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 24.  Finally we have some good grades with an A for the recent Met The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles) and a B- for an earlier The Pearl Fishers from Naples. Also, we recently gave an A- for the new Don Quixote from the Vienna State Ballet

We just updated our manifesto about the best ballet and dance videos.


Entries in RCO Live (6)


Mahler Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection"

Mahler Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection". In 2016 Daniele Gatti conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra & Netherlands Radio Choir at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam (Chorus Master Klaas Stok). Singers are Anette Dasch (soprano) and Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano). Video direction by Dick Kuijs. Released 2017, the music reviewed here was recorded with 96kHz/48-bit sound sampling and played with a 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio file. The disc also has a stereo sound file recorded at 192/24 and a 9.0 Auro-3D file (a first for us). Grade: B+

RCO Live, the in-house publishing arm of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, publishes here their second Blu-ray recording of Mahler Symphony 2. The first was part of their 2012 10-symphony Mahler box-set and was also sold separately from 2012 on as Music Is the Language of the Heart and Soul: A Portrait of Mariss Jansons and Mahler Symphony No. 2. We graded down the first attempt severely for surprisingly poor video content. In 2012, RCO Live had had years to perfect the miking and sound editing used in their CD recordings. Blu-ray video was still a new endeavor for the company, so problems might have been expected. Well, 5 years have passed since 2012, and we had hoped that RCO Live would have learned to make Blu-ray video as good as their sound recordings. However this is has not proven to be the case --- once again we have an RCO Live Blu-ray that is excellent to listen to, but disappointing to look at. Even so, we ended up with a pretty good grade for this recording, so let's now consider why.

First, the main positives. The RCO is considered by many to be the best orchestra in the world. The performance here is the strongest case we have yet come across to support that claim. The RCO musicians play together with almost scary intensity and accuracy. In other recordings (even with top orchestras), Mahler's complicated structures can seem muddled at times. But this doesn't happen with the RCO and Gatti.

Gatti follows Mahler's instruction to play this music slowly enough to allow all the notes to be heard. This recording is the longest of the 7 Mahler Symphony 2 recordings in our library on Blu-ray (4 minutes longer than the shortest version [Boulez]). Gatti also makes the most of the fermatas (optional pauses) throughout the score to add drama. The sound engineering is world-class with awesome fidelity and brilliant miking and mixing in the orchestra's home hall. It seems you can always hear everything, and this is especially noticeable during Mahler's many pizzicato segments, which are hard to record.

Another positive is that the video content in 2016 is much improved over 2012 (more on this later). Finally, this piece has a quite a bit of off-stage music for mystical effect, and this is pretty-well indicated by the video, at least for viewers who know about this.

Now to the main negative. A shocking defect in this recording is poor PQ that is a step backwards from the 2012 recording of M2! This step backward results from severely cutting back on the amount of light put on the stage for the  2016 recording. The next shot below is a typical view of the whole orchestra in 2016---note how gloomy it is:

And next below is a 2016 shot showing more of the hall (this shot was used to indicate off-stage music being played). Note there is only a single row of lights hanging from the ceiling to illuminate the stage (ignore the ceiling lights in the foreground that are used to illuminate the seating area for the convenience of the audience):

Now let's contrast the 2012 lighting to what we find in the 2016 record. The first view next below is from 2012. It's bright with light. Note the multitude of light fixtures hanging from the ceiling that shine on the stage and even block our view of the organ from this perspective. Then look at the next and darker view below from 2016.  There are far fewer lights, the stage is darker, and we now have a clear view of the organ. It seems obvious the reduction of light is the source of the problem with PQ in 2016. The video team doubtless had modern gear. It appears they were expected to get good PQ even with less light by tweaking the cameras, or maybe the tweaking was done in post-production. But the tweaking failed and generally gives us a dank, oppressive PQ.

2012 PQ

2016 PQ

It also appears that a by-product of the image tweaking was creation of unpleasant artifacts in PQ. In 2016, objects on the stage that reflect a lot of light seem to generate a glare of their own. This includes the white sheet music, Gatti's white vest, shiny brass instruments, and even the tops of the heads of several bald musicians. For example, next below you see an image of 8 horns from the 2016 performance. The upper right horn has a dull finish and looks OK. But the images of the other shiny horns are broken up by glare:

Compare the horns above to a similar shot of horns below from 2012. In 2012 the horns looked fine even though the light on the stage was much brighter:

Why did the RCO reduce the lights? Maybe they hoped to cool down the stage to make the musicians and the conductor more comfortable. Next below is a picture of Jansons in 2012 close to the end of the symphony. It's a little hard to see in a still picture, but his hair and face are drenched in sweat. (Gatti in 2016 seems to stay cool the whole time.)


