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 NHK (12)


Bruckner Symphony No. 9 and Schumann Piano Concerto

flare Bruckner Symphony No. 9 and Schumann Piano Concerto. Bernard Haitink conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2009. Murray Perahia is the piano soloist. The title is the first effort by NHK to produce an HDVD of Western classical music with performers who have no special connection to Japan. The front cover is in English. But the rest of the disc is in Japanese. There are extras with persons speaking in English, but only Japanese subtitles are provided. So this disc is not aimed at the world market, but just for domestic consumption in Japan. Released 2009, the sound on the title was recorded with 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling,  and the disc has 5.0 LPCM output.   Grade: A+ for both the Schumann Piano Concerto and the Bruckner Symphony No. 9.

Gramophone magazine in 2011 ranked the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra as the best in the world. Haitink was long the conductor there before he was succeeded by Mariss Jansons. Haitink was invited back as guest conductor, so this was a sentimental event for everybody. The Gebouw itself also seemed to enjoy the evening by emitting its own mysterious aura. It's the most magnificent music venue I've seen. It has the same "shoebox" shape as the Vienna Großer Musikvereinssaal. But it is larger and grander even than the Vienna hall and appears consecrated, as if it were a church. It features staircases that emerge from the top of the back wall and fall sweeping past the huge organ through the performing stage to the conductor's podium. When the conductor and soloists descend these steps, you think of Judgement Day. 

Next are comments from Wonk William Huang about this title. After that come screenshots and "statistics" from Hank McFadyen. Finally, don't overlook a valuable comment below by Wonk James Kreh.

William Huang:

Whenever a new musician or ensemble gains significant recognition in the classical music world, eventually there is a recording contract. But, alas, the contract usually only shows how uncreative record companies are in producing a stream of recordings ---of Bach's violin concertos, Liszt's Piano Sonata, or another cycle by Brahms or Mahler, etc.---all with the same lacquered, homogenized sound.

Another sector within the recording industry is even more frustrating and tepid---video production. Concerts are seldom filmed well (watch any of the Berlin Philharmonic's annual “European Concert” series) and often have little more music than an LP. Archival footage is released at a trickle, with companies mostly re-releasing the same film, format after format. The greatest rarities are well-designed films of great performances made in the present. Considering how the industry treated laser-disc, VHS tapes, and DVD, it's no surprise that they've also used Blu-ray technology as just another profit center.

To be sure, Blu-ray videos are indisputably clearer than any concert DVD available. In a typical classical music Blu-ray, one can see almost every single audience member within a frame and sweat dripping off the musicians. The video is so clear you can sometimes read the score.  Even with a good seat at a concert hall, it's almost impossible to see most of these details. Still, until now, no Blu-ray made a convincing case that it was a real step up from DVD.

Then came our review disc from NHK Classical, a Blu-ray featuring the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, and Murray Perahia.  Its release for the Japanese market probably restricted awareness in the West, which is sad.  For there has never before been a recording of classical music that so thoroughly captures the magic of live orchestral music! The concert features Schumann's Piano Concerto and Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, well-known specialties of Messrs. Perahia and Haitink. The synthesis of the Concertgebouw Orchestra's otherworldly performance and NHK-Classical's conscientious production is not just a concert film with a sharper visual than DVD. It is a portal to another world!

As produced by the careful hands of NHK-Classical, Blu-ray is the best format yet for the presentation of classical music. The roughly two-hour-long soundtrack on this single disc holds five times as much data as a commercial CD.  Using eighteen microphones and Blu-ray’s larger storage capacity, NHK-Classical was able to meticulously record this concert at 96 kHz/24-bit. A Blu-ray disc miked as well as this one can capture one or one hundred acoustic instruments with abundant details and resonance.  Thus virtually every harmonic line or note that Bruckner or Schumann wrote can be heard on this disc.

Complementing the disc's audio, NHK-Classical also made spectacular use of Blu-ray's high-resolution video to show how the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra performs. This is often achieved with stylish long-range shots of the whole ensemble or large sections. Even these long-rang shots are so clear that no musician looks minuscule or distorted.  Like sitting in a good terrace seat, such angles give the viewer the freedom to see at whoever is playing---no matter how far apart---and make a judgment on what to pay attention to.

