An Introduction to Blu-ray

REVIEW PUBLISHED: February 16, 2012
PROGRAM: Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor/Bruckner Symphony No. 9
ARTISTS: The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, Murray Perahia
RELEASED: November 27, 2009
COMPANY: NHK-Classical

A relatively unknown 2009 NHK-Classical video from Japan featuring the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is a game changer for the recording industry:


Whenever a new musician or ensemble gains significant recognition in the classical music world, three things are routinely discussed in the media: ability, critical reaction, and a recording contract. The third point is usually the least intriguing for the public, as the fruits of the contract usually reflect how uncreative record companies are.  More audio recordings of Bach's violin concertos, Liszt's Piano Sonata, or another cycle by Brahms or Mahler, among other warhorses---all produced 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 are often on the stingy side. Valuable 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 an afterthought.

Though 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 that pencil markings can be seen on a musician's score. If the director would keep the camera fixed on the score, the viewer could sing along.  Even with a good seat at a concert hall, it's almost impossible to see most of these details. Still, no Blu-ray made a convincing case that it was a real step up from DVD or that this hyper-clarity made the experience of these films better.

Then came our review disc from NHK Classical, a Blu-ray featuring the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink and Murray Perahia.  Its deliberate release for the Japanese market probably restricted awareness in the West, which is disgraceful.  For there has never before been a recording of classical music that so thoroughly captures the magic of live orchestral music. Recorded in the spring of 2009, 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'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 most ideal format yet for the presentation of classical music (due to its contrapuntal nature and the large number of acoustic instruments often involved).  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 spectacular audio, NHK-Classical also used Blu-ray's high-resolution capability to completely show how the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra performs. This is often achieved with stylish high-definition long-range shots of the whole ensemble or large sections. The visual is so clear that no musician looks minuscule or distorted.  Like sitting in a good terrace seat, such angles give the viewer the freedom to clearly look at whoever is playing---no matter how far apart---and make the judgment on what to pay attention to. It's a joy to watch in sophisticated passages of the Schumann Concerto and is especially awe-inspiring during Bruckner's massive orchestral tuttis. The combination of these scenic camera angles and the rich, layered sound often bring to mind Clara Schumann's observation of her husband's piano concerto in 1841, "[…] 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."

Long regarded for his Bruckner interpretations, Bernard Haitink's 2009 account of the Ninth is a noble and dedicated performance. It’s almost surprising how his gentle, grandfatherly stage-presence inspires so much 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 while the outer movements are spacious and deeply expressive. Under Mr. Haitink's direction, the Concertgebouw is a force to behold.  It is thrilling to hear the effortless legato playing of the woodwind players and the rich unisons of the strings.  And to see the concentration and poise of Murray Perahia, to hear the fluidity and many nuances of his playing is a moving experience. It is possible 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. To put it simply, when I hear Perahia play Schumann, I hear the composer, the poet speak. When I hear someone like Martha Argerich perform the same concerto, I hear her.

This disc is better than it's price, but it is still shocking to see how expensive it is.  Either NHK didn't want to take the risk to release it beyond Japan or they are unaware of what they've achieved. Which is a pity because this is the most important recording of classical music yet produced in the twenty-first century.   Those who rarely attend concerts and experience this disc will understand what Herbert Von Karajan once said about symphonies, "Perhaps it's only comparable to a flight of birds. I've always been fascinated to watch three hundred birds steered by a common will. They have no visible leader yet their movements are perfectly coordinated and exquisitely beautiful."

At the very least, conservatories and music schools must show this disc in their classrooms. There is so much to gain with multiple viewings.  Of course anyone who's had the opportunity to see a first rate orchestra perform knows how sophisticated a symphony can be. Attentive concert goers with great seats can hear and see all of the details. But finally, technology has brought the concert hall to our living rooms. And this disc is not only a technological achievement---it's a sublime performance. I haven't been this impressed by a Schumann concerto on film since the first time I watched Rostropovich's 1976 concert in Paris with Leonard Bernstein. Experiencing  this Bruckner performance is as much a revelation to me as when I first saw Carlos Kleiber conducting the same orchestra from a legendary 1983 broadcast on DVD. This Haitink disc, more than any recording before it, successfully gives us the rare privilege to see how players in a great ensemble work together with camaraderie and devotion----in other words, the miracle of making music.

Update on Tuesday, January 22, 2013 at 5:26PM by Henry McFadyen Jr.

Here are some more screenshots taken from the two performances discussed by Mr. Huang above with brief additional comments. The first batch is from the Schumann piano concert, followed by shots from the full orchestra playing the Bruckner symphony.

Here's a full-orchestra view for the piano concerto:


Let's get a bit closer:


And here's a keyboard shot. Have you ever noticed the optical illusion where the keys on the far side of the pianist appear to be longer than the keys on the near side? You don't see that here because the camera has enough depth of field of focus to keep the entire keyboard looking like it's supposed to:


But the players behind Perahia in this shot are outside the field of focus. This is considered OK because it keeps the viewer's attention on the star player:


Haitink looks avuncular in this cozy chamber orchestra shot:


This is the correct view for showing the concert master (too often we see in our videos the back of the right ear of the concert master):


The cello section (5 of 6 players):


The orchestra for the Bruckner symphony is a magnificent thing to see:


This view is as close as you can get and still see all the winds:


This angle will let the TV Director focus on the lower strings:


Here's a great shot of all the winds (except for 3 horns):


Here's half the horn players working out on Wagner tubas:


There was no camera on the stage to the left of the conductor. This means there was no way to get a great shot of all the violins. Well, here's a view of some of the 1st violins:


And here's a beautiful shot of 2nd violins and violas:


Finally, here's a pensive Haitink portrait: