Berlioz Symphonie fantastique and Mahler Symphony No. 1 ("Titan")


Berlioz Symphonie fantastique and flare Mahler Symphony No. 1 ("Titan"). Seiji Ozawa conducts the Saito Kinen Orchestra (Saito Memorial Festival Orchestra). The Berlioz was recorded at the 2007 Festival; the Mahler was recorded in 2008. Released in 2009, this title has 5.0 PCM 96kHz/24 bit sound. About 99% of the printed material with this disc is in Japanese. If you don't know that language, it's a humbling experience to navigate your way through the titles and extras, but you can do it. Grade: A- for Symphonie fantastique Grade: A+ for Mahler Symphony No. 1

Hideo Saito (1902-1974) almost single-handedly introduced Western classical music to Japan. His most famous protégé was Seiji Osawa, who was conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 27 years. Osawa was a kind of world citizen who seems to be always everywhere except that each September he returned to Japan to lead the Saito Kinen Memorial Festival Orchestra.

Most of the members of the SKMFO were Japanese regulars. But there was also a sprinkling of stellar musicians from the West, some of whom had already appeared on HDVDs reported on this website. For example, from this disc I recognize Rainer Seegers (tympany) and Gábor Tarkövi (trumpet) of the Berliner Philharmoniker. They appear in the Karajan Memorial Concert HDVD. Also, Jacques Zoon, who plays principal flute in the Mahler Symphony No. 1, appears in the HDVD of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. The SKMFO appears to be quite inclusive. There are a lot of women in the orchestra. But the big surprise is the blind violin player who regularly appears.

Each year the SKMFO gathers and frantically rehearses to prove they can play major works in a manner competitive with the great Western symphony orchestras. I would say they succeed on this disc. And from the way the performers act after each number, it's clear they also think they have pulled it off. Gramophone magazine in October 2009 declared the SKMFO to be number 19 among the best 20 symphony orchestras in the world!

Symphonie fantastique

The performance of the Berlioz piece is fantastically good. The SQ is excellent with 96kHz/24 bit sampling. The HNK engineers put special emphasis on getting accurate information for each individual voice and section in the orchestra. There are two pages in the keep case booklet with details about the microphones used. The result is a clean and vivid audio report with especially impressive dynamic range.  

The PQ is pretty good for 2007. But by current standards it is over-exposed and the resolution is too soft. Picture content is also not quite what we now hope to see.  I think the NHK TV director and engineers in 2007 were still learning how to take advantage of the power of high-definition TV cameras to make HDVDs. The Berlioz piece has a generous number of whole orchestra and multiple section shots that would not have been workable for a DVD recording. That was a big step forward. But the shows still has some DVD bad habits such as too many cuts, too many conductor views, too many backs of musicians (while really featuring the conductor),  and too much panning and zooming.

This title could have qualified for an A+. But for weakness in picture quality and content, I mark the Symphony fantastique down to the grade of "A-" even though the sound is terrific.

Mahler Symphony No. 1

A year later, in 2008, the NHK team got another chance to perfect their HDVD recording chops.  This time they came up with a real winner in their recording of the Mahler Symphony No. 1. The SQ remains as good as what they had achieved before. PQ is superb with perfect lighting (no glare or bleaching), convincingly accurate resolution, real-looking color balance, and masterful control of depth of focus. The musicians have been exhaustively rehearsed and are ready to prove to the world they can play this as well as anyone. But the really exciting news is in the realm of video content. 

I just used a Symphony Wonk Worksheet to analyze this Mahler Symphony No. 1. Here's a description of the video content I found:

  • Conductor shots (C) – 47 clips
  • Conductor over backs (C/B) – 2 clips
  • Solos, small sections (S§), small groups (SG), & misc. small-scale or DVD-like views –128 clips
  • Large section (L§), large groups (LG), & misc. large-scale or HDVD-like views – 47 clips
  • Part orchestra (PO) – 24 clips
  • Whole orchestra (WO) – 37 clips
  • Instrument only (IO) – 3

We have in a special article set out the requirements for a good HDVD of a symphony as follows:

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" (whole-orchestra, part-orchestra, multiple-section, and large-section shots). Conductor shots should be less than 20% (way less really) of the clips in the video.

As seen above, this Mahler S1 has a total of 288 clips found in 54 minutes of music (between 53:00 and 01:49:56) on the disc. This yields a pace of 11.25 seconds per clip. Supershots (L§, LG, PO, WO) = 38% of the total clips of clips. Further, conductor shots (C + C/B) = 17% of total clipsr. It follows then that this Mahler S1 fully qualifies as a exemplary symphony HDVD.