It's a joy in the Shumann concerto to see the concentration and poise of Murray Perahia and to hear the fluidity and nuances of his playing. Listeners might prefer a more brisk tempo in the fashion of Sviatoslav Richter or Martha Argerich, but it is obvious to me that Perahia's regal tempo is an artistic choice rather than a physical compromise. His crystalline finger work is marvelous, and the tempi are never lethargic or hurried. When I hear Perahia play Schumann, I hear the composer speak. When I hear Martha Argerich perform the same concerto, I hear her. Perahia's performance, the scenic camera angles, and the rich, layered sound make me think of Clara Schumann's observation of her husband's concerto  "[…] it must give the greatest pleasure to those who hear it. The piano is most skillfully interwoven with the orchestra--it is impossible to think of one without the other."

Haitink, a Bruckner expert, leads a noble and dedicated performance of the Master's Ninth.  It’s almost surprising how his gentle, grandfatherly stage-presence inspires such concentration and intensity from the Dutch players. Rather than making an overly dramatic reading, the conductor lets the music speak for itself. The scherzo has a fiery brilliance. It's thrilling to hear the effortless legato playing of the woodwind players and the rich unisons of the strings. The outer movements are spacious and deeply expressive. And Bruckner's awe-inspiring orchestral tuttis make the Concertgebouw orchestra a force to behold.

This is the most impressive recording of classical music yet produced in the twenty-first century.  

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Berlioz Symphonie fantastique and Mahler Symphony No. 1 ("Titan")

Berlioz Symphonie fantastique and flare Mahler Symphony No. 1 ("Titan"). Seiji Ozawa conducts the Saito Kinen Orchestra (Saito Memorial Festival Orchestra). The Berlioz was recorded at the 2007 Festival; the Mahler was recorded in 2008. Released in 2009, this title has 5.0 PCM 96kHz/24 bit sound. About 99% of the printed material with this disc is in Japanese. If you don't know that language, it's a humbling experience to navigate your way through the titles and extras, but you can do it.   Grade: A-  for Symphonie fantastique  Grade: A+ for Mahler Symphony No. 1

Hideo Saito (1902-1974) almost single-handedly introduced Western classical music to Japan. His most famous protégé was Seiji Osawa, who was conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 27 years. Osawa was a kind of world citizen who seems to be always everywhere except that each September he returned to Japan to lead the Saito Kinen Memorial Festival Orchestra.

Most of the members of the SKMFO were Japanese regulars. But there was also a sprinkling of stellar musicians from the West, some of whom had already appeared on HDVDs reported on this website. For example, from this disc I recognize Rainer Seegers (tympany) and Gábor Tarkövi (trumpet) of the Berliner Philharmoniker. They appear in the Karajan Memorial Concert HDVD. Also, Jacques Zoon, who plays principal flute in the Mahler Symphony No. 1, appears in the HDVD of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. The SKMFO appears to be quite inclusive. There are a lot of women in the orchestra. But the big surprise is the blind violin player who regularly appears.

Each year the SKMFO gathers and frantically rehearses to prove they can play major works in a manner competitive with the great Western symphony orchestras. I would say they succeed on this disc. And from the way the performers act after each number, it's clear they also think they have pulled it off. Gramophone magazine in October 2009 declared the SKMFO to be number 19 among the best 20 symphony orchestras in the world!

Symphonie fantastique

The performance of the Berlioz piece is fantastically good. The SQ is excellent with 96kHz/24 bit sampling. The HNK engineers put special emphasis on getting accurate information for each individual voice and section in the orchestra. There are two pages in the keep case booklet with details about the microphones used. The result is a clean and vivid audio report with especially impressive dynamic range.  

The PQ is pretty good for 2007. But by current standards it is over-exposed and the resolution is too soft. Picture content is also not quite what we now hope to see.  I think the NHK TV director and engineers in 2007 were still learning how to take advantage of the power of high-definition TV cameras to make HDVDs. The Berlioz piece has a generous number of whole orchestra and multiple section shots that would not have been workable for a DVD recording. That was a big step forward. But the shows still has some DVD bad habits such as too many cuts, too many conductor views, too many backs of musicians (while really featuring the conductor),  and too much panning and zooming.

This title could have qualified for an A+. But for weakness in picture quality and content, I mark the Symphony fantastique down to the grade of "A-" even though the sound is terrific.

Mahler Symphony No. 1

A year later, in 2008, the NHK team got another chance to perfect their HDVD recording chops.  This time they came up with a real winner in their recording of the Mahler Symphony No. 1. The SQ remains as good as what they had achieved before. PQ is superb with perfect lighting (no glare or bleaching), convincingly accurate resolution, real-looking color balance, and masterful control of depth of focus. The musicians have been exhaustively rehearsed and are ready to prove to the world they can play this as well as anyone. But the really exciting news is in the realm of video content. 

