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.


Entries in Challenge Classics (3)



[Caution. PR from Challenge Records on this is fragmentary and confusing. This Dutch National Opera Parsifal was directed by Pierre Audi first in 2012, and the show was reprised in 2016 with many singers appearing in both productions. The front cover art might be from 2016. But it appears this recording is of the 2012 show.]

Wagner Parsifal opera to a libretto by the composer. Directed 2012 by Pierre Audi at the Dutch National Opera.  Stars Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester (Amfortas), Mikhail Petrenko (Titurel /Klingsor), Falk Struckmann (Gurnemanz), Christopher Ventris (Parsifal), Petra Lang (Kundry), Jean-Léon Klosterman (First Knight of the Grail), Roger Smeets (Second Knight of the Grail), Lisette Bolle, Rosanne van Sandwijk, Erik Slik, Jeroen de Vaal (4 Esquires), Lisette Bolle, Inez Hafkamp, Tomoko Makuuchi, Rosanne van Sandwijk, Oleksandra Lenyshyn, Melanie Greve (6 Flower Maids), and Marieke Reuten (Voice from Above).  Ivan Fischer conducts the Royal  Concertgebouw, the Choir of the Dutch National Opera, and the "Kickers" of the Waterland Youth Music School. Sets by Anish Kapoor; costumes by Christof Hetzer; lighting by Jean Kalman; choreography by Gail Skrela; dramaturgy by Klaus Bertisch. TV director was Misjel Vermeiren. Technical information not announced. Released 2017. Grade: Help!

Mike Ashman in the August 2017 Gramophone (page 92) approves of this disc as follow: "Well filmed and recorded, this is an essential purchase for Lang and for Audi's direction, a straight but strong rival to existing competition from Barenboim/Kupfer and Nagano/Lehnhoff." Ashman believes that Wagner did not intend for Parsifal to be a Christ figure. Those who see this opera as a Christian allegory will perhaps reject this production as did at least 2 articulate Amazon customers who wrote damning reviews.

If I could have one wish come true in 2018, it would be for some kind soul who has all the Parsifal Blu-rays to come forward with balanced comments on all of them to share with our readers.

Below is a clip that appears to be from the 2012 performance. (There are other new-looking and prettier clips that maybe were made in 2016.)




The image of the back of the package below looks a bit odd because the keepcase itself is white and you can't see its edges here. Thanks to Challenge Classics for the clean and easy-to-read designs on their packages:

flare Tango! concert of Ástor Piazzolla tango nuevo music performed January 13, 2013 by the Isabelle van Keulen Ensemble at the MotorMusic Studios in Mechelen, Belgium. The Isabelle van Keulen Ensemble is a chamber music group formed primarily to play Piazzolla compositions; it consists of van Keulen on violin, Christian Gerber on bandoneón, Ulrike Payer on piano, and Rüdiger Ludwig on double bass.

The executive producers were Anne de Jong and Marcel van den Broek. Project coordinators were Jolien Plat and Inge De Pauw.

The video was shot with digital cameras at 24 fps. The film director was Pancake (Hans Pannecoukce). There were 5 cameramen: Norman Baert (DOP), Patrick Tilkens, Konrad Widelksi, Steven Van Volsem (steadicam), Oliver von don Broeck (assistant steadicam) and Maxime Von Hove (technical assistant). Video editing was by Pancake and Pieter Peeters.

Music director was Felicia Van Boxstael and the recording producer was Steven Maes for Serendipitous. Although the disc package strangely is silent on the subject, a Challenge sound engineer stated to me: "the [concert] recording was made with 96kHz24 bit sound sampling.  On the Blu-ray there are 5.1 & 2.0 dts-HD Master Audio 96kHz24bit files. You can also find [for a bonus documentary] AC3 Dolby files at 48kHz24 bit." My Oppo player confirms these sampling rates. The Blu-ray package has a bonus audio CD of the concert + several songs that are not on the Blu-ray.

[Special note: as an update, we have added interesting material about the history of tango nuevo and this recording written by Rüdiger Ludwig, the bass player on this disc. This material was in the CD booklet but is not in the Blu-ray package.]

Grade: A+

Here's the Blu-ray program (62 minutes of Piazzolla compositions and 22 minutes of documentary). The songs are listed by track numbers on the Blu-ray (there are more tracks on the bonus CD):

1. Escualo  (Shark)
2. Invierno Porteño  (Buenes Aires in Winter)
3. Tristezas de un doble A (Sorrows of a Double A. This is in honor of Alfred Arnold, who made Piazzolla's favorite bandoneóns)
4. Michelangelo '70  (The name of a nightclub in Buenes Aires)
5. Contrabajísimo (Written for Piazzolla's favorite bass player. Probably untranslatable; I like Boss of the Bass)
6. Libertango (A popular name for Piazzolla's formal style of writing tangos) (Arranged by Christian Gerber)
7. Tangata (Perhaps just a play on the word "tango")
8. Tanti anni prima (Means "many years ago" in Italian; is often called the Piazzolla Ave Maria)
9. Concierto para Quinteto (Concerto for Quintet. For this group, it's a Concerto for Quartet)

Music from the Heart Documentary

I swear I don't have stock in Challenge Records. I've only played two of their titles, this Tango! and their Winterreise. But I can make a case that both of these are better than any other classical music record ever made (September 2013) by anyone outside of the Japanese home market. Here's the case: both records have more than an hour of classical music from leading international musicians + a worthwhile back-stage bonus +  decent HD video + sound recorded at 96kHz24bit or higher. Nobody else in the West has put this together even once, so Challenge is now in class by themselves. (RCO Live tried to make a excellent boxset of all the Mahler symphonies played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra; but that project got swallowed up in a sinkhole of bad video and mistakes in disc authorship.)

