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! _______________________________________________________________________________

Entries in Accentus (46)

Wednesday
Nov082017

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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Monday
Nov062017

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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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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Thursday
Sep282017

Bach Mass in B minor

Bach Mass in B minor concert. Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Dresdner Kammerchor and the Gewandhouser Leipzig at Bachfest Leipzig, 2017. Soloists are Christina Landshamer (soprano), Elisabeth Kulman (alto), Wolfram Lattke (tenor), and Günter Atteln (bass). Directed by Ute Feudel; produced by Paul Smaczny. Released 2017, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

Please help us with a review of this title!

Monday
Sep112017

Midori Plays Bach

Midori Plays Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (BWV 1001-1006), recorded 2016 at the German Castle in Köthen (Anhalt) where Bach composed this cornerstone music. These are all the Bach sonatas and partitas for violin, called by famous violinist Georges Enescu "The Himalayas of violinists":

1. Sonata No. 1 in G minor BWV 1001
2. Partita No. 1 in B minor BWV 1002
3. Sonata No. 2 in A minor BWV 1003
4. Partita No. 2 in D minor BWV 1004
5. Sonata No. 3 in C major BWV 1005
6. Partita No. 3 in E major BWV 1006 

Directed for TV by Andreas Morell; produced by Paul Smaczny. Released 2017, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

Anhalt is where Bach composed many famous secular works including BWV 1001-1006, the Brandenburg concertos, and the Well-Tempered Clavier. Here's a pretty official clip with Midori playing and speaking in English with German subtitles:

Monday
Aug072017

Verdi Messa da Requiem

Verdi Messa da Requiem concert. Recorded 2016 at the Opernhaus Zürich. Fabio Luisi conducts the Philharmonia Zürich and the Chor und Zusatzchor (Extra Choir) of the Zürich Opera (Chorus Master Marcovalerio Marletta). Soloists are Krassimira Soyanova (soprano), Veronica Simeoni (mezzo-soprano), Francesco Meli (tenor), and Georg Zeppenfeld (bass). Choreography and stage direction by Christian Spuck; set design by Christian Schmidt; costume design by Emma Ryott; lighting design by Martin Gebhardt; dramaturgy by Michael Küster and Claus Spahn. Video direction by Michael Beyer; produced by Paul Smaczny. Subtitles in Latin, German, English, and French. Released 2017, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

There is a documentary on this disc called Stepping into the unknown---Christian Spuck's production of Verdi's Requiem." So this show promises to be something new and different. The first HDVD opera with ballet added was the Pina Bausch Orpheus und Eurydike. This Verdi Messa is, I gather, our first concert with ballet added. Or perhaps this Messa will seem more like a staged concert along the lines of the Berlin Philharmoniker Saint Matthew Passion.  (I think of the Béjart Ninth Symphony dance recording as a ballet set to Beethoven's 9th Symphony).

We applaud this new title as yet another attempt to bring vision to the aid of classical music in a form that can be shared by people all over the world. The (pretty empressive) trailer shown below is from the Zürich opera house, but it gives us a good idea what the Accentus disc is likely to show:

Thursday
Jun012017

Beethoven Triple Concerto and Symphony No. 5

Beethoven Triple Concerto and Beethoven Symphony No. 5 concert. Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Gewandhausorchester in 2017. The Triple Concerto features Isabelle Faust (violin), Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), and Martin Helmchen (piano). Directed for TV by Ute Feudel; produced by Paul Smaczny. Released 2017, disc has 5.1 Dolby Digital and dts sound. Grade: Help!

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

Here's the official trailer on YouTube, which strongly suggests that this title has a bad case of DVDitis:

Thursday
Apr202017

Beethoven Symphonies 6-7

Beethoven Symphonies 6-7 concert. Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Gewandhausorchester. Performed at the Gewandhaus zu Leipzig May 2016 (Symphony 6) and May 2015 (Symphony 7). Ute Feudel was TV director. Produced by Paul Smaczny. Released 2017, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio. Grade: Help!

Below is the official Accentus YouTube clip. This recording sounds great even on PC sound. The video images are about as good as can be in 1080 HDVD. But alas, the clip also strongly suggests that this whole project is fatally infected with DVDitis:

Sunday
Oct092016

Brahms Serenade No. 2 and Symphony No. 2

All Brahms disc with three major works: Symphony No. 2, Serenade No. 2, and the Alto Rhapsody. Andris Nelsons conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Bavarian Radio Choir in 2014 at the Lucerne Summer Festival (KKL Concert Hall). Soloist is Sara Mingardo (alto). Gerarld Häussler was Chorus Master; video directed by Michael Beyer; produced by Paul Smaczny. Released 2015, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: D- blended grade for the whole disc

Richard Osborne, writing in the July 2015 Gramophone (page 30) offers caustic condemnation of this title saying that both the symphony and the serenade "fall prey to Nelson's slow and self-indulgent way with Brahms's music." He also complains that these are "performances to seen rather than heard." I think he must be referring to Nelson's hyperactive style of movement and making of faces. John Quinn, writing for MusicWeb International, liked the performance better than Osborne, but even Quinn squirms repeatedly about what he deems over-expansiveness by Nelsons.

Symphony No. 2

I have long praised the Saito Kinen Brahms Symphony No. 2 published by NHK. Now let's compare the Saito Kinen/NHK version to this recently recorded and published version by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Accentus. Here from my Wonk Worksheet for Symphony No. 2 is a summary of the types of video clips rendered by Michael Beyer:

Conductor = 74
C/B = 40
Solos, S§, SG, & misc. small-scale = 237
*L§, LG, & misc. large-scale = 14
*PO = 18
*WO = 3
IO = 9
Other low value = 3 “anthill” shots between movements

There's a total of 398 clips over 51 minutes of music, which yields a pace of 7.8 seconds per clip. Supershots (those marked * above) amount to only 9% of the total clips, while the 114 conductor shots come in at 29% of the total.

Here again are the 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 (the longer the better). 20 to 40% of the clips should be large-scale "supershots." Conductor shots should be less than 20% of the clips in the video (way less really).

This video fails on all 3 tests. It further has no introductory WO shot and too many IO shots.

Now let’s look at some screenshots. I've never seen a cello player with a glove before:

Below is the concertmaster. This shot is made from the wrong angle, a common error in symphony videos:

Next below are 3 more shots of Nelsons faces.

I assigned the shot below to the C/B category. This could be deemed a view of the lower strings,  but it was clear to me while watching this that the cameraman was focusing on Nelsons:

 

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