I just used a Symphony Wonk Worksheet to analyze this Mahler Symphony No. 1. Here's a description of the video content I found:

  • Conductor shots (C) – 47 clips

  • Conductor over backs (C/B) – 2 clips

  • Solos, small sections (S§), small groups (SG), & misc. small-scale or DVD-like views –128 clips

  • Large section (L§), large groups (LG), & misc. large-scale or HDVD-like views – 47 clips

  • Part orchestra (PO) – 24 clips

  • Whole orchestra (WO) – 37 clips

  • Instrument only (IO) – 3

We have in a special article set out the requirements for a good HDVD of a symphony as follows:

A good HDVD should have a slow pace with more than 10 seconds per video clip on average (longer the better). 20 to 40% (higher is better) of the clips should be large-scale "supershots" (whole-orchestra, part-orchestra, multiple-section, and large-section shots). Conductor shots should be less than 20% (way less really) of the clips in the video.

As seen above, this Mahler S1 has a total of 288 clips found in 54 minutes of music (between 53:00 and 01:49:56) on the disc. This yields a pace of 11.25 seconds per clip. Supershots (L§, LG, PO, WO) = 38% of the total clips of clips. Further, conductor shots (C + C/B) = 17% of total clipsr. It follows then that this Mahler S1 fully qualifies as a exemplary symphony HDVD.

The average cut in this recording lasts more than 11 seconds. Many of the super-shots last considerably longer than 11 seconds. So the pace of this video is more than twice as stately than the pace of a typical Mahler DVD. The abundance of supershots in subject video gives you many opportunities to see whole sections and groups of sections working together as the video director follows the score. There are few similar opportunities in the typical DVD.

So now let's see some screenshots. During the warm up before the concert starts, the TV director is already at work. He shows us where the horns are on the stage. This is a nice courtesy. The horns can be anywhere, and the TV director wants to get us oriented to the horns as soon as possible:

Here is a full-orchestra shot that takes up 100% of the width of the picture. Because the orchestra is so large, this is just barely workable even with HD cameras. The TV directors will give some of these full views; but to let us see better, he will bring the cameras closer and shoot from several angles to show us most of the orchestra:

Here's a good 90% view showing all the 1st and 2nd violins and more:

And here is a similar but closer shot from the other side of the stage. This view lets you see all the violas, cellos, and basses:

Closer yet you can see the cellos and basses:

Of course, the TV director will also close in on smaller sections. Here we see 7 of the 8 horns in action:

Here are the lower brass, bassoons, and oboes:

Now for some soloists. In this recording, you can always hear the harp. That's because she has her own personal microphone, which you see in this picture:

In this recording, anytime a soloist is seen, the soloist is taking the lead musically and can be heard distinctly. In lesser recordings, you often see a soloist, but you can't hear what the soloist is playing. Well, you rarely have trouble hearing the tuba:

The gent in the left side of this image isn't reading from sheet music. He has his part memorized, because he is blind:

Here's a great shot with 2 soloists. This is the beginning of the Third Movement when the tympani plays quietly and the principal double-bass player comes in with a haunting melody. There's 100+ people on stage and only two are doing anything. Well, when you play this live, you quickly see the movements of the tympani player (last row, upper left) and the bass player (upper right, front row of basses, to your right). The HD camera is able to put both these soloists in one frame and everything is in focus. It's so neat when you see this---I don't think this would be possible in DVD:

Oh, here are those horns again at the end of the piece:

Here's another view of the end of the symphony with everybody blowing his brains out. You can see the extra trombone and trumpet standing next to the standing horn players. Maybe all those brass players lined up in the rear are the "Titans":

I hope these screenshots show you how beautiful a HD recording of a symphony can be. If you are also interested in the conductor, fear not. You will have plenty of opportunity to see him in shots like this:

I found only a few video errors in this Mahler S1. There are three instrument-only shots that that don't seem to be called on by the score for anything special or unusual. And there are two shots made over the backs of musicians. Shooting from behind is insulting to the players and normally accomplishes little or nothing.  Still, in the conductor-over-backs shot next below, you can at least see from the sheet music how good the picture resolution is:

In this title, the NHK TV director demonstrates his mastery of correct picture content for an HDVD of a symphony. I should also add there is much less zooming and panning around in this title than what we see on DVDs.  This recording and the Schumann Piano Concerto and Bruckner Symphony No. 9 from NHK are among the best dics I know of to illustrate our Standards for Grading Symphony Orchestra Concerts of Symphonies, Concertos, and other Large-scale Compositions.

This Mahler Symphony No. 1 has it all. It gets an A+, and I also award it our flare designation as a title of special merit and distinction. (Don't overlook Jim Kreh's comment on this below.)


Brahms Symphony No. 2 and Shostakovich Symphony No. 5

[Want to see the difference between an A+ symphony recording and one of the same piece that's graded F? Then read next here two updated stories about recordings of Brahms Symphony No. 2. I did Symphony Wonk Worksheets on both recordings to better illustrate what makes for a great recording and what makes for failure. We start with the Saito Kinen Orchestra version, which I've been raving about for the last 7 years. (There are also comments about a Shostakovich recording that is not relevant to my purpose here of contrasting the two Brahms recordings.) Then compare this story to the story next in the Journal about a video of Brahms S2 by the Lucern Festival Orchestral and published by Accentus.

Brahms flare Symphony No. 2 and Shostakovich Symphony No. 5. Seiji Ozawa conducts the Saito Kinen Orchestra. Released 2010, disc has 5.0 PCM 96kHz/24 bit sound for both symphonies and valuable bonus features. It is also one of the titles in the Seiji Ozawa 75th Anniversary Box Set. Grade:  for Brahms  A+  for Shostakovich B-

The Saito Kinen recording of Brahms Symphony No. 2 was made in 2009, and it was released in 2010. The NHK folks were trying hard; and with this title, they moved up to a new level of excellence in the recording of symphony music. Seeing this was the first time in my life when I felt I had supped with Brahms, a composer I usually listened to from a sense of duty rather than desire. This is one of the best played and recorded symphony performances I have experienced. 

Why is this recording so good? The Saito Kinen group was fired up (you see that best after the performance). The NHK engineers had perfected their 96kHz/24 bit sound recording techniques in the large venue, and the SQ is unexcelled. You can hear all the instruments all the time in isolation and combined in gorgeous sound-fields. In particular, you can hear wonderful renditions of string pizzicato playing in the background when the winds take the lead with the melodies. The PQ of the video is also unbelievable realistic and pretty. The cameramen were supported with plentiful lighting of the stage.  Every shot is well framed and possesses complete and perfect focus throughout the whole depth of the stage. Absolutely no videography monkey business is allowed such as repetitive shots of players who happen to be sitting in front of cameras. Finally, the picture content was expertly planned and recorded as described in our standards for HDVDs of symphonic concerts.

The Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 was recorded three years earlier in 2006 with a huge orchestra. (Probably only about 25% of the players in 2006 were also in the orchestra in 2009.) The musical performance is intimate, nuanced, mysterious, and spiritual. Due at least in part to the 96kHz/24 bit sound recording techniques used, the sound is clean and accurate.

The raw PQ is also fine. But, alas, this video suffers from a distinct case of DVDitis. There is way too much emphasis on the conductor and there are many of the dreary rear shots which show the conductor over the backs of 30 to 45 musicians. There are only a few whole orchestra shots and almost no shots of whole sections or groups of sections. For example, the video never shows you the five horns as a group.  Instead, we see too many small portions of sections. There is too much senseless panning within sections and zooming in and out just to be doing something. Many times we see weakly framed shots such as an instrument without its player or the concert master from behind. There are too many focus issues and shots that suffer from inadequate depth of field of focus. So this recording violates most of our standards for HDVDs of symphonic concerts. 

It appears that in 2006, not even the experts at NHK understood that HDVD shows of the symphony have to be photographed differently from DVDs. But by 2009 (when the Brahms Symphony No. 2 was recorded) the NHK folks had figured this out.

Now let's enjoy a few screen shots from the Brahms Symphony No. 2.

Here's a full-orchestra shot which fills the entire field of view. This is workable with 1080 lines of video resolution. But you can see that more resolution would be welcome at this range with this many players on the stage. Maybe one day we will have "4K" recordings that will allow you to see this image with the same resolution you get with your own eyes in the typical concert hall:

Below is my favorite whole-orchestra shot for this event. Here you can see every player and you can see most of them well because the camera is closer. But something has to give. The 1st violins are seen from behind; the 2nd violins must serve as proxy. But note also: this is one of the few views that lets you see all the violas. There are 10 violas in two rows next to the stage, but then there are 2 more in front of the double-basses:

Here the view looking looking across the orchestra from the other side of the stage. This is the best shot on the disc of the violins. If I had any constructive criticism of this disc, I would ask for at least one shot with every violin (1st and 2nd):

I'm not going to show any solo or 2 person sections. Instead I'll try give you a few good shots of multiple sections (which are rarely seen in DVDs). Here are trombones, clarinets, bassoons, and flutes:

Here's all the brass but the tuba:

The tympani and bones again:


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Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 ("Pathétique"). Seiji Ozawa conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in Berlin in a disc aimed at the Japanese market (there's a little English on the keep case and the disc menu). This title has not been distributed in Europe or the U.S. It's probably the first HDVD recordings made with 96 kHz/24 bit sound-sampling technology. Directed by Goro Kobayashi; produced by Setsu Mikumo; technical manager was Oleg Anton; video engineer was André Schumann; sound engineer was Felix Kundt, recording engineer was Rainer Höpfner.  Released  2008, disc has 50 minutes of music and 5.0 PCM sound.  Grade: A+

This is one of the  best recordings of a symphony ever made. Even though this was recorded far from Japan in Berlin, NHK (the Japanese National Broadcasting Company) made the investment to get an impeccable product.

