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! _______________________________________________________________________________

Thursday
Oct262017

Only the Sound Remains

Kaija Saariaho Only the Sound Remains double-bill opera. The two operas are Always Strong and Feather Mantle, both based on traditional Noh plays from Japan, with Saariaho contributing the libretto and music for each.  Directed 2016 by Peter Sellars at the Dutch National Opera. Stars Philippe Jaroussky (Ghost/Angel) and Davóne Tines (Priest/Fisherman). Also stars dancer Nora Kimball-Mentzos. André De Ridder conducts the Dudok Kwartet (string quartet) and four singers from the Dutch Chamber Choir. Scenography by Julie Mehretu; costumes by Robby Duiveman; lighting by James F. Ingalls; choreography by Nora Kimball-Mentzos; computer music design by Christophe Lebreton; and sound projection by David Poissonnier. Released 2017, disc has 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Grade: Help!

Neither the stories nor the music here appear to owe much to the Western canon. Saariado trucks with the ethereal, not the dramatic. Critics find this production either (1) boring and unengaging or (2) mesmerizingly beautiful and transporting. Since not many Westerners are familiar with Noh, here is a synopsis for each opera:

Always Strong
Sodzu Gyokei, a priest serving at the temple of the royal court, is praying for Tsunemasa, who died in the battle of the Western Seas. Tsunemasa was a favourite of the Emperor, who had given him a lute named Seizan (Blue Mountain). Gyokei now offers the instrument at the altar of the deceased, performing a service for the salvation of his soul. While the prayers and music for Tsunemasa to become a Buddha resonate, the faint shadow of a man appears. Gyokei asks who it is, and the shadow replies that he is the ghost of Tsunemasa, lured there by the sound of the prayers. Then the shadow vanishes and only the sound of his voice remains, telling the priest how it misses the old days. This happy moment, however, is short-lived. Tsunemasa’s ghost is tormented by visions of the battle in which he fought. He wants the lights to be extinguished and disappears.

Feather Mantle
One spring morning, as the fisherman Hakuryo sets out to go fishing with his companions, he finds a beautiful feather robe hanging on a pine branch. When he plans to take it home, a Tennin (angel) appears and asks him to return the robe to her. At first Hakuryo refuses. But he is moved by the angel’s lament that she cannot go back to heaven without it. He will give her the robe in return for seeing her perform a celestial dance. When the fisherman again expresses distrust, she responds: ‘Doubt is for mortals; with us there is no deceit.’ The Tennin dances in the feather robe; one of the dances represents the waxing and waning of the moon. Eventually she disappears in the haze beyond the peak of Mount Fuji.

And here is a trailer:

 

 

Wednesday
Oct252017

Brahms Piano Concertos Nos. 1 - 2

Brahms Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Cleveland Orchestra in 2015 at Severance Hall, Cleveland. Yefim Bronfman is the Piano soloist. The disc also includes Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn and Tragic Overture. This disc is available as part of a box set with Brahms' most famous symphonic works. Audio Producer Christoph Claßen; TV Director William Cosel; Producer Herbert G. Kloiber.  Released 2017, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

Please help us with a comment or review of this title!

Tuesday
Oct242017

Paris Opera Ballet Box Set

Paris Opera Ballet box set released 2017. Below are the discs. Each of them has already been reported on this website, and you can get more details by using the links provided:

1. Orpheus und Eurydike. 2009. (Grade: A+)

2. Rain. 2015. (Grade: B+)

3. Tribute to Jerome Robbins. 2011. (Grade: A) 

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Tuesday
Oct242017

Der Rosenkavalier

Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier opera to libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Directed 2017 by Robert Carsen at the The Metropolitan Opera. Stars Elīna Garanča (Octavian), Renée Fleming (Marschallin), Günther Groissböck (Baron Ochs), Erin Morley (Sophie), Markus Brück (Herr von Faninal), and Matthew Polenzani (An Italian singer). Sebastian Weigle conducts the The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus. Released 2017. Grade: Help!

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

Monday
Oct232017

Mahler Symphony No. 10

 Pieces performed are:

1.  Mahler Symphony No. 10 (Clinton Carpenter version)

2.  Qigang Chen: Wu Xing (Five Elements)

Lan Shui conducts the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in 2009. TV direction by Ruth Käch. Released 2010, this disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio surround sound. Grade: F

Mahler only completed the first movement  - the famous Adagio -  of what was intended to be his 10th symphony. This recording is of a Symphony No. 10 as completed by Clinton Carpenter. This title remains (October 2017) the only video of a Carpenter version of Mahler 10. Qigang Chen is a native of China who became a French citizen. He is a prolific composer, and Wu Xing (Five Elements ) is one of his better known works.

