Titles by Category

Here's news about high-definition video recordings of opera, ballet, classical music, plays, fine-art documentaries, and paintings. 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.

December 2. I just posted a review of the 2016 Royal Ballet Nutcracker. We have on our Alphalist a thorough rundown and grade on each of the 10 Nutcracker Blu-rays you could order for a Christmas present!

I just updated and added screenshots to the Priory title The Grand Organ of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. Finally we have reported on all 5 of the Priory organ Blu-rays. These exemplary recordings include a Blu-ray video, a DVD video, and a CD! Each of these titles has a fine program of organ music played by virtuoso musicians. In addition, there are fabulous bonus extras with information about the cathedrals, the towns where they are located, the details of each organ instrument, and a discussion of each selection that is played in the recital. Never before was so much value in recordings conveyed for such a modest price.  To see information on all these Priory titles, just go to the left navigation bar and click on "Priory" under "Titles by Publisher." Then all 5 Priory stories will be instantly produced for your enjoyment! _______________________________________________________________________________


The Grand Organ of Gloucester Cathedral

Jonathan Hope plays the following selections on the grand organ of the Gloucester Cathedral:

1. Purcell arr. Hope "Two Trumpet Tunes and Air"
2. J. S. Bach "Toccata and Fugue" in D minor
3. Ralph Vaughan Williams "Rhosymedre"
4. Paul Dukas arr. Hope The Sorcerer's Apprentice
5. Handel "Organ Concerto No. 13" in F (movements 1 and 2)
6. Pierre Cochereau trans. Filsell "Final" (from Symphonie de Boston)
7. Liszt arr. Rogg "St Francis of Paola Walking on the Waves"
8. Herbert Howells "Psalm Prelude Set 2 No. 1"
9. Elgar arr. Lemare "Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D"

Priory specializes in church and organ music. This package has a Blu-ray, a DVD, and a CD!  Recorded and produced by Paul Crichton; filmed and edited by Richard Knight; Associate Producer was Callum Ross; Executive Producer was Neil Collier. Released 2016, disc has 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound. Grade: A-

Here we have another in the series of titles from Priory about English cathedral grand organs. This one is found at the Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester, near the Welsh border. The cathedral was built in 1089, and the organ itself dates to 1666. Here you can see it rising above the town and the English countryside:

Below are two shots of the cathedral from different sides:

A menacing gargoyle looms:

Below we see the main case of the organ from two sides of the same hall:


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John Cage - Music for Speaking Percussionist

John Cage Music for Speaking Percussionist compilation. (Also called The Works for Percussion 4 by Mode Records). Performed 2010-2011 at the University of California, San Diego. Features percussionists Bonnie Whiting and Allen Otte. Recorded and edited by Josef Kucera; directed, filmed, and edited by Anton Cabaleiro; produced by Allen Otte and Brian Brandt. Released 2017, disc has uncompressed 48kHz/24-bit PCM stereo sound. (We usually exclude Blu-ray titles with only stereo sound. But we do make exceptions for classical music soloists when the recording otherwise has some special merit. Here we have a famous [among lovers of contemporary music anyway] percussionists performing rarely [or never-before] recorded works with instruments that would probably not benefit much or at all from surround sound. (This is our first title from Mode Records, which is the brainchild of Brian Brandt. Brandt is himself interviewed in another Blu-ray on our Alphlist, the John Cage - Journeys in Sound from Accentus Recordings.)  Grade: A-

There are five pieces of music on this disc:

  • A Flower. (1950) A short "traditional piece" composed by Cage played by singing while tapping on the closed keyboard lid of a piano.
  • The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs. (1942) Another short Cage piece for singer and closed-keyboard-lid.
  • 51'15.657'' for a speaking percussionist by Bonnie Whiting. (2010) Note that "51'15.657'' refers to the length of the piece - 51 minutes and 15.657 seconds. 
  • Music for Two (By One) by Bonnie Whiting. (2011) The two Whiting works are "mashups" of pieces previously written by Cage. These previously-written Cage pieces were not meant to played straight through. Cage intended that future composers would take excerpts from them, combine them in different ways, and take credit for the new work.
  • Connecting Egypt to Madison through Columbus Ohio, Cage, and the History of the American Labor Movement by Allen Otte. (2011) This piece lasts 7'18" and incorporates Music for Marcel Duchamp and Variations 2 by Cage.