Recording the sound with 96 kHz/24 bit sampling technology gives this production a head start in audio fidelity over ordinary HDVDs. The  engineers managed to keep a clean and clear rendition of individual sounds while also building up  a warm sound stage for ensembles, sections, and the entire orchestra. Add to this remarkable dynamic variation in sound level and the result is a gripping trip in the home theater.

The video is also superb.  There was plenty of room for the cameras. The lighting in the Philharmonie building was expertly prepared to match the capabilities of the camera gear. The PQ is outstanding with fine resolution, accurate color rendition and balance (observe how real the sheet music looks and how beautiful the skin tones are), no glare or reflections, and no picture artifacts. When Ozawa enters the stage he walks briskly across the front of the orchestra. The camera follows Ozawa and captures him with no motion defects in the images of the orchestra in the background---something that few video directors can achieve. Later the video director uses panning only a couple of times; the cameras move so slowly that there are no motion artifacts. Zooming is used sparingly and slowly. Focus is always perfect and the depth of field-of-focus achieved is impressive.

Best of all, the video director planned his video for HDVD only. (This performance was not released in DVD.) This title is therefore a model or standard against which other HDVDs of a symphony performance can be judged. So let's look more closely at the the video content on this disc.

I count 207 cuts in the video. Here's a rundown on these cuts starting with shots that could be used both in HDVD and DVD:

43 shots of the conductor only
7 shots of the conductor made over the backs of musicians
15 solos
31 small-section shots (4 or fewer players)
29 part-section shots
2 low-value shots of the building

Next, here are the "super-shots" that look great on HDVD but are too long-range to look good in a DVD (due to the lower DVD video resolution):

12  large-section shots
17 multiple-section shots
36 part-orchestra shots typically showing 80% or more of the orchestra
14 whole-orchestra views showing the entire band filling 100% of the screen

The first thing you will notice about this video is its dignified, measured pace. The average cut lasts almost 15 seconds, which is 3 times more stately than the pace of a typical DVD. Many of the 79 supershots (groups 7 thru 10 of the above) last for 30 seconds or longer. This approximates "being there" in a way that allows you to relax or to explore yourself the views given you by the director. In the whole-orchestra shots you can follow "waves" of music passing thru different sections of the orchestra just as you do when you are in the live audience. (Contrast this experience to the typical DVD which has only a few super-shots. This typical DVD is loaded up with hundreds of fast clips (5 seconds or less) of close-ups of the conductor and small groups of players. Following such a DVD puts an unnatural strain on the poor viewer's brain).

The abundance of supershots in subject video gives you many opportunities to see whole sections and groups of sections working together as the video director follows the score. There are few similar opportunities in the typical DVD.

In addition to the super-shots, subject video also has plenty of beautiful shots of solo players, small sections, and the conductor. I normally suggest that 15 conductor shots is enough for a symphony. Ozawa gets 3 times that many here, but this is tolerable because Ozawa then video is otherwise so strong.

Thanks for being patient. Now to screenshots. Below is a typical part-orchestra view. The angle depends on which instruments are playing. This view comes from the opening moments of the symphony when the bassoon, the double basses, and violas are deployed. This angle picks up the bassoon soloist in the upper left and the strings are to the right. It  might be hard for you to see this in the single still image below. But on your HDVD display, it's easy to see who is playing (moving) and connect what you see with what you are hearing. It really is pretty close to being there:

Next below is a magnificent whole-orchestra view. These shots typically last for a long time. On my display I can easily follow visually and aurally which sections are involved:

Below you see a section shot---all the 1st and 2nd violins. Most DVDs would not attempt to show this kind of large-scale formation. Many DVDs rarely show all the 1st violins and totally ignore the poor 2nd violins. But with HD video, this is an easy shot:

Next below is a pretty multi-section view of all the heavy brass and almost all the other winds. You won't see this on DVD very often:

Now we are getting into shots that you could expect on DVD also, but isn't this a beautiful view of the horns?

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Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1 and Sommernachtstraum

Updated on Thursday, April 7, 2016 at 9:47AM by Registered CommenterHenry McFadyen Jr.

Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1 and Sommernachtstraum or Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream. Seiji Ozawa conducts a 20th-year anniversary concert of his Japanese Mito Chamber Orchestra in 2009 at the Mito Art Tower. Yu Kosuge is the piano soloist. For A Midsummer Night's Dream, the orchestra is joined by soprano Akiko Nakajima, mezzo Katherine Rohrer,  ladies of the Tokyo Opera Singers (Chorus master: Masanori Mikawa), and narrator Yukiyoshi Ozawa (Seiji's son, an actor). There is also an 8-minute bonus of the Bach Air on the G String from the Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major. The information in the collector's booklet is 99+% in Japanese, but there are nice subtitles in English on the disc. This title was recorded with 96kHz/24 bit sound sampling on all tracks. The disc has 5.0 PCM sound output.  Grade: A+ for both performances.

Two delicious confections from the Mendelssohn Konditorei! This title was made in Japan primarily for their home market. The Mito Chamber Orchastra, promoted by Seiji Ozawa, is an elite western-style chamber orchestra in Japan with star Japanese musicians and a few European players. Written material on the keepcase, booklet, and disc is almost entirely in Japanese. But there is just enough information in English for a westerner to work his way through the menus. And for the speaking and singing portions of the disc, there are English subtitles. This is more than just a delightful music recording. It's proof from the Japanese Broadcasting Company (NHK) that Japanese musicians can compete with the best in the world and that NHK can make a better HDVD of a symphony than the European and Americans.

We start with Yu Kosuge as piano soloist in the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1. After you work your way through the menu, here's the title screen:

With only 36 players and a soloist on stage, it's relatively easy for the TV director to follow the the best-practice standards for making an HDVD of a symphony orchestra. The most important single good practice is to give the audience plenty of whole-orchestra shots. In the screenshot below we see the best view of the whole orchestra in this track---you can see all the musicians except for a couple of second violinists who are partly obscured by the piano and the conductor. There are many long-distance shots with this and other angles:

Yu is an energetic performer who is fun to watch:

Following best practices, there are only a couple of shots of Ozawa such as the one below. The emphasis is all on the soloist:

The TV director also was alert to show sections at work. For example, here during the Andante there's a mellow, languid theme with the low strings (violas, cellos, and double-basses) and a single horn playing to the soloist. The camera catches this in a smart, perfectly framed shot that shows all the active players as well as the resting second horn at the edge. In this shot you see exactly what you are hearing:

The piano concerto lasts about 20 minutes as a warm up for the main event. Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream is complete with the Overture (written when Mendelssohn was 17) and the Incidental Music (written when Mendelssohn was 35). I was familiar with this music from the A Midsummer Night's Dream Ballet recorded by the Pacific Northwest Ballet.  I could tell that the singers on that disc were rendering poetry from Shakespeare, but I could not understand a word.

Below from the Midsummer Night's Dream segment are two fine whole-orchestra shots of the full Mito chamber orchestra plus soloists and the chorus. The TV director gives us many such shots, and he often lets them run on for up to 45 seconds. Just think---a TV director who actually lets you relax and enjoy watching and hearing the orchestra for a satisfying period of time before snatching you away to another view. In the first view below, you can see all the violins playing together. In the second view you see all five strings sections at work. Multi-section shots like these are almost never seen in the DVDitis-infected symphony titles we get these days from the European and American Blu-ray publishers:


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Mozart Symphony No. 35 & Haydn Cello Concerto No. 1

Mozart Symphony No. 35 & Haydn Cello Concerto No. 1.  In 2012 Seiji Ozawa conducted the Mito Chamber Orchestra in Mito, Japan at the Art Tower Mito (ATM). The program was:

1. Mozart Divertimento in D major K.136 

2. Haydn Cello Concerto No.1 with soloist Dai Miyata

3. Mozart Symphony No. 35 "Haffner"

Released 2012, disc has for all tracks: (1) Stereo 2.0 PCM 96kHz/24bit (2) 5.0 PCM 96kHz/24bit and (3) 5.0 Dolby Digital 48kHz sound (thanks to Zoltan Glied for a tip on this). Video Directors were Goro Kobayashi and Masami Utsimi; Technical Directors were Kiyotaka Aoki and Satoru Fukuda; Switcher was Hiroshi Minegishi;  Camera by Fumio Saito; Sound by Ryota Ono; Video Engineer was Shoichiro Ogawa. Grade: A+

The recorded sound quality for all three items on the program is superb. In the Divertimento with its small number of 22 strings, I can often distinctly hear the sections separately when they are playing together. Fast runs are extremely clean and accurate. The small forces used do not produce a lot of air pressure, but with the close and accurate recording, I notice a surprisingly large dynamic range even in the Divertimento. The producers can be proud of providing their customers with state-of-the-art sound for a classical HDVD.