Singapore, a tiny polyglot nation of 5 million souls, has one of the most successful economies on earth. It has a symphony orchestra that is working its way up playing western classical music. This title came out in 2010. This recording reveals that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra had in 2009 yet more steep slopes to climb before it could compete with groups like the Berlin Philharmoniker, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and the Saito Kinen Orchestra from Japan. The playing and sound recording is weak and a bit painful to hear. Now let's discuss details from both pieces on the program.

Mahler Symphony No. 10 - Carpenter Version

Our first screenshot is one of several whole-orchestra shots. The resolution is very soft, almost like a DVD. The playing of the band is that of a semi-pro or an aggressive amateur group. The SQ is generally dry and thin:

Conductor Lan Shui:

One of a number of multiple-subject, trick-photography images, this time with the conductor's face included:

A conductor-over-backs shot is next below:

The close-ups are quite pleasing:

And next below is an excellent multi-section angle:

But there are quiet a few shots with serious errors such as the poor framing in the next two images below:

What we have seen so far would indicate a mediocre video made on a limited budget. But later in the film I get the impression this video may have been some kind of teaching vehicle. The next 7 images smack of student experiments or stunts that somehow got taken seriously. In the last 14 minutes of this film of Mahler 10, there are 7 "white out" segments similar to the final screenshots:

The next images were made, I think, by pointing cameras into bright lights to burn out the sensors for a "psychedelic" effect:

I recently ran the numbers on this Mahler 10 in a Classical Music Wonk Worksheet.

There are 79 minutes, 42 seconds of music divided into 401 video clips. This yields a comfortable pace of 12 seconds per clip.

Here's the clip breakdown:

Conductor shots = 112
Conductor-over-backs shots = 16
Solo and other small-scale clips = 164
*Large-scale clips = 28
*Part-orchestra clips = 2
*Whole-orchestra clips = 17
Instrument-only clips = 45
Other low-value shots = 17 (including anthills, trick photography images, and "whiteouts")
*Other high value=0

There are only 47 "supershots" (add up the * numbers above of 28+2+17=47). So the supershots are only 10% of the total clips (128/401). Conductor shots total 128 (112+16), and conductor shots use up 32% of the clips (128/401).

HDVDarts.com has established the following rules-of-thumb to identify a Blu-ray with DVDitis:

A good symphony HDVD should have a slow pace with more than 10 seconds per video clip on average. 20 to 40% of the clips should be large-scale "supershots." Conductor shots should be less (way less really) than 20% of the clips in the video.

Subject title passes the pace test (with the help of many long panning and zooming shots). But it resoundingly flunks the test for supershots and conductor views. These bad results together with the huge number of IO shots, the many anthills, and the inexplicable 7 white-out events at the end of the piece make this the worst video that has come to my attention in the almost 8 years we have been reviewing fine-arts videos.

Now for a grade. This video was released on the Avie label, an enterprise that lets artists retain ownership of the rights and profits while publishing their work. So now you get the picture: this release was not vetted by anyone for commercial viability. Maybe it's a vanity piece. Maybe it was a pet project of someone in the Singapore government. This recording could not have been released by anyone with something to lose. The only grade for this in an F. Still, you might still find it worthwhile if you have a special interest in Singapore or the Carpenter version of Mahler 10.

Wu Xing (Five Elements)

Five Elements is an interesting composition which lasts about 13 minutes and celebrates (1) Water, (2) Wood, (3) Fire, (4) Earth, and (5) Metal. It's much better played by the SSO than the Mahler 10. But the video is a disaster. The first 11 minutes of the piece are presented with a "mask" or "frame" blocking out about 40% of the image area and allowing the viewer to see mostly instrument-only and conductor shots.

Our first screenshot below makes it clear that Five Elements played by the entire symphony orchestra:
 

And now in the next shot below, you see the mask and pair of mallets playing a keyboard percussion instrument:

At times, trick-photography is revealed behind the mask:

Or the conductor's ghostly hand conducts (a kind of "instrument only" shot of the conductor):

And here next below is a weird combo of an IO shot and a conductor's-hand-only shot:

After 11 minutes of cute tricks, the video suddenly shifts (amidst the final Metal section) and concludes the piece with about 2 minutes of more or less normal images of the orchestra :

There would be no point in discussing the Five Elements video in more detail. It's even worse than the Mahler 10 video and also gets an F. I can't think of any reason to want this Five Elements. (I would be interested, however, in seeing Five Elements live or in a proper recording.)

