Beethoven Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 6


Beethoven Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral" concert.  Bernard Haitink conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2015 at the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus. Features violinist Isabelle Faust. Has the cheapest and least helpful keepcase booklet ever. Audio producer was Michael Sandner; sound engineer was Hendrik Rahn; video directed by Torben Schmidt Jacobson. Released 2016, music was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sampling, and disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: C+ for the symphony and B for the concerto

This title is a disappointment and gets poor grades. But let me tell you right now some good things about it. Even though the stage was not brightly lit, videographer Jacobson had great gear that allowed him to get sharp, high-resolution images with pleasing color.  Many of his handsome views have about them the aura of fine professional portrait photography. So PQ is superb. SQ is also superb. It seems you can always hear every instrument playing. The string pizzicatos all sound rich and vital. The recording of the tympani is maybe the best I've ever heard. And who can perform this music better than the Berliner Philharmoniker?

Alas, the problem is the obsolete video content dragged down by a serious infestation of DVDitis. (For more about HD recordings of symphonies and the malady of DVDitis, see our special article about all this.) Let's cover the symphony first. Our first screen shot shows the whole orchestra, but you will only briefly see this 5 times in the recording:


And even though Jacobson had the ability to shoot anyway he wished, there are only 6 large-scale, part-orchestra views included such as the one next below. The good HDVD of a symphony will have many more large-scale shots than we find here, and this lack of large-scale views is the most commonly found symptom of DVDitis:

Instead of giving us good macro, Jacobson homes in on the micro. More than 70% of the video clips for this performance have just 1 to 4 musicians clearly in view. Many of these images are remarkably beautiful like the next two "portraits" of violin players:

Jacobson often gets even closer, as in the next two frames, where you only see only part of a single musician:

And then there are many small groups like the next three shots below:

We counted only 14 shots of large sections or groups of players. Next below are 4 of the 6 double bass players. This could have been counted under our rules as a large section shot since it's more than half of the whole bass section:

Next below is for sure a large-scale group shot:


And at the same time that there are so few large-scale shots of musicians, there are about 60 shots of the conductor. This includes 46 of our least-favorite shots made over the backs of the musicians like the next one below:


The 12  screenshots above can only give you a general impression, so we have run the numbers for you. We can offer you the following "statistics" about this symphony recording with the large-scale supershots being designated with an "*":

Conductor clips = 13
C/B clips = 46
Solos, small section, small group clips = 248
*Large section, large group clips = 14
*Part orchestra clips = 6
*Whole orchestra clips = 7
Instrument only clips = 11

We have determined that  a good HDVD should have a slow pace with more than 10 seconds per video clip on average (longer the better). 20 to 40% (higher is better) of the clips should be large-scale "supershots."  Conductor shots should be less than 20% (way less really) of the clips in the video.

So let's see how this symphony recording stacks up. There are 345 clips over 44 minutes of music, which works out to a pace of 7.6 seconds per clip. This is definitely faster than 10 seconds per clip, and subject title flunks the pace test. There are 27 supershots (14+6+7). So only 8% of the clips are super, which is not remotely close to what we look for. The total of 59 conductor shots is 17% of total clips. This passes the conductor test but only narrowly.

We grade this by starting at A+. We deduct a + for lack of 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling. The video content has a bad case of DVDitis for which we deduct two letter grades to a C. We can add a + for the excellent PQ and SQ to get to C+. It's a pity. Had the sound folks been allowed to record at 96kHz/24-bit and had Jacobson been allowed to take full advantage of his HD cameras, this strong performance by the Berlin band could have been one of the best symphony recordings made in the history of the planet. But, alas, it's just another obsolete video that will soon be rubbish when the industry wakes up and starts publishing for the Blu-ray market.

Now let's consider the Beethoven Violin Concerto with soloist Isabelle Faust. Adding a star soloist tends to reduce the risk of DVDitis cropping up in a recording. The cameraman tends to stay longer with the star soloist than with he does with a mere member of the orchestra, and this tends to slow down the "pace." Usually the star shoves the conductor aside in the mind of the TV director, and the result can be far fewer low-value conductor shots. And the orchestra in a concerto is usually smaller than for other pieces, which makes it easier to get large scale shots.

I once thought that all clips of a soloist ought to be supershots on the grounds that a soloist shot would be exactly the same in a DVD or in a Blu-ray recording. But this proved to be superficial thinking. As soon as you add a soloist, the analysis in fact moves to distinguishing the high-value soloists shots from the trash soloist shots.

Our first screenshot shows Faust in full standing and delivering. This is an obvious high-value shot because its exactly what you see from "the best seat in the house."

I think any shot that shows the waist of the star is high-value because this is similar to what one would see sitting on the front row of the orchestra section:


Eventually we started classifying soloist clips as "realistic" or "unrealistic" from the point-of-view of someone in a live audience. So would this next close-up shot below be a high-value, realistic view or a low-value, unrealistic view that nobody in the audience could have? This shot looks great, at least for a moment in time. But with a close-up of a standing violin virtuoso, there is in the real world another big problem. These performers tend to move about a lot! They bob up and down, shift weight from foot to foot, twist back and forth, and even dance around. So as the camera moves in closer, the length of the clip tends to get shorter to reduct the risk that the target will suddenly just move right out of the frame!

And what about the next view below? This is a "fingering and bowing" shot designed to show the HT audience something few in the audience can see---the mechanics of how the instrument is played. This is unrealistic, but may still be high-value if the cameraman is lucky enough to get a coherent clip of the fast-moving playing action:

The next shot below pops up in many recordings of the violin soloist. At this range, it's just a conductor-over-backs shot. At closer range it's an unrealistic soloist shot:


Bryan Balmer and I independently ran the numbers on this concerto recording. In comparison to the results for the symphony recording, we agree that the pace in the concerto was slowed down a bit, but is still faster the 10-seconds-per-clip threshold. We found that the conductor shots are only 13% of total clips, which is also an improvement. We had trouble reconciling our numbers on how many supershots this recording has, but we agree that there were enough realistic shots of Faust to significantly improve the percentage of supershots over the low 8% we encounter in the symphony. The concerto video is better than that of the symphony, which would justify giving the Faust a B- grade. Further, Balmer liked Faust performance, which would suggest a final grade of B.

I'll have to say that there is a bit of controversy about Faust's playing. Faust appears to be a quiet type with perfect technique who prefers to stay in the background personally and let God show you through her playing what Beethoven had in mind. I'm more tuned in to the approach of Anne-Sophie Mutter in her performance with the Berlin Phil where she takes charge personally of everything and attempts to show God Himself what this concerto is about. Two valid approaches, both with weak video content. Take your pick.

Bryan Balmer gets credit for this story. He bought the disc, ran the numbers, and wrote the first draft. Hank McFadyen edited the draft and added discussion of how to accurately judge a video of a solo violinist.

Update on 2016-12-22 16:09 by Henry McFadyen Jr.

Roy Westbrook just published a review of this recording on MusicWeb International in which he states:

The video direction is unremarkable, with too many close-ups of players so that one begins to dwell on facial hair and skin condition rather than phrasing and intonation.

Roy is heading in the right direction with this comment, but he still doesn't understand that videographer Torben Schmidt Jacobson has hijacked Roy's brain and infected it with DVDitis.