Beethoven Piano Concertos 1-5


Beethoven Piano Concertos 1-5. Daniel Barenboim plays all of the Beethoven piano concertos while conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin at the 2007 Klavier-Festival Ruhr. Directed by Michael Beyer; Director of Photography was Andreas Naumann; produced by Paul Smaczny. Released 2008, disc has 5.1 hts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B-

First comment from Gordon Smith in 2009: This issue is a celebration of the capacity offered by HDVDs. Just imagine: the complete cycle of Beethoven piano concertos with high-fidelity sound and high-definition images on a single disc --- featuring the great Daniel Barenboim as soloist and conductor --- all at an appealing price!

This cycle was recorded during the 2007 Ruhr piano festival in the Jahrhunderthalle in Bochum. The converted factory complex, with a glass roof and metal walkways overhead and to either side, seems functional and unforgiving. However, this environment provides superb acoustics with the orchestra and piano singing out magnificently.

Even before Maestro Barenboim walks onto the stage, the sight of the way the piano and orchestra are laid out gives you an inkling of the performances to come. Instead of the piano being in front of the orchestra with its lid reflecting the sound into the audience, the lid is gone and the open instrument is thrust into territory usually occupied by the orchestra. The pianist/conductor still has his back to the audience. But the orchestra almost surrounds him with the first violins immediately to his left, the cellos to the right, and all the other players spread out in front.

This unconventional layout (at least for Beethoven) is reflected in the performances. For instead of the usual conductor/soloist "partnership," here Barenboim is in total control, giving the music a unity, a continuity, a homogeneity that is quite outstanding. He literally sculpts the music, phrasing it, shaping it into a whole that is totally absorbing.

The Staatskapelle orchestra plays in perfect symbiosis with their conductor, revealing a genuine rapport with him.  This is apparent in the youthful joyfulness of the first two concertos and is even more telling in the later ones. The second movement of the Fourth, for example, takes the piano/orchestra dialogue to new heights. The orchestral statements are biting and incisive, while the piano replies in poignant contrast with lilting poetry.

And then there is the Fifth! This monumental performance, an interpretation of white-hot, symphonic intensity, puts the "Emperor" into a whole set of "new clothes" that everyone will be able to appreciate! Barenboim conducts and plays this monumental work with such mastery of command --- such oneness with the music---that it's like hearing it for the first time!

Musically and visually then, this is a winner. There is, however, a downside. The disc authorizing is appalling! The menu offers no more than a choice between "Start program" and "Trailers." You can only choose between the 2 channel LPCM and DTS-HD Master Audio tracks after the program has started by using the "audio" selection button on your remote. To play a particular concerto, you must look up which chapter you want in the booklet, start the program, and then skip through the chapters or select the target chapter with the remote! But once the music starts, you soon forget these irritations and just get swept away!

Second comment in 2012 from Henry McFadyen Jr.: This title made a big impression when it came out. But since then we have learned from the Murray Perahia recording of the Schumann Piano Concerto how a piano concerto should be recorded for HDVD.

We now prefer that symphonic works be recorded with 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling, which subject title lacks. Although the sound on subject title is excellent by past standards, the sound on the Perahia Schuman Piano Concerto is better. Although the picture quality with subject title is generally good, resolution is a bit soft.

More importantly, see our standards for recording a symphony for HDVD with its discussion of "DVDitis." The video content on subject title is obsolete because it is too much influenced by the way video is shot for a DVD. The low resolution of a DVD forces the cameraman shooting a concerto to use close-up shots of the conductor, the soloist, and small groups of players, usually in a "road-runner" race of rapid video cuts. But with the power of HDVD cameras, you can shoot the whole orchestra and its larger sections in a way that more closely represents what is really happening on the stage. This is the main lesson we have learned from the Perahia Schumann Piano Concerto,  which was recorded for the sole purpose of making a state-of-the-art HDVD.

I prepared "statistics" on the Barenboim Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 and the Perahia Schumann Piano Concerto to help me compare features of the two recordings. The average clip length in the Schumann is 14.5 seconds; for the Beethoven, the average length is only 8 seconds because of the "road-runner" race. The pacing of the recording makes a tremendous difference to the viewer. Watching the Schumann is just as pleasant and relaxed as sitting in the live audience soaking up what appeals to me. In the Beethoven, however, I feel too often that I'm being pushed on to something new by the TV director.

In the Schumann, there are 18 whole-orchestra shots and 14 large-scale part orchestra shots, all gorgeous and wonderful to admire. In the Beethoven there are only 5 whole-orchestra shots and 8 large-scale part orchestra shots. The Beethoven video doesn't show the "big picture" well.

So what do we see in the Beethoven video? There are 36 cuts of Barenboim acting solely as conductor, 130 shots of Barenboim playing the piano, 31 shots of small groups of players, and 18 shots that show an instruments but not a player (instrument-only views). These are all things that are easy for the DVD cameraman to frame and record; but except for the 130 shots of Barenboim as soloist, they are relatively low-value shots. In contrast, the Schumann HDVD gets the job done with 21 conductor shots, only 54 shots of the pianist (many of which are quite long), only 6 shots of isolated players not playing lead, and no instrument-only shots. The Schumann HDVD concentrates on the important things which are thoroughly presented; the Beethoven DVD approach dissipates our attention with too many short clips and trivial close-ups.

So here's the bottom line: The Schumann was recorded solely for HDVD; the Beethoven was recorded to be published in both DVD and Blu-ray. The complete HDVD experience in the  Schumann performance is substantially more enjoyable than watching a DVD-style video that has been republished in HDVD.

(As a  check, I  also recently watched again the Barenboim Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5. Based on this and my memory of earlier viewings, I conclude that Concertos 2-5 are similar to No. 1 as to video content.)

For lack of audiophile-level sound, soft PQ, mild "DVDitis", and the irksome disc authorship issues (discussed above by Gordon Smith), I reduce the grade to B-.

There are several YouTube clips available, but none of them have HD images that do justice to this recording.