Brahms Symphony No. 1 and Elgar Cello Concert in E Minor


2010 Europakonzert: Brahms Symphony No. 1 and Elgar Cello Concert in E Minor concert. Also includes the Prelude to Act III of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Played and recorded in Oxford at the Sheldonian Theatre in 2010. This was the traditional Europakonzert performed on May 1 each year by the Berliner Philharmoniker in a special venue, usually in a different European city. Daniel Barenboim conducts. Alisa Weilerstein plays cello. Directed by Rhodri Huw; director of photography was Bernie Davis; edited by Geraint Pari Huws; produced by Bernd Hellthaler. Released in 2010, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio surround sound. For the Elgar concerto Grade: A For the Brahms Symphony No. 1 Grade: C+

The Berliner Philharmoniker flew to Oxford to rehearse one day (with Daniel Barenboim as guest conductor and an American soloist they had never met before) and then play a May Day concert at 10 a.m. the next day. The tiny Sheldonian Theatre, drowned with light from bare windows and echoes from bare walls, was packed with an audience sitting 15 feet away from the band. This was a beautiful occasion, and there is no faking how delighted the audience was.

But excessive light was a problem for the cameras. The video is over-exposed throughout, which resulted in odd color balance, poor color saturation, and a slightly bleached look in the basic home theater I had when I bought this title in 2010. With a calibrated plasma display bought more recently, the picture looks much better. The video recording folks deserve praise for dealing with the light problem as well as they did. SQ is pretty good by CD and DVD standards and maybe admirably good considering the circumstances.  The February 2011 Gramophone (page 115) calls this a "glorious disc" in its "Super Audio Corner." That might be overdoing it. I compared subject Oxford disc to a Brahms Symphony No. 2 recording from NHK, which was recorded in the Saito Kinen Orchestra home venue using the best of everything including 96kHz/24 bit sound sampling. The NHK SQ is substantial better than subject Oxford recording made away from home in a cramped venue under provisional circumstances. 

Wagner Meistersinger Prelude to Act III

Surely the Berlin Philharmonic can play Wagner as well as anyone, and the performance of this warm-up seemed fine to me. We have already discussed PQ and SQ. So now lets turn our attention to video content. For background on the comments I make about good and bad video content, see our special article on standards for good HDVD recordings of symphony music.

This is the first number on the program, so the first thing the video director and editor should do is give us several long 100% shots of the orchestra filling the whole frame. This is to help us get oriented to how the orchestra is organized and let us look for our favorite players. In other words, it gives us a chance to become part of the audience at the venue.  Alas, this doesn't happen. There was a great 100% shot available to the director, and here it is:

But we are not allowed to see the view above until 7:45, almost the end of this 8:30 piece.  Up to then we get a confusing succession of quick cuts from the conductor (12 cuts including 4 showing the backs of the players) to part sections of the band followed by lots of too-clever panning and zooming. Along the way we see the back of the concert-masters head and only 2 shots of complete sections. One suspects  the video director never saw the score of the Prelude to Act III.

There are, however,  a couple of relapses into good video, maybe by accident. At 1:54 we see the 7 violas in a decent frame as they jump into the lead:


And here's a good multi-section shot of the trumpets, bones, tuba, and bassoons:

I will not grade this short piece; let's just say this disc is off to a weak start with sloppy video.

Elgar Cello Concerto

A surprise at this concert was an unforgettable performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto with Alisa Weilerstein as soloist.

Barenboim was, of course, the husband of Jacqueline du Pré, herself born in Oxford, whose rendition of the Elgar concerto remains among the most successful classical records of all time. So this was doubtless a momentous occasion for Alisa. Showing herself worthy of the challenge, Alisa provided a performance that might be, if such a thing be possible, today's HDVD successor to the du Pré recordings.

Although du Pré was British, she became in the United States an icon of the women's liberation movement. Films of du Pré show why this happened. When she played the Elgar, du Pré, a wiry, farm-girl type, didn't seemed to be thinking about the soldiers who died in World War I and who are honored by Elgar in this music. No, she seemed to be thinking this: "OK all you guys who think it takes a man to play the cello, watch me kick butt and take away your jobs!" Alisa, soft, sensitive, heavy (diabetes), and vulnerable looking, does seem with her Elgar to have in mind all those missing privates, squads, platoons, companies, divisions, and armies. She's playing for them, not for us. In her refulgent red gown (which flatters her colors and figure), she looks at her most expressive like a women in one of those grand master paintings who, having refused to flee or recant, delivers herself to some sort of horrible martyrdom.

Although Alisa looks vulnerable, she plays by attacking the cello with almost frightening ferocity. And on this occasion, the emotional impact of her this-may-be-my-last-performance approach is magnified by the startling beauty of the the Sheldonian itself, a jewel box turned inside-out that is both Spartan and opulent. Here are some of my favorite views on this disc of Alisa as soloist:


With a performer as arresting as Alisa on the stand, it would be hard for the video director to ruin the recording. We get 89 cuts of Alisa, and many of them are long enough for us to take in all in. We also get 6 fine whole-orchestra shots such as this:

In addition, there are 10  pleasant part-orchestra shots. There are 17 close-up shots of Barenboim. Normally, this would be too many conductor shots, but it is especially interesting to see Barenboim here because of his connection to du Pré and this concerto.

