to lead the Wiener Philharmoniker in series of concerts and recordings of historical importance. The musicians (you see considerable variation in forces required and personnel used)  responded magnificently. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of LPs, CDs, and DVDs of the Beethoven symphonies with many wonderful performances and interpretations by scores of famous conductors. There are many sets of all 9 symphonies. True music lovers will cherish their favorite finds. But how many of these legacies titles are available in lossless surround sound? The recordings in this set would likely all qualify for the "super audio corner" at Gramophone magazine, even if they would not be fully competitive with the best 96kHz/24bit orchestral recordings we have from NHK.

The picture quality of these recordings is good to very good.   Symphonies 1 and 2 were shot by Brian Large, one of the best in the business. Large's handling of light level control, color reproduction, presence of video detail, field of focus, and video editing is completely satisfying. The light level in the Agnes Méth video of Symphony 3 is a bit too high for my taste which seem to result in reduced video resolution.

But alas, there are serious reservations about the video content which will require us to reduce our grades from the A level that these titles might have earned otherwise. These downgrades will be the main subject of the individual reviews that follow.

We have written extensively on this site about the characteristics of a good HDVD of a symphonic work. A good HDVD follows Huang's law: "Use the flexible power of the the high-def camera to get a pleasant (not hyperactive) mixture of shots of the whole orchestra, groups of sections, large sections, small sections, groups of sections and individuals, and solo players---depending on what forces the composer commits at various places in the score." In other words, give the viewer as much visual information as possible (just like being there) and only go in for close-ups when there's a specific reason.

You can't follow Huang's law in a DVD. The low resolution of the DVD camera makes it difficult or impossible to get a decent image of a whole symphonic orchestra. This pretty much forces the DVD director to make a movie by stringing together a long series of close-ups of "easy targets." We call this a "road runner race" in honor of the Road Runner cartoons. If you shoot a great DVD, it will be a bad HDVD. If you shoot a great HDVD, it will not look good in DVD.

Beethoven Symphony No. 1

No video can be both a great DVD and a great HDVD. But the TV Director can try for a hybrid, and I think this is what Brian Large was attempting in 2008 (long ago) with his Symphony No. 1. I count 234 cuts here, which works out to be 7.2 seconds on average for each cut. That's slow for a DVD, but also about twice as fast as the state-of-the-art Schumann Piano Concerto HDVD from NHK,  So I would call 7.2 seconds per cut a hybrid pace. To Large's everlasting credit, he includes 14 nice whole-orchestra views and 16 decent part-orchestra views. But we note these large-scale shots, which should last 10 to 30 seconds each in a good HDVD, tend here to last 4 to 7 seconds. So Large had the right idea, but he doesn't give you enough time to enjoy it. (If he gave more time, the folks watching the DVD version would become too aware of the rotten DVD resolution of the picture at such long range.)

Large also comes up with some mid-range shots that visually connect whole sections to the music they are making. See for example 06:25 to 06:41 for a long, beautiful shot of the whole 1st violin section taking and releasing the lead several times in an intricate and delicate passage with the other strings. This is the kind of state-of-the-art videography that HD cameras now make possible. I note also that Large's cameramen know how to follow the score and pan through heavy traffic without causing motion artefacts. Few seem to have the skill to do this.

But Large's take here has other features that he inherited from all those DVDs he has made.  There are way too many conductor shots including 17 shots of Thielemann made over the backs of musicians, something we find inexcusable in HDVD. There are still a lot of shots of solos or tiny groups of musicians alternating with the conductor views. And then there are the 6 instrument-only views and 3 shots of the back of the head of string players.

I conclude that this show beats a DVD in PQ and the video content, but still falls short of what we should expect if a show is correctly shot solely for HDVD.  Grade: B

Beethoven Symphony No. 2

The video content here, also from Brain Large, is very similar the Beethoven Symphony No. 2.   Grade: B

Beethoven Symphony No. 3

Large produced hybrids for the first two symphonies; for Symphony No. 3, Agnes Méth comes up with video content that is pure DVD. It's hard to believe, but I have documented a count of no less than 612 cuts for Méth's No. 3 (vs. 234 cuts for the Large No. 1). True, No. 3 is considerably longer than the earlier symphonies. The average cut in No. 3 lasts 5.6 seconds (vs. 7.3 seconds  for the Large No. 1 and 14.5 seconds for the NHK Schumann Piano Concerto.) Stated differently, this Méth recording has a pace almost 3 times as fast as Schumann Concerto that we regard as a model HDVD.

Let's not forget that the live spectator sees Symphony No. 3 in one cut. But with the Méth recording, the viewer has to deal with 612 video events in less than a hour. This is a huge overhead for the brain to process just to keep track of what is happening. How much energy is left to hear and enjoy the music? There are an astonishing 139 frames with just an instrument (sometimes a chin at the top.) Folks, once you have seen a picture of a clarinet fill a HDVD screen, you really never need to see it again. We know what a clarinet looks like, and we know what human hands look like. But these lazy, worthless shots are popular with DVD cameramen because they are easy to set up and hard to mess up.  Following the standard DVD approach, there are 132 cuts just of the conductor, over half of of which are made over the backs of musicians. No conductor, not even the intelligent and expressive Thielemann, is that interesting. And I'll submit that the backs of musicians are even less interesting than a conductor.

True, Méth does sneak in 25 whole-orchestra shots. But they tend to be shorter than the average cut. There are a few part-orchestra views, but there is no attention given to larger sections except the bass violins that are easy shoot from the side all standing in a row like soldiers at attention.

Finally, Méth over-exposed the cameras for a slightly washed-out picture. The resolution is a bit soft compared to what I got used to in the Large videos.

I conclude Méth's S No. 3 suffers from a severe case of DVDitis and gets Grade: C.


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