The disc also has a valuable 73-minute extra feature of a conversation between Whiting and Otte (her former professor) in which they discuss how Cage notated the works listed above and how he intended them to be used. Finally, the keepcase booklet has 10 (CD sized) pages of information in small print about Cage's composition methods and how performers today turn the scores into performances.

This title will be a special treat for fans of Cage and contemporary music. It can also serve as an excellent introduction to Cage for adventuresome viewers who have maybe heard about Cage but don't know what all the fuss is about. Or was about---Cage started inventing his music before before broadcast TV (in black and white) arrived and he died in 1992. He is now called "post-war (that's WWII) avant garde."

Time for screenshots. Below is Bonnie Whiting playing A Flower on a closed piano. This was invented for 2 performers, a singer and pianist, but Bonnie does it all. Why "invented" in the previous sentence? Schoenberg, who was for sure a composer, helped train Cage. Because Cage had little interest in harmony, Schoenberg called him an "inventor" rather than composer:

A close-up of Whiting as she sings A Flower (which is a song without words):

Below is the complete rig for 51'15.657'' for a speaking percussionist, which includes traditional instruments along with quite a few everyday household objects like pot lids. Apparently Cage did not specify what instruments the performer would use for 51'15.657'' and Music for Two (By One) except to require one or more instruments that are made of metal, wood, skin (drum), or something else.  In the image below, Whiting speaks, rather dramatically, about the philosophy of music creation (we think) :

A better shot of the chandelier of what appears to be cooking containers and pot lids. Also you can see a blue and pink buzzer from the children's game Taboo:


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John Cage - Journeys in Sound

John Cage - Journeys in Sound documentary film. Directed by Allan Miller and Paul Smaczny to mark the composer's centenary. The film has interviews with Wiliam Anastasi, Irvine Arditti, Dove Bradshaw, Brian Brandt, Merce Cunningham, Julia Henning, Toshio Hosokawa, John Lennon, Mayumi Miyata, Yoko Ono, Wolfgang Rihm, Steffen Schleiermacher, Calvin Tomkins, David Tudor, Christian Wolff, the Ensemble Modern, Schlagquartett Köln, and others. Written by Anne-Kathrin Peitz; edited by Steffen Hermann; produced by Paul Smaczny. Released 2012, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B

In 2012, this disc won the "Best Documentary" award at the International Golden Prague Festival. It also won the 2013 International Classical Music Award for best "DVD Documentary." (No confusion -two different awards.)

To say that John Cage (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992) is a controversial figure in the world of composers is hardly a controversial statement. This documentary, I suspect, won't go far in changing the minds of those who believe that Cage was either a genius or a fraud. What this documentary can give viewers is some understanding of who Cage was and why his unusual composing style resonates with many.

Below is an example of a prepared piano:

The documentary follows the same structure as other fine-arts documentaries we have reviewed. There is no narrator. The film is split roughly into thirds: one-third legacy material of interviews with Cage; one-third modern interviews with those who knew Cage and have been influenced by him; and one-third modern snippets of his work being performed by musicians. The legacy materials are not high-def, but the portions filmed recently are. One of the modern interviewees is Brian Brandt - the man behind Mode Records, which has released the excellent John Cage - Music for Speaking Percussionist.

The film does a good job of explaining the thinking behind Cage's techniques and methodologies, both in his early period of percussion pieces and works with prepared pianos and in his later, more avant-garde work with chance compositions. Cage's work with chance compositions - the creation of pieces with help from random number generators like the I Ching - attempts to pursue pure sound. Cage intended to let sound speak for itself and did not want his personality to shape these chance compositions. The value of this process is up to the listener. (Though most of the interviewees speak highly of Cage and his peculiar compositional style, there is one who is critical. He states that as Cage and his works become more and more radical in their abandonment of traditional musical language, the compositions themselves no longer serve as music, but more as a statement of ideals. No longer is Cage writing music, but manifestos.)

Next below, Steffen Schleiermacher performing Water Music:

Here is the Cage invented scoring system for Water Music. It was printed so large to allow the audience to see the score before the performance:


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Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto & Sibelius Symphony No. 5

Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and Sibelius  Symphony No. 5 concert. The Beethoven Leonore Overture No. 3 is also on the program.  Joshua Bell is soloist for the violin concerto. Sakari Oramo conducts the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. Directed for TV by Michael Beyer; produced by  Paul Smaczny. Released 2011, disc has 5.1 Dolby Digital and dts-HD sound. Grade: A for Violin Concerto. Grade D for Sibelius Symphony No. 5.