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Stravinksy Le Sacre du Printemps and Debussy La Mer

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

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


Berlioz Symphonie fantastique

Berlioz Symphonie fantastique performed 2016 by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Daniele Gatti at the Concertgebouw. Concert also includes Wagner's Tannhäuser Overture (Dresden version) and the Liszt Orpheus (Symphonic Poem No. 4). Music recorded with 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling. Video was recorded at 1080p24, which is unusual as most video these days are recorded at 30 frames per second. (You may need to fiddle with equipment settings to get the 24 fps to play nice.) Released 2016, disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

The recording arm of the Royal Concertgebouw operation is called RCO Live. It appears they have been pretty successful with CDs and other audio formats. But their video publication record is poor due to cutting corners and serious problems with DVDitis.  Their Mahler Symphonies 1-10 box was a huge failure that got a D grade from us. Somewhat better was their Beethoven Symphonies 1-9 box that is graded B- here.

This new video of Symphony fantastique is not generous. RCO management is still stuck in the LP/CD rut while offering 85 minutes of music on a disc that can play for 4 hours.  Well, if you want to charge $35 for one symphony, the content must be state-of-the-art in every respect. RCO has come through with 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling, which is encouraging.

But I note that this title is also available in DVD, which is discouraging. If the video content on the Blu-ray is the same as that of the DVD, then the Blu-ray version is automatically rendered obsolete as it falls short of today's state-of-the-art in making HD recordings of symphony concerts. (I did see a short video clip from this recording that prepares me to be disappointed.)

If you have this Blu-ray recording, I ask you to consult our Work Worksheet and Wonk Worksheet Instructions. Then I ask you to play this Symphony fantastique while assigning each video clip to the categories on the Wonk Worksheet. This will take some work. But if you do this work and let us publish it, you will instantly become an elite fine-arts critic. That's because the Wonk Worksheet is the only technique ever devised for art criticism that has objective standards that can be peer-reviewed.  Have you got the guts to be a Wonk?



Beethoven Symphonies 1-9

Beethoven Symphonies 1-9. This is a box set of all 9 Beethoven symphonies with Iván Fischer conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Netherlands Radio Choir.  Recorded live at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on 11 May 2013 (1, 2, & 5), 31 May 2013 (3 & 4), 9-10 January 2014 (6 & 7), and 20-21 February 2014 (8 & 9). Symphony No. 9 features Myrto Papatanasiu (soprano), Bernarda Fink (mezzo-soprano), Burkhard Fritz (tenor), and Gerald Finley (bass). Title is available also in DVD, but recordings of  single symphonies are not offered. Sound is 96 kHz, 24 bit in LPCM 2.0, and DTS-HD MA 5.0. (It is clearly noted in the booklet and on the cases that both sound formats are 96/24.) TV Director is Dick Kuijs for all. Released 2015. Grade: B- as an average for the whole box.

The beautiful Concertgebouw (Concert Hall)

Iván Fischer

High-definition video consumers may have avoided this issue because of the flawed RCO Mahler box set issue which received an overall grade of D on HDVDarts.com. I am happy to report that the RCO label has made some amends; however, this brief review will demonstrate that the set does not deserve a top grade.

We'll start with some general comments on performance. I believe this to be a fine version of these Beethoven masterworks. Similar to other Fischer recordings (e.g. Mahler 4), he brings a lightness and transparency to the music. The tempi always feel well-considered --- never impeding forward momentum, while allowing space for the RCO musicians to create beautiful sounds and phrases. Rhythmic drive and a keen observation of accents (not sure if they are all Beethoven's) highlight folk elements in the music. Conversations and passing lines between groups of musicians are emphasized notably by Fischer, which adds good interest both aurally and visually. While the performances do not have the same raw energy or ferocity as some interpreters, I believe Fischer’s style to be both valid and interesting. This is a set very worthy of repeated listening.

There are no subtitles on any of the discs in this set. So there are no lyrics provided for the choral finale of the Symphony No. 9, although I did not consider this significant enough to deduct for (others may disagree!). For me, the nuances of the text are not imperative to understanding the music. The word “Freude” (Joy) is the most relevant, especially in terms of the feeling behind the music.

Picture quality is not quite up to par with the best Blu-ray concert releases, however I did not find it distracting. I would suggest that it is likely similar to the best of the RCO Mahler box set. However unlike that set, where the PQ varied between symphonies, I can gladly report that all of the Beethoven entries are very consistent in their production (including PQ lighting and color). To get things started on an overall grade for the box set, I’ll propose a deduction from A+ to A- (consistent with the Mahler set) for the soft PQ. As the SQ is 96/24, no further reduction is necessary and we are left with an A- as our starting point in the individual symphonies from which to assess against other HDVDarts.com criteria.

I have recorded statistics for 4 symphonies, which represent a range of recording dates. These also represent 4 of the more popular symphonies, so may be of increased interest to readers.

This limitation does make the assignment of a letter grade for the entire box slightly more problematic. 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 than 20% of the clips in the video.

Now let's look at the numbers for the 4 symphonies:

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Bruckner Symphony No. 5

Bruckner Symphony No. 5 recorded 2013 by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Although I haven't found any published verification of this, Zoltan Glied (who has always been right in the past) reports that this disc, released 2014, was recorded with 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling and has both stereo and 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio output.  Grade: Help!

Thank you Zoltan for the tip on the sound sampling! RCO has recorded other material with 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling. The best example would be their Mahler Symphonies 1-10 in a box set. The performances and sound were commendable. But the video was so bad we wound up with a "D" grade!