The PQ was excellent throughout this well-lit program even if the resolution was slightly soft. I discuss picture content separately for each number on the program.

Divertimento in D Major:

This warm-up piece of about 12 minutes has 22 players and is conducted by the concertmaster. The performance is neat and satisfying. I count 65 video cuts for a stately viewing pace of about 11 seconds for the average cut. Almost half of the cuts show the whole ensemble or most of it or multiple sections. It is nice to see a symphony group play without a conductor in the way, and there are few errors (one instrument-only shot and a bit of fussy panning about). So this segment qualifies for an "A+."

Here's a shot of the whole group playing the Divertimento:

Below is the concert master for this piece. There were 13 violins in the Mito Chamber Orchestra in 2012. I get the impression that all of them play 1st and 2nd violin as required and that many if not all of them might take on the role of section leader from time to time. In this video, you can easily see that the violins are configured differently in each number:

There are many familiar faces from the Saito Kinen recordings. Below we see the cellos, violas, and 2 bass violins:

Haydn Cello Concerto No.1:

The main event in this title is the Haydn concerto. It's longer than the Mozart symphony and gives a member of the cello section a chance to show off. The chance this year went to young Dai Miyata. He is listed in the keepcase booklet as the last member of the cello section. I guess this means that any member of the Mito Chamber Orchestra could be called on to be soloist, i.e., they are all that good. Or maybe this is an initiation for a new member of the section. At any rate, Miyata was definitely fired up and his success was a source of joy for all the musicians. And because this was recorded in high-definition TV, you get the share in this joy as well...this is the kind of information you can't get from a CD.

For the concerto, the orchestra is up to 27 players including the soloist:


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Die Walküre

Wagner Die Walküre. Directed 2011 by Guy Cassiers at Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Stars Simon O’Neill, John Tomlinson, Vitalij Kowaljow, Waltraud Meier, Nina Stemme, Ekaterina Gubanova, Danielle Halbwachs, Carola Höhn, Ivonne Fuchs, Anaik Morel, Susan Foster, Leann Sandel-Pantaleo, Nicole Piccolomini, Simone Schröder, Guro Schia, and Vebjørn Sundby. Set design by Guy Cassiers and Enrico Bagnoli; lighting by Enrico Bagnoli; costume design by Tim van Steenbergen; choreography by Csilla Lakatos; dramaturgy by Michael Philip Steinberg and Erwin Jans; video design by Arjen Klerkx and Kurt D’Haeseleer. Released 2012, disc has 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. It appears this NHK title is currently being marketed only in Japan, but this later Arthaus Die Walküre seems to be from the same production, though not the same performance. Grade: Help!

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Das Rheingold

Wagner Das Rheingold. Directed 2010 by Guy Cassiers at Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Stars René Pape, Jan Buchwald, Marco Jentzsch, Stephan Rügamer, Joannes Martin Kränzle, Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke, Kwangchul Youn, Timo Riihonen, Doris Soffel, Anna Samuil, Anna Larsson, Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya, and Marina Prudenskaya. Daniel Barenboim conducts the Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala and the Dancers of the Eastman Ballet Company Antwerp. Sets designed by Guy Cassiers and Enrico Bagnoli; lighting by Enrico Bagnoli; costume design by Tim van Steenbergen; choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui; video designs by Arjen Klerkx and Kurt D'Haeseleer; directed for TV by Emanuele Garofalo. Released 2012, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. It appears this NHK title is currently being marketed only in Japan; ArtHaus has published this for western markets.  Grade: Help!

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Takemitsu From me flows what you call time and Shostakovitch Symphony No. 5 

Takemitsu From me flows what you call time and Shostakovitch Symphony No. 5. Yutaka Sado conducts his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2011 at the Berlin Philharmonie.  The Takemitsu piece features the entire percussion section of the Philharmoniker:  Raphael Haeger, Simon Rössler, Franz Schindlbeck, and Jan Schlichte with Wieland Welzel (one of the timpani players). Directed by Michael Beyer; produced by Grete Liffers. This disc is restricted to Region A. It  has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B for Takemitsu  Grade: A+ for Shostakovich

This was a special performance to raise relief funds for the people of Japan following the earthquakes and tsunami of March 2011. The event took place on May 20, 2011. The title was released in Japan by NHK and by EuroArts in the West in the fall of 2011. We have already published a mini-review of the EuroArts version of this title. Please refer to that review for more general information.