This was the Nobel Prize concert for 2010. In the audience was the Swedish royal family and tons of smart people there to receive Nobel prize checks.  The video editors often include shots of famous people seen in the audience. The only problem is that I rarely know who they are. I wish the publishers would identify somehow the famous people seen in the audience!

I do think the beautiful lady in my first screenshot below is Queen Silvia of Sweden. She was a German citizen and a commoner when she met the man who would eventually be King of Sweden. She must be pretty smart too since Swedish became her 6th language. (If the picture below is not Silvia, please let me know!)

I originally auditioned this title back in 2011 and wrote a short, superficial review. This was before we decided how grade a video of a violin concerto. I was also completely stumped by Sibelius. So now it's time to improve the review of this title. The next screenshot below is a nice opening whole-orchestra shot that let's you see where all the different instruments are located (playing Leonore Overture No. 3 as warm-up):

Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto

The next two shots of Bell are called "realistic" because they can be seen by members of the live audience:

This view is too close for a member of the audience to see. But we still call this "realistic" because it clearly shows bowing and fingering:

Shots from the back are un-realistic:

And this shot is also unrealistic because you can't see the strings clearly:


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Beethoven Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 (Karajan Memorial Concert)

Beethoven Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6---Herbert von Karajan Memorial Concert. Seiji Osawa conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in 2008 at the Großer Muzikvereinssaal in Vienna to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Herbert von Karajan:

1. Anne-Sophie Mutter is soloist in the Beethoven Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

2. As encore, Mutter plays the Bach Partita for Solo Violin No. 2 

3. Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 "Pathétique"

Produced by Michael Heinzl; video direction by Agnes Méth; director of photography was Alexander Stangl; video editing by Gernot Arendt; sound recording by Gregor Hornacek; sound editing by Florian Camerer. Released  2008,  disc has 5.1 PCM sound. For Beethoven  Grade: A-     For Tchaikovsky  Grade: B

Beethoven Violin Concerto

When this disc first came out in 2009 (almost 9 years ago) both Gordon Smith and I were both swept away. Here's Gordon's review of Mutter's performance at the time:

We have all enjoyed Beethoven's Violin Concerto many times live, on CD, and perhaps on TV or on DVD. But this performance, with all the glory of HDVD sound and vision, is a whole new experience! Not only does the Berlin Philharmonic play with the poise and ensemble of a chamber group, but Seiji Ozawa coaxes the most expressive phrasing out of them, surpassed only by Anne-Sophie Mutter herself.

And with Mutter's phrasing and expression, she brings a whole new reading and meaning to this war horse. HDVD makes the experience more immediate than ever before. The extreme close-ups of the violin and Mutter's finger work gives us a real "violinist's view" of the piece. You can't get this intimate relationship with the music and the process of playing it with a CD recording or even at a live performance! Well, maybe if you could come up with a ticket on the front row you could see Mutter about as well, but even then you would miss all the individual contributions from the orchestral players which are brought out so expertly in this video.

To see a work like this, with performers of this calibre, in such a way, is a unique privilege to savour again and again---which you can now do in your own home theatre. This recording is a monument and a worthy tribute to Herbert Von Karajan. He was a pioneer of televised concerts. He would certainly admire this production.  Gordon Smith, of Opera Dou.

Since 2009, hundreds of symphony titles, including many violin concertos, have been published in Blu-ray. We have worked up standards for reviewing these recordings. We also have developed the Wonk Worksheet and Instructions for the Wonk Worksheet. So it's time for an update. But before I get into statistics, let's enjoy some screenshots. Every Blu-ray recording of a symphony piece should start with whole orchestra (WO) shots to help the viewer see where the various musicians are located on the stage. Next below is a decent initial WO shot. By today's standards, the resolution is soft; fortunately, the Golden Hall has good risers to show off a symphony orchestra:

The next 3 shots below are what we call "realistic views" of the violin soloist:

You would have to have a front-center seat in the hall to have this view live. As long as the video image shows the waist and up of the violinist, we call this realistic:

The next view below is not realistic since nobody in the audience could see it. The Golden Hall is a cramped space and this inspires videographers to try a lot of shots from the rear and side:

This next view is also not realistic:

So what about this next shot below? Well, it's way to close to be seen by a member of the audience. But shots that clearly show the bowing and fingering of the violin have an irresistable appeal to viewers in the home theater. So we acknowlege these as "high-value" views and count them also as realistic:


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Der Fliegende Holländer

Wagner Der Fliegende Holländer opera to a libretto by the composer. Directed 2016 by Àlex Ollé at the Teatro Real de Madrid. Stars Samuel Youn (Der Holländer), Ingela Brimberg (Senta), Kwangchul Youn (Daland), Nikolai Schukoff (Erik), Benjamin Bruns (Der Steuermann), and Kai Rüütel (Mary). Pablo Heras-Casado conducts the Orchestra and chorus of Teatro Real de Madrid (Chorus Master Andrés Máspero). Sets by Alfons Flores; costumes by Josep Abril; lighting by Urs Schönebaum; videos by Franc Aleu; filmed by Stéphane Vérité; produced by Jean-Romain Sales. Released 2017. Grade: Help!

Early information needs confirmation and completion.

Below find the entire opera uploaded to YouTube by French media company Culturebox. Normally at this point our goal is to have a review with screenshots to help you decide if you are interested in the title in question. But with the whole opera uploaded by an official source, you can watch now as much as you want.


We know that streaming of fine-arts material is now being done, but what about the quality and versatility of the stream?

We originally found this long clip by searching YouTube from a desktop PC. When approached this way, YouTube tells you the ID is "ywkSXsiRBPY." We embedded this in our HTML code to provide you with a link. We then viewed portions of this on two different computer monitors. The picture quality is decidedly better than that of a standard DVD, but falls just short of what you'd expect from a Blu-ray. The picture is just a bit too soft. Also, one of our PCs was too old to provide a completely smooth viewing experience.

Next we found this opera clip on a high-end Smart TV. The YouTube application on the TV didn't accept the ID "ywkSXsiRBPY." We had to do a Boolean search (in French). It took a while to wade through a bunch of other clips of Der Fliegende Holländer before we could find the Culturebox upload. Perhaps a typical consumer would give up when faced with a problematical search such as this. Picture quality on the big TV was also a tad soft compared to how we would expect a Blu-ray picture to appear.

All this suggests that streaming still has a way to go before being competitive with the images we are used to from Blu-ray discs.  There are other benefits to having the Blu-ray as well: the subtitles of your choice, full surround sound (instead of stereo or mono from a stream),  more flexibility in jumping back and forth throughout the opera (as well as in starting and stopping), and an informational booklet. But one can hardly complain about a free, nearly-Blu-ray-quality option to at least test the product. Hopefully we see more of this sort of thing in the future.


Brahms Violin Concerto

Brahms Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 4 concert. Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Cleveland Orchestra in 2014 at Severance Hall, Cleveland. The disc also includes Brahms Academic Festival Overture. Julia Fischer is the violin soloist. This disc also is available as part of a box set with Brahms' most famous symphonic works. Audio Producer Elaine Mortone; TV Director William Cosel; Producer Herbert G. Kloiber. Released 2017, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: For the Violin Concerto: A   For Symphony No. 4: D-  (The Academic Festival Overture is not reviewed.)

Brahms Violin Concerto

Here's a shot of the whole orchestra (WO) in warm-up before Julia Fischer comes out. It's great to have a chance early to see where all the musicians are sitting. The resolution, however, is only good --- not the best:

The concerto is beginning and we get yet another WO view of the various sections - how nice!

And now a part orchestra (PO) shot with a closer view of the cellos and basses:

Julia Fischer had been an A level violin soloist for over a decade when she made this recording. She was also a concert pianist who could play most of the famous piano concertos (usually with top student orchestras or other special groups). Finally, she was a professor teaching at the university level in Munich.  A busy lady, she still had the energy to find Brahms' passion lurking within his classical concerto form. Following are 2 "realistic" shots of Fischer as soloist:

Next below is a "non-realistic" shot. This is not a view a member of the audience could have, so we deem it to be of lower value than the realistic images:


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Shakespeare Hamlet play. Kenneth Branagh directed this motion picture in 1996 in widescreen 70mm. It was released in Blu-ray in 2010, and it still looks wonderful in 2017. Stars Riz Abbasi (Attendant to Claudius), Richard Attenborough (English Ambassador), David Blair (Attendant to Claudius), Brian Blessed (Ghost of Hamlet's Father), Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet), Richard Briers (Polonius), Michael Bryant (Priest), Peter Bygott (Attendant to Claudius), Julie Christie (Gertrude), Billy Crystal (First Gravedigger), Charles Daish (Stage Manager), Judi Dench (Hecuba), Gérard Depardieu (Reynaldo), Reece Dinsdale (Guildenstern), Ken Dodd (Yorick), Angela Douglas (Attendant to Gertrude), Rob Edwards (Lucianus), Nicholas Farrell (Horatio), Ray Fearon (Fracisco), Yvonne Gidden (Doctor), John Gielgud (Priam), Rosemary Harris (Player Queen), Charlton Heston (Player King), Ravil Isyanov (Cornelius), Derek Jacobi (Claudius), Rowena King (Attendant to Gertrude), Jeffery Kissoon (Fortinbras's Captain), Sarah Lam (Attendant to Gertrude), Jack Lemmon (Marcellus), Ian McElhinney (Barnardo), Michael Maloney (Laertes), John Spencer-Churchill, The Duke of Malborough (Fortinbras's General), John Mills (Old Norway), Jimi Mistry (Sailor Two), Sian Radinger (Prologue), Simon Russell Beale (Second Gravedigger), Andrew Schofield (Young Lord), Rufus Sewell (Fortinbras), Timothy Spall (Rosencrantz), Tom Szekeres (Young Hamlet), Ben Thom (First Player), Don Warrington (Voltimand), Perdita Weeks (Second Player), Robin Williams (Osric), Kate Winslet (Ophelia), and David Yip (Sailor One).

There's a lot of information on this single disc. The movie lasts 242 minutes and there are several mildly interesting extra features. The default language setting is an English soundtrack in 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio surround. There is a French soundtrack in 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound. In addition, there are German, Castilian, and Spanish sound tracks in Dolby Digital stereo. So take your pick of sound tracks and then you can also have subtitles in English, French, German, Castilian, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, or Finnish! Finally, you can watch the whole show with a running commentary from Branagh and expert Russell Jackson, a feature that is popular with motion pictures but unusual for fine-art HDVDs.

While neither the packaging nor the disc has a statement made about region restrictions, the American release seems region-free and should play just fine on any player. But Warner Bros. has released separate German, French, and Spanish language versions for those markets and maybe other versions we don't know about. These other versions might not be region-free. So buyer beware. Grade: A+

This stupendous movie is Hamlet heavy. It has every line of the play that is found in any Shakespeare source. I don't have expert knowledge of Shakespeare, but I've probably read and seen the play as many as 15 times. There was quite a bit in this movie that was new to me as well as scenes I know of that are often cut. So this version is likely to be the reference for all of us Shakespeare amateurs in the future. The movie is exemplary in every way and still looks and sounds great after 20 years. It's fun to try to spot all the famous actors that appear, many in bit roles. (At the end of this review we have a game for you to play - see how many famous actors you can identify.)

This came out some time ago, and about 850 amazon.com customers in the U.S. have written reports, mostly highly favorable. But there was also criticism of Branagh's acting and the length of the work. I also wonder about the updating to the era of the Industrial Revolution. Modern times are inconsistent with plot elements such as the ghost, the poisoning, the sword fight, and the executions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by the English based on a letter. But these are quibbles. This HDVD should be in the collection of anyone who wants to tackle Shakespeare, and it gets an A+. (Having said all these nice things about Branagh's film, I also think there's room in the market for a Hamlet movie shot in a medieval setting.  And, of course, we also should have HDVDs made of stage productions of Hamlet. )

Now for a few screenshots and our trivia game. Below we see the Ghost of Hamlet's Father, an imposing figure with suitably eerie lighting as a backdrop:

The main court of the palace on full display for the wedding of Claudius and Gertrude:

Meanwhile, Hamlet sulks alone:

Hamlet begins to go "mad" with a skeleton mask:

And the camera slowly zooms out on Hamlet alone among the mountains (I don't think there are mountains like this in Denmark):

Laertes and Hamlet duel in the palace:


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Stravinksy Le Sacre du Printemps and Debussy La Mer

Stravinksy Le Sacre du Printemps and Debussy La Mer concert. Daniele Gatti conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, 2017. Also included is Debussy Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Video shot at 1080p 24 fps. Music was recorded with 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling. Released 2017, disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

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Mahler Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection"

Mahler Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection". Daniele Gatti conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra & Netherlands Radio Choir at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam (Chorus Master Klaas Stok) in 2016. Singers are Chen Reiss (soprano) and Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano). Released 2017, disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound and 9.0 Auro-3D sound. Grade: Help!

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