Here a clip from the Mahler 10:

Thursday
Oct192017

András Schiff Plays Bach

András Schiff plays from J.S. Bach:

1. French Suites 1-6

2. Overture in the French Style in B minor

3. Italian Concerto in F major

This was recorded 2010 in a church in Leipzig. Directed by János Darvas; produced by Isabel Iturriagagoitia Bueno. Has a nice bonus interview with Schiff. Released in 2011, has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A

András Schiff, a famous pianist and conductor, plays the six French Suites, the Overture in the French Style, and the Italian Concerto as an encore. You get your money's worth here with 2 and 1/4 hours of music plus a nice bonus visit with the soloist.

It's an article of faith on this website that seeing a performance is always better than just hearing it. Schiff is a self-effacing performer, and makes absolutely no attempt to "add value" thru his manner or personality. These Bach pieces tend to be quiet and not musically "spectacular." So does seeing this on a 65" TV screen add much? Well, not being a Bach fan, I find that the video helps me "hang in" with J.S. And I see that the audience is grimly determined to stick it out with nobody even once yawning or nodding off to sleep----they know they are on camera!

The great thing about a home theater is I can watch Bach for 45 minutes, and then switch to something else. Or if I just want some background music, there's no harm in listening to this with the video off in my office or car. Now if you happen to be a Bach fan who enjoys listening to 8 complete piano suites in a row, I think the video will add extra delight! Or you can always close your eyes from time to time. Or read some magazines while the title plays out.

SQ and PQ are both excellent throughout (the pictures in the HT are much nicer than the screenshots below). There are generally 4 types of shots that are cycled throughout the recording. Each shot is on average 10-15 seconds long, though there are outliers. The first below is a side view with a glimpse of the audience (you can see details like the audience quite well in the HT):

Below is a close up of Schiff's hands as he plays. This is the most common of the shots. Student Bach players might pick up fingering tips from this:

Another of the shots used is a close up of Schiff's face.

The final shot is directly over the piano:

I've enjoyed  a lot of piano music live, in audio records, and in video. Even though I'm not a Bach fan, I don't think anyone could play this music better than Schiff. Now for a grade. Start with A+. Both SQ and PQ are excellent. But this is not an audiophile recording.  48kHz/24-bit sound sampling was used, so I drop the grade to A for lack of 96kHz/24-bit sampling. If you are a Bach fan or aspire to be, this a good value at regular price.

Here is a Youtube trailer:

 

Wednesday
Oct182017

Mahler Symphony No. 4

Mahler Symphony No. 4 concert. Riccardo Chailly conducts the Gewandhaus Orchestra in 2012 in the Gewandhaus zu Leipzig.  Christina Landshamer is soprano soloist.  Audio production by Sebastian Braun;  Director of Photography was Nyika Jancscó; directed for TV by Henning Kasten; produced by Günter Atteln and Paul Smaczny. Released 2013, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: D+

Over the years, Chailly recorded 7 of the 10 Mahler symphonies at the Gewandhaus (missing 1,3, and the unfinshed 10). Please refer to our review of Mahler 2 ("Resurrection") by Chailly and the Gewandhaus forces for a general discussion of what we look for in these recordings and especially how we grade their video content for the disease DVDitis. In writing this review, I assume you are familiar with our battle against this dread plague that has crippled so many otherwise healthy Blu-ray symphony recordings.

The chief hallmark of a good Blu-ray recording of a symphony is the presence of whole-orchestra (WO) views. Also the videographer should give us a good WO clip early in the symphony film. The screenshot next below opens subject recording, but it is not a WO view because the members of the band are so tiny---you can't make out much about the organization of the orchestra: 

Most of the attempts at WO shots in this video look like the next screenshot below (made from the 3rd movement after the soprano came on stage). The angle is too low, and you also can't see from this shot how the orchestra is organized:

We rail against instrument-only shots because, after spending tons of money on our TVs, we want all the information we can glean from them, including seeing the musicians playing their instruments. But there are exceptions. The sleigh bells are rarely used in classical music (except for Christmas favorites). But Mahler pulls a stunt by featuring bells early in the 1st movement. So the image of the bells below has high value (and is not counted as as an IO shot) as it alerts us to Mahler's surprise for us:

The next three shots are solo/small-scale views. There are 234 clips in this video like this. First is a portrait of a 2nd violin player:

And here's a good shot of the contra bassoon in action---it's fun to see how much physical work is required to play this instrument:

Now something from the trumpet section. Note one trumpet has a mute and the other doesn't. This is a good example of how video provides information about a performance that a CD can't easily convey:

A good Blu-ray recording of a symphony will have as many multi-section and other large scale angles as possible. Next below is a multi-section shot with the oboes and flutes. Mahler wrote this for a relatively small orchestra, so you might expect 3 flutes. But there are four---you can just barely see the fourth flute on the left. There are a couple of other times when you get a fleeting glimpse of the fourth man, but it seems the video director never gets all 4 flutes clearly framed. Sorry my friend to ignore you like this:

 

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Sunday
Oct152017

Mahler Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection"

Mahler Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection." Riccardo Chailly conducts the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig in 2011 as well as the MDR Rundfunkchor, the Berliner Rundfunkchor, and the GewandhousChor (Chorus Masters Howard Arman, Simon Halsey, and Gregor Meyer). Soloists are soprano Christiane Oelze and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly. Produced by Paul Smaczny; directed for TV by Henning Kasten. Released 2011, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: C+

It's been several years since I last discussed DVDitis in detail DVDitis is a disease that mostly afflicts recordings of symphony concerts that were intended to be published as DVDs and which are also published in Blu-ray. Because of low video resolution, DVD recordings can't provide good shots of an entire symphony orchestra or long shots of multiple sections of the orchestra. To cope with this limitation, the practice developed of shooting many short clips of the conductor alternating with many short clips of single musicians or small groups of musicians. This style of recording reminds me of the Road Runner cartoons.

But when you shoot an symphony orchestra with HD cameras, you can get decent long-range shots. So a symphony HDVD (Blu-ray disc) can be displayed in a more civilized and relaxed way that gets much closer than a DVD to the live experience a concertgoer has in the music hall. Find out more about this in our special article about the good symphony video in HDVD.

When a DVD is made of a symphony concert, you do the best you can with the modest resolution you have. If you take that recording and publish it on a Blu-ray disc, the consumer should get a nicer video picture and often also better sound. But it's still the Road Runner race. A good HDVD of a symphony has to have different and better video content from the DVD to meet our standards. If the HDVD has the same video content as the DVD, I diagnose DVDitis. 

Today our sick patient is an Accentus Music Mahler Symphony No. 2 performed and published in 2011. It's  been patiently waiting in my infirmary for several years to be examined. As any careful doctor would, I order a panel of tests.  But before we read the report, let's discuss some of the things we are testing for.

The single most important hallmark of a good symphony HDVD is the presence of many whole-orchestra ("WO") shots. And the first duty of the videographer is to give us at home an opening WO shot to show us how the orchestra is organized and where all the sections are. After all, a single WO view is the only "shot" a live concertgoer gets to enjoy.

The first screenshot below is one of about 10 views that are the closest thing we get in subject video to a WO shot.  We generously call this a WO view even though quite a few musicians are omitted on the flanks. Still, it shows the most of the orchestra and the chorus. But, alas, the camera is placed so low that you still can't see how the orchestra is organized:

Also, Kasten gives us about 6 shots like the one shown next below, which is also the first thing we see at the beginning.  But this is not a WO shot. True, it shows the whole band, but it's made from too far away to be of much value to us.  You can't tell from this where the different instruments are. We often this an "architectural shot" or an "anthill view" that says more about the venue than the orchestra:

So we are forced to puzzle out piecemeal where things are.  Next below is the single most helpful orientation shot in the whole video, and it appears at 15:17, deep into the 1st movement. From this view we can be sure that there are 10 double-basses and 12 cellos. We also see that the only the first violins are on the conductor's left, etc. But this view only lasts a few fleeting seconds; better push the pause button on your remote:

And we have to wait until the symphony is 40% along to finally see how the 2nd violins and violas are seated (34:03):

One hallmark of a DVD, on the other hand, is a huge number of small-scale shots of 1 to 4 musicians such as the view of 2 clarinets next below. There are no fewer than 343 of such tiny pictures in subject video:

A good symphony video will try to show whole sections at work. The next view below counts as a shot of the bass section because it captures 6 of the 10 (more than half) bass players:

Here's a rare multi-section shot of much of the brass:

 