The average cut in this recording lasts more than 11 seconds. Many of the super-shots last considerably longer than 11 seconds. So the pace of this video is more than twice as stately than the pace of a typical Mahler DVD. The abundance of supershots in subject video gives you many opportunities to see whole sections and groups of sections working together as the video director follows the score. There are few similar opportunities in the typical DVD.

So now let's see some screenshots. During the warm up before the concert starts, the TV director is already at work. He shows us where the horns are on the stage. This is a nice courtesy. The horns can be anywhere, and the TV director wants to get us oriented to the horns as soon as possible:

Here is a full-orchestra shot that takes up 100% of the width of the picture. Because the orchestra is so large, this is just barely workable even with HD cameras. The TV directors will give some of these full views; but to let us see better, he will bring the cameras closer and shoot from several angles to show us most of the orchestra:

Here's a good 90% view showing all the 1st and 2nd violins and more:

And here is a similar but closer shot from the other side of the stage. This view lets you see all the violas, cellos, and basses:

Closer yet you can see the cellos and basses:

Of course, the TV director will also close in on smaller sections. Here we see 7 of the 8 horns in action:

Here are the lower brass, bassoons, and oboes:

Now for some soloists. In this recording, you can always hear the harp. That's because she has her own personal microphone, which you see in this picture:

In this recording, anytime a soloist is seen, the soloist is taking the lead musically and can be heard distinctly. In lesser recordings, you often see a soloist, but you can't hear what the soloist is playing. Well, you rarely have trouble hearing the tuba:

The gent in the left side of this image isn't reading from sheet music. He has his part memorized, because he is blind:

Here's a great shot with 2 soloists. This is the beginning of the Third Movement when the tympani plays quietly and the principal double-bass player comes in with a haunting melody. There's 100+ people on stage and only two are doing anything. Well, when you play this live, you quickly see the movements of the tympani player (last row, upper left) and the bass player (upper right, front row of basses, to your right). The HD camera is able to put both these soloists in one frame and everything is in focus. It's so neat when you see this---I don't think this would be possible in DVD:

Oh, here are those horns again at the end of the piece:

Here's another view of the end of the symphony with everybody blowing his brains out. You can see the extra trombone and trumpet standing next to the standing horn players. Maybe all those brass players lined up in the rear are the "Titans":

I hope these screenshots show you how beautiful a HD recording of a symphony can be. If you are also interested in the conductor, fear not. You will have plenty of opportunity to see him in shots like this:

I found only a few video errors in this Mahler S1. There are three instrument-only shots that that don't seem to be called on by the score for anything special or unusual. And there are two shots made over the backs of musicians. Shooting from behind is insulting to the players and normally accomplishes little or nothing.  Still, in the conductor-over-backs shot next below, you can at least see from the sheet music how good the picture resolution is:

In this title, the NHK TV director demonstrates his mastery of correct picture content for an HDVD of a symphony. I should also add there is much less zooming and panning around in this title than what we see on DVDs.  This recording and the Schumann Piano Concerto and Bruckner Symphony No. 9 from NHK are among the best dics I know of to illustrate our Standards for Grading Symphony Orchestra Concerts of Symphonies, Concertos, and other Large-scale Compositions.

This Mahler Symphony No. 1 has it all. It gets an A+, and I also award it our flare designation as a title of special merit and distinction. (Don't overlook Jim Kreh's comment on this below.)

A comment from James Kreh, February 13, 2016

The Berlioz performance for me is an excellent bonus, but I acquired this disc mainly for the Mahler.

It was back in 1969, during my angst-filled senior year in college, that I chanced upon a recording of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in the music library. Ever since then I’ve been a serious devotee of his music, and own multiple recordings of each of the symphonies. I’ve been listening to high-resolution surround recordings for almost 15 years, starting with SACDs and continuing with Blu-rays. With that context established, allow me to state that I found this to be not only a great Mahler performance, but also one of the best orchestral recordings I’ve ever heard. The NHK engineers have captured an astonishingly truthful impression of a superb orchestra playing in an acoustically excellent concert hall. At the end, while watching Ozawa personally greet and thank virtually every member of the orchestra, I wondered whether the concert-hall verisimilitude of the sound was at least partly attributable—perhaps on some subconscious level—to the outstanding video component of this program. To test that theory, I listened again to the last 10 minutes, this time with the picture turned off. The performance was just as poignant and powerful without the video.

This ranks as one of the great “you are there” audio experiences I’ve had in my home theater. With an exemplary video presentation as well, this release becomes indispensable for anyone who cares about the music of Mahler (or Berlioz!).