Can tangos be classical music? Much of classical music can be traced to dances. The dances died centuries ago, but the music lives on. Ástor Piazzolla started playing in dance halls. But he was a universal musical talent who acquired traditional classical music training and composed many kinds of music. Eventually he merged dance tangos into mainstream classical music in the form of tango nuevo or libertango. The pieces you hear on this record are tango nuevo. They can only be played by master musicians, are intended for serious listening, and have been accepted as a genre of modern classical music. (Piazzolla typically performed the music presented here with a quintet that included an electric guitar.  Per Rüdiger Ludwig, van Keuren parcelled out the guitar part on Tango! to the piano, violin, and bandoneón.  Piazzolla was constantly experimenting with everything, so we can assume he would approve.)

Here's the set up at the recording studio. The idea was to create a "smoky", slightly soft indie-film look that might remind one of a dance hall. From left to right are Rüdiger on bass, Ulrike on piano, Christian with his Bandoneón, and Isabelle:

The setup makes it hard to get video of the ladies. Here's a better shot of Isabelle who plays and conducts standing up (in heels!):

The musicians seem to have enough room, but the recording space quickly gets crowded and a bit chaotic, I think, with the addition of 3 camera crews. This results in slightly nervous, unpredictable, improvise-on-the-fly photography that reflects the moody, dramatic nature of the music. With this in mind, I'll not be too upset with occasional focus and composure errors that pop up.  The black and white shots are from the documentary. The color shots are of the concert:

To work in this environment, it helps to be able to converse in Spanish, Dutch, German, French, and English simultaneously:

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Updated on Monday, September 9, 2013 at 7:04PM by Registered CommenterHenry McFadyen Jr.

Updated on Saturday, October 5, 2013 at 3:35PM by Registered CommenterHenry McFadyen Jr.

Schubert Winterreise song cycle. Performed 2012 in studio with tenor Christoph Prégardien and Michael Gees on piano. Recorded with multiple high-definition cameras; sound was recorded using 192kHz24 bit sound sampling. This is the most sophisticated sound technology used so far in any Blu-ray video recording. (We have a few titles with sound recorded at 96kHz24 bit.) The 71 minutes of music has subtitles in German only. There is a nice 21-minute behind-the-scenes documentary with subtitles in English, German, and French.  Released 2013, disc has 5.1 PCM output. In addition, the Blu-ray package has a bonus CD with the music recorded at 44kHz16 bit. Grade: A+

During the last 6 years, the Blu-ray titles we have been getting have generally had far better video and sound than what was possible with  DVD technology. Still, I have too frequently been dismayed when sound and video quality of our Blu-rays fell short of what current technology allows, especially in the field of classical music. Almost all of the limited top-notch classical music stuff (with 96kHz24bit sound and up-to-date video content) has been published in Japan by NHK for the home market or in the form of mostly demo recordings by AIX. But now, we have our first recording issued by a western company that exploits the state-of-the-art in both video and sound in a recording of major artists performing a substantial program of classical music of broad appeal to consumers! How did this finally come about? Obviously, recording two musicians in studio is a project that can be controlled carefully and handled with a relatively modest investment. Still, although I'm guessing, I think Prégardien gets the credit for insisting on making a recording as good as it can be!  Let's hope other artists and conductors will follow suit and demand that their producers present them using the latest gear and techniques.

Now on to the performance. Of course, the singer is normally the dominant performer in a song recital because he has the words that tell the story. Prégardien chose to sing in studio using the cameras as audience. Like the Leierman whom we meet in the music, he will tell his story no matter what (images in black/white are from the bonus extra and the color pictures are from the performance). So I will not complain of the lack of a live audience.  Prégardien doesn't need sheet music. Every word and note is burned into his soul:

Here's the studio and Gees, the accompanist:

Winterreise (Winter Wandering) is one mournful song that Schubert repeats, with substantial variations, 24 times over more than an hour.  Each variation has its own name and is considered a separate song. Each song tells a different part of a story with text taken from 24 individual poems written by Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827) as a poem cycle. The tenor singing line can get monotonous, especially if you don't know enough German to follow the words. But Schubert wrote completely different piano music for each song. The accompanist on the piano plays a key role in contributing to the distinct character of each song. Here we see Gees with his sheet music, but he doesn't look at it much. With this life-preserver at hand, Gees concentrates on what he likes to do: to play the notes Schubert wrote in whatever manner strikes Gees' fancy at the moment:

And as Gees plays, according to recording producer Bert von der Wolf:

So in the Prégardien/Gees partnership, each can take the lead and neither dominates. The result is that no two performances of Winterreise by Prégardien and Gees will be the same.  The words and notes will all be there, but the interpretations will be different.

Now (below) I'll show a few shots of Prégardien telling the story. Our young man of the song cycle must start on his winter wandering because his sweetheart has dumped him to marry a rich man. Love is a wanderer, and so must our hero also be, because God has made things that way:


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