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Friday
Oct132017

Giselle 

Giselle ballet. Libretto by Théophile Gautier after Heinrich Heine.  Music by Adolphe Adam revised by Joseph Horovitz. Choreography by Marius Petipa after Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. 2016 production and additional choreography by Sir Peter Wright at the Royal Opera House. Stars Marianela Nuñez (Giselle), Vadim Muntagirov (Count Albrecht), Bennet Gartside (Hilarion), Johannes Stepanek (Wilfred), Elisabeth McGorian (Berthe), Gary Avis (Duke of Courland), Christina Arestis (Bathilde), Jonathan Howells (Leader of the Hunt), Itziar Mendizabal (Myrtha), Olivia Cowley (Moyna), Beatriz Stix-Brunell (Zulme) as well as Yuhui Choe, Alexander Campbell, Francesca Hayward, Luca Acri, Yasmine Naghdi, and Marceline Sambé (Pas de Six). Barry Wordsworth conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (Concert Master Peter Manning). Designs by John Macfarlane; original lighting by Jennifer Tipton re-created by David Finn; staging by Christopher Carr; directed for screen by Ross MacGibbon. Released 2017, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A

This is the third Opus Arte publication of a Blu-ray disc of the Peter Wright Giselle by the Royal Opera! The first version came out in 2009 with Cojocaru and Kobborg, and I gave it an A-. Five years later the second version was released (in 2014) with Osipova and Acosta, and I gave that one an A. Now, just three years later we have the third recording with Marianela Nuñez as Giselle and Vadim Muntagirov as Albrecht, both seen in my opening screenshot below. Since this is my third visit to this production, this review will be short, and I will say little about the plot of Giselle. You can learn a lot more about the ballet by reading my earlier reviews of this production from 2009 and 2014.

Nuñez is a great dancer and actress, but she is approaching retirement age. 8 years prior to this she was cast as Myrtha in the 2009 Giselle production!

Next below Gary Avis as the Duke of Courland with his daughter Bathilde played by Christina Arestis:

Now we see Bennet Gartside as Hilarion proving that Albrecht is a slumming impostor:

And Giselle learns she is a jilted girl:

Next below four views of Giselle's mad scene:

 

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Thursday
Oct122017

Midsummer Night's Dream

Midsummer Night's Dream ballet choreographed 2015 by Alexander Ekman, with assistant ballet director Mikael Jönsson, for the Royal Swedish Ballet. Music by Mikael Karlsson; lyrics by Mikael Karlsson and Anna Von Hausswolff. Performance seen here was staged in September 2016 by the Royal Swedish Ballet at the Stockholm Opera (Artistic Director Johannes Öhman). Stars Dragos Mihalcea (The Dreamer), Jenny Nilsson (Hostess), Sarah-Jane Brodbeck (Mistress), Lea Ved, Ross Martinson, Amanda Åkesson, Devon Carbone (Love Couples), Daria Ivanova, Desislava Stoeva (The Dreamwomen), Johnny Mcmillan (Mr Canon), Ross Martinson (A Bubbler) and Daniel Norgren-Jensen (A Chef On Pointe), Clyde Emmanuel Archer (Man with the Flag), Preston McBain, Devon Carbone (Headless Men), and Anna Von Housswolff (A Singer). Also features string quartet Dahlkvistkvartetten, percussionist Niklas Brommare, and pianist Henrik Måwe. Set design by Alexander Ekman; costume design by Bregje Van Balen; lighting design by Linus Fellbom; live processing by Roger Bergström and Maria Grönlund; sound design by Lars-Göran Ehn and Andrea Rea; makeup by Betina Stähle and Virginia Vogel; production manager was Ann-Christin Danhammar. Film directed by Tommy Pascal; Director of Photography Charles Sautreuil; produced by Xavier Dubois; line producer Coline Jolly.   Released 2017, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B-

This ballet was inspired by the customary Swedish Midsummer Eve Festival celebrated on a Friday late in June, originally to honor the sun on the longest day of the year. It has nothing to do with the Shakespeare play (except that perhaps the festival and the play both can be traced back to ancient Pagan traditions). Ekman's Act 1, a depiction of the festival, begins when the Dreamer (Dragos Mihalcea seen below) is awakened early and closes when the Dreamer puts flowers under his pillow at the end of the longest day of the year.  Act 2 is the dream that follows (during the shortest night of the year):
 

The Festival has a lot to do with hay. Throwing hay around reminds me of Ekman's A Swan Lake, which had famous scenes about throwing water around:

Ekman likes to present the audience with the unexpected. Next below you see that the stage has been extended over the orchestra pit. The music for this Midsummer Night's Ballet is provided by musicians on the stage in the background:

Here's Ekman's version of the traditional ring dance around a decorated pole (phallic symbol):

The celebration includes games like the sack race below for kids of all ages and toasts for the adults. Only in a ballet could one try to drink a toast while jumping in a sack:

The Swedes like to have festival feasts at long tables. Standing next to the table is the blond vocalist Anna von Hausswolff, who co-wrote the music and appears constantly wandering about the stage singing:

Of course, there's plenty of beer, wine, and spirits:

 

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