Beethoven Piano Concertos 1-5


Beethoven Piano Concertos 1-5. Rudolph Buchbinder plays piano and conducts the Wiener Philharmoniker in all 5 Beethoven piano concertos  at the Vienna Musikverein. The concerts were recorded live over 4 days in May 2011. There are 186 minutes of music plus a bonus 30-minute documentary with a conversation between Buchbinder and music critic Joachim Kaiser. Directed for video by Karina Fibich; video editing by Thomas König;  audio by Martin Gamperl; home video producer was Hartmut Bender. Released 2012, disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: C+

This title competes with the Barenboim 5 Beethoven Piano Concertos, which was recorded 4 years earlier in 2007. As you might expect of something recorded more recently, the picture quality is better than in the Barenboim issue. The sound quality is also better than the competition even if it is not audiophile sound beginning with 96kHz/24 bit sound sampling, etc. Finally, we think Buchbinder outplays Barenboim in these concertos. Buchbinder is a highly esteemed musician and scholar who has specialized in Beethoven; this qives him an edge here even over universal genius Barenboim.

It may have been the dream of a lifetime for Buchbinder to record these concertos at the Musikverein with the Wiener Philharmoniker for HDVD. If so, the dream collapsed into a bit of a nightmare due to worse than mediocre video content. This title was published simultaneously in DVD and HDVD.  And, alas,  subject HDVD has a harsh case of "DVDitis."

DVDitis is a disease that affects HDVDs when the show was shot to be published as a DVD as well as in high-definition. The low resolution of DVD requires the TV director to rely primarily on close-up shots where the lack of resolution will not be noticed by the customer. So if you have to shoot for DVD, you can't use many shots of large sections of the orchestra or the whole orchestra. The typical DVD consists of a great many shots of the conductor cut quickly to close-up shots of one or two players in a frantic effort (think movie cartoon) to keep the show interesting. If the TV director is required to present the show in high-definition video with the same content required for the DVD, the result will be a bad HDVD. That is what likely has happen here.

The chief hallmarks of a good HDVD are (1) lots of whole-orchestra shots, (2) a moderate pace of video cuts that gives the viewer plenty of time to enjoy each shot, and (3) the use of close-ups only when they add significant value. All of this is turned upside down by Fibich and König in this Buchbinder title.

Let's look more closely at the recording of Piano Concerto No. 1. There is almost no effort in this video to show the entire orchestra or most of the orchestra. We count 285 cuts in a piece lasting 37 minutes. That's about 7.7 seconds per view, which is too fast. (Contrast this to the pace of about 14.5 seconds per view in the Murray Perahia Schumann Piano Concerto, which we consider our model for an HDVD of a concerto). Finally, subject video consists almost entirely of close ups as the video hot-potato gets passed around interminably.

An additional video defect is the almost perverse tendency of Fibich and König to shoot frequently from the rear of the orchestra showing the backs of the orchestra musicians. Additional errors are 16 inane instrument-only shots, dumb shots of the top of the tympani player's head, silly reflections of Buchbinder's hands in the shiny dust cover of the piano, and too much panning and zooming around. These stunts might seem clever in DVD where the videographer is always  looking for something new to amuse the viewer; they are repulsive in HDVD, where the viewer is always looking for something of timeless beauty.

Theses observations about Concerto No. 1 apply equally to the rest of the concertos in this series except that (1) picture quality is not consistently as good throughout as it is in Concerto No. 1 and (2) the pace of cuts is somewhat slower and more enjoyable in the highly lyrical Concerto No. 4.

Stephen Plaistow reviewed this set (apparently in DVD) on page 40 of the June 2012 issue of Gramophone. Plaistow dislikes Buchbinder's decision to direct as well as perform on the grounds that these concertos are too big and complicated to be played as chamber music. He also views Buchbinder as a scholar and technician rather than as an interpreter. As to the video, Plaistow concludes, "I doubt I'll be listening and watching again."

We feel sorry for Buchbinder. He appears to be a delightful man and a fine musician. We think these performances were successful live.   Buchbinder probably had hopes (with good reasons from his perspective) that the recordings would be a hit. Alas, we fear these hopes were dashed by weak video content. And this bad video probably had a lot to do with Plaistow's prediction that he would not watch these concertos again. Other musicians and TV directors will eventually make wonderful recordings of these concertos taking full advantage of HDVD. But the opportunity to watch Buchbinder do this is probably lost forever.

Now to a grade. We are marking grades down substantially for bad video content. The Buchbinder disc also lacks  audiophile level sound and  PQ is spotty. So we wind up with a grade of C+.

Sorry, there's no decent YT clip of this.