This Japanese market version of the title appears from product descriptions on the Internet to have  exactly the same music as that published by Euroarts. The difference would be, of course, other artwork and the addition of package information written in Japanese.  It also appears that the sound on this recording, while excellent by general consumer standards, was not recorded with 96kHz/24 bit technology that is often used by NHK. So this would not be one of the audiophile recordings we have been enjoying from NHK. We give the same grade to the works on this title that we gave earlier in our review of the Euroarts version.

We would be happy to hear from anyone in Japan would could tell us more about this title. Here is a link for more information:


My Way of Life

Tōru Takemitsu My Way of Life opera (better described perhaps as a staged concert spectacular). Directed 2005 by Peter Mussbach at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Main Hall and also staged at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin and at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.) Stars Dwayne Croft, Christine Oesterlein, Georgette Dee, Mélanie Fouché, Karen Rettinghaus, Kifu Mitsuhashi, Yukio Tanaka, Yasunori Yamaguchi, and Daisuke Suzuki. Kent Nagano conducts the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Tokyo Opera Singers. Set design by Erich Wonder; costumes by Eiko Ishioka; lighting by Alexander Koppelmann. This is a 2 disc set. Disc 1 is the HDVD recording of the opera. It has 5.1 PCM (48kHz/16 bit) and 5.1 Dolby Digital (48kHz/16 bit) surround sound. Disc 2 is an extremely valuable documentary about Takemitsu's life and the making of the high-definition recording of the opera. This was published in 2010, primarily for the Japanese market. But the disc menus and the box booklet have enough English text for an English-speaking person to navigate and enjoy the production. Oddly, when the characters sing or speak in Japanese or French, there are English subtitles. But when they use English, it's assumed that the English speaking viewer can understand and the subtitles are in Japanese only. But understanding the English being sung in such a strange setting as this is quite difficult, and I felt a bit frustrated about that. If the viewer commands neither Japanese nor English, this production will most likely remain a closed book. Manufactured in Japan, this title is now (March 2011) extremely expensive to buy in U.S. dollars. Grade: B+

I used to be a movie buff. I went through a "Japanese film" period, and my very favorite Nippon films were Harakiri, Ran, and Dohes'ka-den. When I first read about the Takemitsu My Way of Life opera, the name sounded vaguely familiar. Sure enough, Takemitsu wrote the soundtracks for all these films and maybe 100 more. But film music was only one aspect of Takemitsu's output: he was an internationally recognized leader in the avant-guard and esoteric field of "found sound" music. A self-taught genius, everything he wrote was in the vocabulary of sounds he found in his head, in nature, in instruments he invented, as the product of distortion and editing of musical tapes, and in everyday life. His output extended to western-style music (starting points Debussy, Messiaen, and Cage), eastern music and percussion works, and East-West fusion in a variety of serious and popular forms. A universal intellect, he was interested in graphics, painting, sculpture, film, costumes, and the like; he was also known in Japan as a celebrity chef! He was the first Japanese composer to attain fame in the West.

Takemitsu expressed interest in attempting a western-style opera, but his life was cut short at age 66 before he could start. My Way of Life is a review of 11 of his most popular works that was put together by his admirers after he died. (One of these works was titled "My Way of Life.") Because his life was so closely related to visual as well as aural arts, his followers wanted to link the presentation of the 11 titles to some kind of stage production that would illustrate Takemitsu's personality and outlook. I do not know who actually determined the "story line" and selected the images to be used on the stage. My best guess is that some aspects of the production can be directly linked to Takemitsu's life and work, and that some aspects are fantasies deemed appropriate by those who knew him. Here's my stab at the story: an ancient hag looks back on her life as a girl, then as an actress, and finally as an old woman; along the way, lots of weird stuff happens.

If you want to tackle this title, I suggest you first watch it semi-cold with the advantage of the reading the material in this mini-review. Then watch the DVD documentary, which probably will help you tremendously to get ready for your first real viewing of the piece. (I watched this absolutely cold, and I found the first viewing quite tedious.) Among the many bizarre things about this production is the fact that the taking of bows by the performers at the end is maybe the most interesting chapter on the HDVD---but I'll not spoil things by telling you why.

I feel now that this production does a good job of celebrating Takemitsu's music and introducing the newbie to it. I feel now that I have been thoroughly introduced to the life and word of this interesting composer. I doubt, however, that the "opera" aspects of this will be much staged in the future---if ever again. It could turn out that this HDVD will be the world's best memorial to Tōru Takemitsu. So for those interested in avant-guard music, buying this title could turn out to be something they "must do." I give it a B+. Here's a link to help you find a vendor for this:

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