But the rest of the news is bad. In addition to the 17 good shots of Barenboim, there are no fewer than 20 shots of him made over the backs of the orchestra. As one who has attended many live symphony performances and has purchased many classical music HDVDs, I make this observation: I am not interested in seeing video of the backs of performers. Nor do I much like long-distance shots showing tiny images of the fronts of conductors. Finally, there is almost no attention given in this video to the contribution of small and large sections of the orchestra. For example, note this shot of 4 violas:

Why not show all 7 violas? And once the frame is set up, why does the camera zoom in, when it should (if it's going to zoom at all) move out to let us see more?

Here's another example of being too close where the cameraman shows us 4 of the 8 cellos (followed by zooming in):

Now for a grade of the Elgar concerto segment of this title. This Elgar recording is an excellent example of how a classical music performance in HDVD can better the experience of only hearing it in a sound recording. If you have a HT and can have one recording of the Elgar concerto, subject title is the only thing to consider. Then if you want to learn more about this concerto, you would add recordings from du Pré and others to your collection. This is an "A+" performance and is one of my favorite discs. But due to lack of 96kHz/24 bit sound sampling and the other weaknesses noted,  the best grade I can give for the Elgar concerto is an "A."

Brahms Symphony No. 1

In the Brahms Symphony No. 1 there are many loud passages from the whole orchestra, and these parts tend to sound harsh, probably due to enormous reverberation in the tiny venue. I also noticed that the pizzicato playing generally doesn't sound very good. I'm sure the orchestra was performing well. My guess is that the sound engineers had to sacrifice accuracy of recording soft passages to avoid too much distortion in the loud parts.

As to video content, this recording suffers from a split personality. It has some of the qualities of a real HDVD. But it's also partly a DVD pretending to be an HDVD.

See our standards for a symphony orchestra recording in HDVD. Briefly, the low resolution of a DVD forces the cameraman shooting a symphony to use close-up shots of the conductor and small groups of players, usually in a frantic road-runner race of rapid video cuts. But with the power of HDVD cameras, you can shoot the whole orchestra and the larger sections of the band in a way that closely represents what is really happening on the stage.

First let's mention the ways in which this video meets our standards for an HDVD. I count 26 decent whole-orchestra shots, 24 part-orchestra shots, and 17 multiple-section shots. This is the sort of video we like to see with a symphony recording. For examples, see a great whole-orchestra shot below captured (you can tell they are playing the Brahms because the contra-bassoon has joined):

And here is a part-orchestra view shown several times:

But this is a long symphony with a lot of video cuts. So there's also plenty of opportunity to mess this up, which Huw, Davis, and Huws fail not to do. It's hard to believe, but there are 64 shots of the conductor over the backs of the players. The worst of the worst of these "back" shots comes during the grand conclusion of the symphony in fff tutti --- the orchestra almost blowing out the windows---as see here:

Then there are 56 close ups of Barenboim from the front, which is too many even if he is fairly interesting  to watch. There are 14 boring instrument-only shots. There are also a huge number of solo and partial-section clips playing ping-pond with Barenboim in all those conductor shots. Finally, also missing are shots of large sections as a whole, of which I count only 5.

Now to a grade for the Brahms Symphony No. 1 recording: the deficiencies in PQ, SQ, and video content would easily knock the grade for this segment to "C-." But thanks to the substantial number of whole and part-orchestra shots provided, I'll move the grade up to "C+."

Update on 2014-11-15 by Henry McFadyen Jr.

I wrote the review above several years ago. This year (2014) I had the good fortune of hearing Alisa Weilerstein  play with the Dallas Symphony twice, including a rendition of the Elgar Cello Concerto. Alisa has become the Sarah Brightman or Lady Gaga of off-the-shoulder gowns. The one she wore for the Dallas Elgar was strong purple, completely plain, and almost unbelievably long and flowing. I was afraid she might drag down the first violin music stands, but the stage crew had given her enough gangway. If anyone else  tried this, you would gasp in disbelief; but on Alisa, the gown looked great. Her live performance in Dallas was great too, of course.

I  still maintain subject HDVD recording by Alisa in Oxford is the best recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto ever made. Alisa's musical performance is at least in the ballpark with the other famous sound recording. But Alisa has the only recording with a fine HD video in color to boot.

Here's what impressed me most about the Alisa's Dallas performance:  the sound of the cello live was so much stronger and richer than even the best video ever published. I've always maintained that no recording can match the sound of the music played live, and Alisa just gave me another proof of this.

Still, we can hope for recordings to get better and closer to the real thing. Weilerstein will likely be playing for many years. Here's hoping she will record the Elgar again in 4k with 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling in a venue where the recording technicians can use all the latest and best recording practices!