Review Mahler Symphony No. 2: Compare HDVD to Live Performance
This is a review of a recording made by EuroArts of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 with the Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Pierre Boulez. The orchestra was joined by the Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin prepared by Eberhard Friedrich. Mezzo-soprano Petra Lang sang the solo alto part and Diana Damrau was the solo soprano. The performance was recorded live in high-definition video at the Berlin Philharmonie on March 26-27, 2005 as part of a festival honoring Boulez, who turned 80 on March 26. EuroArts first published their recording in DVD format. But this is a review of the same recording published (on February 1, 2008) by EuroArts in HD DVD and later (on November 15, 2011) in Blu-ray.
This was the first symphony to be published in HDVD. EuroArts will always have bragging rights for this achievement. But the HD DVD presentation chosen by EuroArts turned out to be short-lived. Toshiba abandoned HD DVD on February 19, 2008, just 18 days after EuroArts came out this disc in HD DVD.
The HD DVD version has Dolby True HD lossless sound, and the lyrics sung in the last two movements of the symphony are rendered in excellent subtitles in German, English, French, and Spanish. The Blu-ray version appears to have a video identical to the earlier HD DVD. But the Blu-ray has dts-HD Master Audio sound. Now both the printed advertisement on the keep case and the information on the vendor's website state that the Blu-ray disc has subtitles in German, English, French, and Spanish. But they are not on the disc.
What can we do about the missing subtitles? Well, we have our own partial patch. Scroll down thru this review (which is printable by the way) and you will find the text of all the lyrics in the original German and in English translation.
The remainder of this review has three parts. First, I report how this Mahler S2 comes across after playing it in HDVD. This might be helpful to anyone who doesn't already know this symphony well. Second, I compare the HDVD experience to attending a live performance of the same music immediately thereafter. Third, I make conclusions about "What is HDVD Good For?
The Performance in HDVD
The venue is the ultra-modern Berlin Philharmonie building that is home to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (conducted normally in 2008 by Simon Rattle). This performance is by the Staatskapelle Berlin, which is the orchestra of the Berlin State Opera House. The Staatskapelle Berlin usually plays at its home at the Berliner Staatsoper, located on Unter den Linden about a mile away from the Philharmonie building. (Daniel Barenboim was the principle conductor of the Staatsoper in 2005, and the camera shows him and his son Michael several times in the audience.)
So here we have an orchestra and choir performing a complicated piece away from home under a guest conductor who probably didn't get much rehearsal time--and everybody knows they are going on record with the latest electronics. This is tempting disaster. But with a fear factor, you can also get, as here, an especially sharp performance.
The show opens with Boulez moving to the podium, and the camera shows a bit of the orchestra and the audience. We are dealing here with elites, but everything is so democratic! Boulez directs without baton and looks like a retired lawyer prepared to deliver a eulogy. Male performers wear dark suits with whatever neckwear they like, ranging from black bow tie to iridescent metallic modern. Ladies wear their choice of black. The festival audience was even more democratic with sport shirts and the like.
Allegro maestoso. Mit durchaus ernstem und feierlichem Ausdruch (with completely serious and ceremonial expression).
This movement is considered to be a "funeral rite.'' It is built around two themes that are repeated and embellished. The first theme is a brusk, jarring funeral march introduced by the basses and cellos. It is counterbalanced by a lovely melody brought in by the upper strings. I am not qualified to say what is going on in this movement in terms of music theory. But I believe it well illustrates several aspects of Mahler's music style. First, he likes to take a limited number of themes and repeat them many times with as broad a range of instrumentation and tone colors as he can invent. Second, he creates interest with extreme changes in volume, unexpected punctuation by various instruments, and long, dramatic pauses. This makes his music seem modern even today although it is late romantic and was written before the advent of 20th century "modern music'' with its dissonance, deconstruction, and radical invention.