Mahler Symphonies 1-10

Updated on Thursday, January 15, 2015 at 1:43PM by Registered CommenterHenry McFadyen Jr.

Mahler Symphonies 1-10 box set. This box has all the Mahler symphonies plus Totenfeier and Das Lied von der Erde. The concerts were performed 2009 - 2011 by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Mariss Jansons and several guest conductors. 

RCO Live is the in-house publishing arm of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The box has 11 separate keepcases---one for each symphony and another for Totenfeier and Das Lied von der Erde. The individual cases are  thin and have only skimpy editorial information printed on them. There is no additional printed matter for the box or individual titles. So, for example, you will not find the timings for movements noted anywhere. But the biggest problem is that there is no text added to the videos --- no subtitles for the soloists and chorus parts, no work/movement titles, and no credits. Audio production on all the titles were done by Everett Porter; lighting for all titles by Pascal Naber. The box was released in 2013. (My impression would be that these titles will not be offered separately.)

Here's the lineup of conductors, soloists, and choirs for the set:

Symphony 1 - Conducted by Daniel Harding. Directed by Hans Hulscher.
Symphony 2 - Conducted by Mariss Jansons. Features soprano Ricarda Merberth, mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, and the Netherlands Radio Choir (chief conductor Celso Antunes). Directed by Joost Honselaar.
Symphony 3 - Conducted by Mariss Jansons. Features mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, the Netherlands Radio Choir (chief conductor Celso Antunes), the Boys of the Breda Sacrament Choir (chorus master Henri de Graauw), and the Rijnmond Boys' Choir (chorus master Arie Hoek). Directed by Joost Honselaar.
Symphony 4 - Conducted by Iván Fischer. Features soprano Miah Persson. Directed by Joost Honselaar.
Symphony 5 - Conducted by Daniele Gatti. Directed by Joost Honselaar.
Symphony 6 - Conducted by Lorin Maazel. Directed by Joost Honselaar.
Symphony 7 - Conducted by Pierre Boulez. Directed by Peter Schönhofer.
Symphony 8 - Conducted by Mariss Jansons. Features soprano Christine Brewer, soprano Camilla Nylund, soprano Maria Espada, mezzo-soprnao Stephanie Blythe, alto Mihoko Fujimura, tenor Robert Dean Smith, bartione Tommi Hakala, bass Stefan Kocán, the Netherlands Radio Choir (chief conductor Celso Antunes), the State Choir "Latvija" (chorus master Maris Sirmais), the Bavarian Radio Choir (chorus master Peter Dijkstra), the National Boys Choir (chorus master Wilma ten Wolde), and the National Children's Choir (chorus master Wilma ten Wolde).  Directed by Joost Honselaar.
Symphony 9 - Conducted by Bernard Haitink. Directed by Peter Schönhofer.
Symphony 10 - Conducted by Eliahu Inbal.  Directed by Joost Honselaar.
Das Lied von der Erde - Conducted by Fabio Luisi. Features alto Anna Larsson and tenor Robert Dean Smith. Directed by Dick Kuijs.

Executive summary. I had high hopes for this set. That's because the very best video of a symphony ever made in the history of the universe was made by this same Concertgebouw orchestra in their own famous concert hall. I'm thinking, of course, of the NHK Schumann/Bruckner title we have bragged about so much on this website. This wonderful title was shot and published in 2009 about the time the Concertgebouw started on their Mahler box. Further, NHK had shot the very best Mahler video in history in 2008 and published it in 2009. So the standard had been set, and RCO management must have known of this. But RCO management chose not to make the necessary investment to make an HDVD worthy of their fabulous musicians.

To their credit, RCO did use 96 kHz sound sampling, but there is a bit of a mystery about this. The box says, "LPCM Stereo 96/24, DTS HD Master 5.0". So no bit spec is claimed for the surround sound. When each of the discs is played on an Oppo BDP-93 and one pushes the "display" button, the player reports that the stereo sound was recorded at "96k 24b" and that the surround sound at "5.0 96k" with no bit specification.  Is the absence of "24b" for the surround sound just a typo? Well, I suggest we have to believe what we read and conclude that the bit spec for the surround is less than 24 bit. Still, having watched all the discs in this set, I think the sound on this set is very fine. This is commendable, and I attribute this to the fact that RCO has had a lot of in-house experience with sound recordings.

But there are three grave blunders with the video and disc authorship in this set. First, I note that a DVD version is also available of the Mahler box. This tells me RCO decided to make a DVD and then to try to pimp it out in Blu-ray dress. As we have pointed out many times, this is impossible. To make a good HDVD of a symphony concert, you have to shoot it for HD presentation alone. Because RCO decided to make a DVD, all the discs  in the Blu-ray box suffer from DVDitis. Second, for inexplicable reasons, RCO also failed to get excellent resolution and picture quality for any of the 11 discs in the set. Thirdly, the decision was made not to provide text with the video. This move alone prevents the set from being taken seriously. The three blunders combined amount to a stain on the reputation of the orchestra itself and bring into question the competence of RCO management.

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