Many different instruments get the spotlight as the funeral rite progresses. The camera stays close on the featured players, and the picture is so clear that you have the feeling right away that you are getting to know them. You also see how wonderful the instruments are with the variety of materials and finishes in their construction.
Then suddenly, at 07:00, the camera pulls back to show the magnitude of the forces at risk. You see a whole Roman legion of performers coming at you. The strings (all possibly available) and winds (double everything) are jammed in the foreground filling the horizon. Next the percussion battery forms a juggernaut of men and heavy stuff across the whole stage (8 timpani). Behind that are the ranks of the chorus. A narrow path is left in this mass of bodies and instruments for the solo singers to negotiate when they come on stage. It's most impressive. (And, of course, it doesn't show the organ or the 4 horns, 4 or more trumpets, timpani, and base drum that are hidden off-stage.)
Now that the camera has shown us the order of battle, the funeral rite progresses. This should not, however, be confused, say, with Beethoven's funeral march in the Eroica symphony, which depicts a funeral cortege. Mahler goes further. He isn't describing something happening on a boulevard. With wave on wave of crescendos and diminuendos, Mahler expresses all that is going on in the minds of the mourners as they remember the joys, victories, disappointments, calamities, and disasters they lived through with the fallen hero. The tumult reaches its climax in two famous dissonant chords (more about this later) and the movement then unwinds and ends with notes played so softly that they can hardly be heard.
Sehr gemächlich (very leisurely)
After the fearsome first movement, Mahler will now take us, as many hear and see it, through the stages of life leading to the resurrection. The score calls for a pause of five minutes before the journey begins. This is shortened these days just long enough for the orchestra members to catch their breaths. In our performance the solo singers also enter and weave their ways to their perches between the orchestra and the chorus. The second movement--light and lyrical with just a bit of sturm-und-drang brass and percussion added--depicts happy days, or to me, the pleasures and stresses of youth. Especially striking are passages with plucked strings, the double harps, and flutes. The stage is brightly illuminated, and this aids the work of the cameramen. It is surprisingly interesting to see Mahler pass the themes around to different sections and soloists and to see how beautifully the cameras portray the musicians.
[Scherzo] In ruhig fließender Bewegung (in quiet flowing movement)
Now we progress to the life of an adult with its work-a-day activities, concerns, and inevitable frustrations. This movement begins with wake-up whacks on the kettle drums. By now you feel the know the players better. You can see and hear their emotions springing from the pages of the score. Some of them are so young! Some are wound up like a catapults. But another is grinning like a side man at a jam session. Brilliant solos and section passages, especially in the woodwinds, slowly gather in intensity until we reach what is called (in the Wikipedia article) a "cry of despair'' or "death-shriek.'' This sets us up for the release of tension that will follow in the fourth and fifth movements.
Urlicht: "O Röschen Rot!'' Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht (Primeval light: "Oh, Rosebud Red!'' Very dignified, but simple)
Suddenly, we are impelled into the fourth movement and faced head-on with Petra Lang.
Lang's appearance in close-up is startlingly vibrant. She is too pugnacious to be deemed pretty, but everything about her is gorgeous. Start with her art deco coiffure--the only time I can remember in my life admiring a woman's hair as a work of art. And then there is her glowing make-up perfectly matched to her warm, apricot-toned hair and skin blush. One notices a singer's mouth of course, and Lang's is extraordinarily expressive with full, bright red lips and strong white teeth. Undergirding her image is a strand of gleaming pearls and her tailored white dress ordained with rich white beadwork. Lang instantly posits and proves her case: every woman can be a beauty! Behind Lang is a tapestry of faces of the mixed chorus. The earnestness and humility of their expressions looks like a Norman Rockwell illustration.
Lang opens the movement singing:
O Röschen roth!
O rosebud red!
This is followed by a solemn brass choir.
Lang then continues:
Der Mensch liegt in größter Noth!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein!
Je lieber möcht ich im Himmel sein.
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
I would rather be in heaven!
Lang is German, and she doesn't have to worry about the pronunciation and diction of that exacting language. She can focus on the meaning of the words. Every nuance of her voice and facial expression is captured by the mike and camera as she sings with singular feeling, conviction, and power.
Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg;
da kam ein Engelein and wollt' mich abweisen.
Ach nein! Ich liess mich nicht abweisen!
Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!
Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen Geben,
Wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig, selig Leben!
Then I came upon a broad road;
and an angel wanted to turn me aside.
Ah no! I would not turn aside!
I came from God and will return to God!
God will give me a little lamp,
Will show me the way to eternal life!
My friends, no angel could stop this lady! Mission accomplished, Lang is blissfully radiant.
Im Tempo des Scherzo. Wild herausfahrend--Langsam. Misterioso: "Auferstehn, ja auferstehn wirst du'' (In the tempo of a scherzo. Emerging wildly--Slowly. Mysteriously: " Arise, yes, you will arise''
The fifth movement lasts 38 minutes, but this time passes fast. It opens like a volcano venting lava and steam--the day of resurrection has come. Mahler continues his rotations through the instruments and sections. By the end, all forces will be fully engaged. But as in any grand procession, the brass and percussion will predominate.
Several times horns, trumpets, and percussion play from the rear of the audience. When I first viewed this disc, I didn't know this, and I thought what I was hearing was the orchestra on the stage throughout. I don't have the score, and I still don't know for certain what what Boulez actually did. But after careful listening, I think I can identify the off-stage parts.
From 49:54 until 50:25, the main orchestra falls silent. Off-stage brass softly play an other-worldly "call from afar'' announcing the resurrection. Off-stage brass play again, this time together with the orchestra on stage, for a short time from about 52:50.
At 54:58, Mahler writes, now just for on-stage forces, what I think is the most noble and serene brass choir I've ever heard. Those who have been called to heaven, I suppose, are now in formation, ready, and answering.
Next the tympani players lead the percussion in huge crescendos, and this starts a frantic parade towards glory. (At 01:01:10, an extra percussionist joins the two regular tympani players.) The parade arrives at the portal to heaven. From 1:06:12 to 1:08:15, we hear more off-stage brass and percussion. A flute, a piccolo, and other instruments on stage join in a "beck and call'' exchange with the off-stage players--a kind of knocking on the door. And as this passage ends, the full choir enters singing softly. At last, Diana Damrau joins the choir with a soaring voice. From then on, the orchestra, chorus, Lang, and Damrau work together towards the final climax with whole sections of players almost leaping out of their seats with exertion. At the grand conclusion everybody is at maximum forte and Mahler piles on the scrum with an organ and untuned steel plates hammered to represent church bells.
All the off-stage parts in this movement must be a remarkably engaging when heard from the audience. In this recording, however, you get only a hint about this. As I discuss later, "surround sound'' seems to mean something different from what I had thought.
The chorus, Lang, and Damrau sing the text of a poem from Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, modified by Mahler, called the "Resurrection Ode. I have added the German text and English translation as an appendix to this review.
Mahler was a non-observant Jew who converted to Christianity. I carefully read the poetry used in this symphony, but I can't tell what kind of resurrection Mahler had in mind. According to Wikipedia, Pope John Paul II admired this work and the Boulez performance was on Easter Sunday. So it would seem that Mahler's resurrection is considered compatible with Christian theology. German poets often used naturalistic (and even erotic) imagery to depict Christ, and the red rosebud may be such a metaphor. Still, I see nothing else in the poetry to support this. To me, the poetry is just as suggestive of Eastern mysticism and the ideas of reincarnation as it is of Christian doctrine.
The Mahler S2 is popular, and there are many recordings on the market including many DVDs. A friend, who played this symphony as a percussionist in his student orchestra, conducted a census and found nine recordings, including 2 DVDs, of Mahler S2 on his shelves. He considers the subject title to be superior to his other recordings because it alone, in his words, "imparts the spirituality'' of the piece that he came to know while playing it as a young person.
How Does the HDVD Stack up to a Live Performance?
While writing this review, I saw in the Dallas Morning News that the Mahler S2 was to be performed by the Fort Worth Symphony. This was a golden opportunity to compare the HDVD to the real thing! So soon I drove to the beautiful Bass Performance Hall in our sister-city to hear Mahler S2 live. I was lucky enough to get a returned-ticket center orchestra seat that put me in the middle of the house.
While waiting for the performance to begin, I thought of an email I recently had received from Dr. Daniel Levitin (author of This is Your Brain on Music and The World in Six Songs) about comparing a record to a live performance. These are different manifestations of the composer's score, he explained, because "the way you hear out of 2 (or 6) loudspeakers is intrinsically different from hearing live music where the sound can emanate from a virtual infinity of points.'' I was about to hear and see proof of this comment.
Because I had viewed the subject title so well, I was able to anticipate everything that I would hear--but the live performance sounded so different from what I remembered from my home theater! I will now describe four ways in which the live performance bested the HDVD and one way in which the HDVD was superior to the live show.
Let's consider first the four ways the live performance was superior:
- Better overview. With only one visual sight-line for the whole performance, I saw the whole orchestra in live performance as a kind of landscape of sound from which various aural objects would appear. Just as Levitin suggested, I was able to tell by ear pretty well where the different sounds were coming from. Sometimes I had visual clues as to what was happening on stage, but I could still follow the origins of the sounds even when the players were hidden from view by other musicians. Early in the first movement, woodwinds led by two oboes enter with a memorable passage played over quiet massed strings. I knew this well from the recording. But in person it wasn't just a strange melody. I felt I was viewing a glowing lake veiled with mist from which some giant long-extinct bird was wailing its mating call. Later I heard crescendos ripple through the orchestra and I thought of human waves at a football game and of plasma plumes rising into space and then falling back into the surface of the sun. For almost all of history, all performances were live. And they were probably rarely done in the dark. We are used to seeing and hearing performances as a whole.
You might ask why I bother to write about something that is so self-evident. Well, I have seen hundreds of performances. It never occurred for me to think about this unity of sight and sound, or overview. But attending this live performance of Mahler S2 after learning the piece from the HDVD allowed me to experience the live performance tabula rasa--like I had never been to a live concert before. With a HDVD, you experience many points of visual reference (as the camera plays roving reporter), but the only points of origin of sound are the speakers in your room. This is not what we are used to. With a live performance, this is flipped the other way with an infinite number of points from which the sound can come but with a single visual overview. This is what we are used to.
All these observations suggest that the chief objective of the videographer of a symphony should be to give the viewer most of the time a large-scale overview visually of the orchestra. And this large-scale view should be from a sufficiently high angle to let the viewers see down into the orchestra and spot visually who is playing.
- Firm sense of location. In the live performance, I had a comfortable sense of knowing where I was. If musicians were to play softly from the rear, I'm confident I would recognize immediately the unusual origin of the music. (As it turned out, Bass Hall is too small to pull off Mahler's sounds ``from afar'' trick. When the off-stage brass came in, the whole hall was filled with pealing fanfares that echoed around making it hard to tell what the heck was happening. Next time, the conductor will have to send the brass and drums out into the street.) With our 360 degree hearing and sensitive peripheral vision, we are ever alert to danger from any quarter and always feel better if we know where we are. This sense of place is often lost when viewing something in HDVD because your location is wherever the cameraman and the sound engineer puts you.
This consideration also suggests that the videographer should use mostly large-scale images that gives the viewer a stronger sense of "place."
(This brings us to a consideration of the question, "What is surround sound?'' This HDVD plays back in "surround sound,'' but that doesn't mean that you hear the performance in your home theater as a member of a live audience would hear it. If that were the meaning of the term, then music played from the rear of the hall would come from mostly or only from the rear speakers, and this in not the case with my system, which, according to my test disc is working correctly. I think that the term "surround sound'' in correction with an HDVD recording of a symphony probably means that you hear the music the same as the engineer who mixes the sounds collected from many microphones set up all over the stage and maybe elsewhere in the auditorium. And so the engineer surrounds you with a nice blend of the many sounds he captures making sure that you can clearly hear the various soloists as they are features on the video.)
Better fidelity. No matter how good a performance may sound in my home theater, the real deal will always sound better. Performed live in Bass Hall, everything was more vivid, full, rich, and authentic than I remembered from my HDVD. This was brought home in an unexpected way. I mentioned early in this review two dissonant chords used by Mahler late in the first movement. Although I knew about the chords, I had not identified them in my home theater as I listened to the general cacophony late in the first movement. But when I heard them played live, it was obvious how different they were from the tone of the rest of the movement and that these were the famous dissonant chords. Now that I have been introduced to them in person, I recognize them in my home theater as well, but they still don't sound nearly as dissonant as they should.
Suspense or home-field factor. Finally, nothing beats being there live when anything can happen. Successfully playing the difficult Mahler S2 was a milestone for the fledgling Fort Worth Symphony. Well, the performance started 20 minutes late reportedly because the conductor got sick! But then all went well; and when finished, the musicians and the audience were all jumping around like at a championship sports event!
Now let's turn our attention to one way in which my HDVD was superior to the live performance: the unique ability of HDVD to provide vivid close-up video of individual musicians and whole sections accompanied by clear renditions of the music they are performing. I believe that seeing the musicians is almost as important as hearing them. Some scientific work has actually been done on this. At page 210 of This is Your Brain on Music (Plume 2007), Dr. Levitin describes how studies by his associates "have shown that nonmusician listeners are exquisitely sensitive to the physical gestures that musicians make. By watching a musical performance with the sound turned off, and attending to things like the musician's arm, shoulder, and torso movements, ordinary listeners can detect a great deal of the expressive intentions of the musician. Add in the sound, and an emergent quality appears--an understanding of the musician's expressive intentions that goes beyond what was available in the sound or visual image alone.''
I'm glad to know of scientific studies on this. But this isn't necessary for me--meeting Petra Lang in my home theater was all the convincing I will ever need. A very nice lady singing mezzo appeared with the Fort Worth Symphony to sing Urlicht and the alto part in the last movement. She stood right at the edge of the stage and was amplified. From 18 rows back I couldn't see her that well and could barely hear her. I have already stated that I would rather hear the Fort Worth Symphony again than see my HDVD another time. But I'll be lucky to ever see and hear a mezzo singing live with a symphony who will be able to compete with the memory I have of Petra.
Early I urged that the videographer of a symphony should mostly use large-scale views to give the video viewer a better sense of overview and location. How do I square this with my remarks about the glories of showing close-ups of soloists or sections of the orchestra. Well most of the time the video should consist of large-scale shots, but the camera should go in closer when a particular group of sections, or individual section, or soloist is doing something especially important and the rest of the musicians are in playing in support or are at rest.
What is HDVD Good For?
It's probably not helpful to ask such questions as,"Does the recording sound as good as the actual performance?'' or "How close is the video to being there?'' Recordings will likely never be able to render something that anyone would confuse with the real thing.
More helpful questions would be, "At what point does the quality of a recording produce a manifestation of the composer's score that is worth my time?'' or "What is HDVD good for?'' The degree of fidelity of the aural and visual reproduction obviously is the starting point. Based on my own observations over many years and on the work described by Dr. Levitin, I think it is important to have a relatively high-resolution visual presentation to support high fidelity sound. Answers to my helpful questions may always be subjective. My answers now, based in part on the factors discussed in this this review, are as follows:
- No recording likely will ever rival (much less equal) a live performance by the same performers.
- High fidelity sound has for decades given consumers a satisfactory listening experience. This led to the development of a substantial industry providing fine art sound recordings to an elite market.
- But a complete listening experience requires the addition of a visual record. Alas, the visual quality of VHS and DVD was too low to support high-fidelity sound recording. For this reason, the market for fine art videos has never taken off.
- HDVD for the first time gets us over the threshold where the visual recording is not distractingly bad compared to the sound recording.
- At 1080p, the visual experience is fully adequate for productions by smaller groups of performing artists. In large-scale productions, 1080p is fully adequate for close-up and mid-range depiction of the artists. 1080p is only minimally adequate for performances where the artists must use all the area of a modern orchestra or opera stage.
- For a fully satisfactory experience of material presented on a big stage, we still must look forward to 4K or higher video. We need resolution that will allow us to see artists at the back of a stage with about the same decree of detail that a live spectator at the far end of actual venue can resolve by eye.
- When making HDVDs, videographers should prefer large-scale images that give the viewer overview and a sense of place. But no recording will rival a live performance. So the videographer is justified in using close-up shots to add spice to the video with views that few or no live audience members could ever see. But in doing this, the videographer should always avoid images that distract or interfere with the viewer's sense of overview and location. This means the videographer must generally avoid shots made from the back of the orchestra or from cameras located overhead pointed down. Frontal shots of the conductor from the interior of the orchestra are weak because the sound field is reversed 180º, they always distract from what the musicians are doing, and provide only the most superficial information about what a conductor actually does in leading his orchestra. The closest shots used should always show the musician and the instrument (expect when the instument is something unusual like a toy trumpet or a giant wooden box being whacked by a sledge hammer).
- A live performance by competent artists usually will be superior to a recording by superior artists even when one can tell that the recorded artists are performing at a higher level of professional skill. There may be exceptions to this rule. For example, after absorbing the recorded performance of Urlicht by Petra Lang in her Mahler Symphony No. 2, I am not likely to be much impressed by a live performance by a lesser soloist unless I'm lucky enough to be seated right in front of her.
- The HDVD experience is not intended to compete with or be a replacement for live performance. An HDVD recording is a different manifestation of the composer's score than a live recording:
- But HDVD does now allows consumers to enjoy fine-arts performances, on demand, that are aurally and visually satisfying.
- Consumers will find HDVD recordings especially useful for learning about a composition.
- HDVD recordings will likely become important new resources for teachers and students of music, dance, and drama.
- HDVD may be able to provide some new things to the art world:
- HDVD recordings can give close-up renditions of artists in larger works in a way that is radically different from seeing a live performance.
- HDVD recordings can give the consumer a choice of both video and aural viewpoints.
- As to video, the program could show the performance from a single "best seat in the house.'' In addition, the program could show an alternate with multiple cameras acting as roving reporter.
- As to sound, the program might allow the consumer to elect to enjoy the performance from the best seat or from the engineer's control room (which would track, of course, the video shot by the roving reporter). Subject title provides sound from the viewpoint of the engineer's control room. From this viewpoint, you can't tell anything about the origin of the off-stage music. From the viewpoint of the best seat, the consumer would hear the off-stage brass coming out of the rear speakers only.
- Artists and producers of fine arts live programs should embrace HDVD recordings. Up to now, the fine arts have enjoyed market support for recordings only from a small group of elite consumers of high fidelity sound. But now everyone with a home theater can learn more about fine arts performances. Because no recording can rival the real thing, this will insure an increased demand to see live performances as well. And HDVD will allow even relatively small performance companies to have a shot at world-wide markets.
Appendix: Resurrection Ode
Source: Wikipedia Article on Mahler Symphony No. 2
Henry C. McFadyen, Jr. --- December 5, 2011