Bruckner Symphony No. 6

Bruckner Symphony No. 6 Concert. Part of the Bruckner Mature Symphonies series by Accentus. Daniel Barenboim conducts the Staatskapelle Berlin at the Philharmonie Berlin in 2010. Directed for TV by Henning Kasten; produced by Paul Smaczny. Runtime of actual music is 53 minutes and 44 seconds. Surround sound was apparently recorded with 48kHz/16-bit sound sampling; stereo sound was recorded at  48kHz/24-bit. Released 20132 disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: C+

The Bruckner Society of America gave its 2014 "Best DVD/BD Video Recording" award to this Bruckner Symphony No. 6 in its Blu-ray form (Accentus 102176). Board member Daniel Pennell noted on the Bruckner Society website that this is the first Blu-ray account of the Bruckner 6, a work that has been neglected by the recording industry. Pennell praised Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle for maintaining "a firm tautness of line and a fine articulation of detail in the symphony’s majestic, rhythmically challenging first movement. The ensemble delivers an especially eloquent adagio along with an incisively driven finale." Wow, that's a great endorsement from folks who know and love Bruckner best.

On the other hand, Richard Osborne in the April 2014 Gramophone at page 58 discusses Henning Kasten's filming of this Bruckner performance. Osborne observes: "How, one wonders, is the approach to [the recapitulation of the first movement] advantaged by a long-range shot of the stage from which the camera slowly withdraws even as the music presses forwards with added rhythmic and dynamic intensity? As for the podium itself, cutaway shots of the conductor are mainly used as a form of randomised infill." Bravo Richard. You are close to discovering for yourself the phenomenon I call "DVDitis." 

I haven't talked here about DVDitis in some time. It's a disease that mostly afflicts recordings of symphony concerts that were intended to be published as DVDs and which are also published in Blu-ray. Because of low video resolution, DVD recordings can't provide good shots of an entire symphony orchestra or long shots of multiple sections of the orchestra. To cope with this limitation, the practice developed of shooting many short clips of the conductor alternating with many short clips of single musicians or small groups of musicians. This style of recording reminds me of the Road Runner cartoons.  But when you shoot an symphony orchestra with HD cameras, you can get decent long range shots. So a symphony HDVD (Blu-ray disc) can be displayed in a more civilized and relaxed way that gets much closer than a DVD to the live experience a concertgoer has in the music hall. Find out more about this in our special article about the good symphony video in HDVD.

When a DVD is made of a symphony concert, you do the best you can with the modest resolution you have. If you take that recording and publish it on a Blu-ray disc, the consumer should get a nicer video picture and often also better sound. But it's still the Road Runner race. A good HDVD of a symphony has to have different and better video content from the DVD to meet our standards. If the HDVD has the same video content as the DVD, I diagnose DVDitis. 

Now I illustrate the many symptoms of DVDitis with a detailed examination of our current patient, the Accentus Music Bruckner Symphony No. 6. Like all good doctors, I order tests and consider the results. In this 53+ minutes of music, I count 500 video cuts (includes some long pans that I divided into several cuts). This works out to about 6.3 seconds per cut. This is fast video, i.e., high blood pressure; in a good symphony HDVD, the average video cut lasts 10 to 15 seconds.

The single most important hallmark of a good symphony HDVD will be the presence of many "whole-orchestra shots."  A whole-orchestra shot is the only "shot" a live concertgoer gets to enjoy. Well, this Kasten video of Bruckner 6 has not even a single whole-orchestra shot! Kasten does give us 22 shots of the view seen below. But this is not a whole-orchestra shot. True, it shows the whole band, but it's made from too far away to be of much value to us even with our Blu-ray 1080 lines of resolution. It's an "architectural shot" that says more about the venue than the orchestra:

So what does a whole-orchestra shot look like? The next two screenshots below are two good examples taken from a recording of the Saito Kinen ochestra playing Brahms and Shostakovich symphonies. A whole-orchestra shot is made as close as you can get while keeping all the musicians in the picture. You want to see the musicians as well as possible:

The next shot below shows the closest Kasten gets (on one single occasion) to a whole-orchestra view. But it still doesn't count because (1) he could have gotten closer and (2) the view you see here comes at the end of a long zoom-in and lasts for about a second:

Kasten does have 17 decent part-orchestra shots, most of which repeat this view:

The part-orchestra shot above of Bruckner 6 seems rather crampted compared to the part-orchestra shot below of the Concertgebouw playing Bruckner 9:

Kasten did try to pull his cameras back further to get more in his part-orchestra view. But then the building got in his way!

A good symphony HDVD will have many shots of multiple sections playing together as well as good shots of large string sections. But Henning has only three clear multiple section shots like this view of three brass sections (I'm counting the lone tuba as a section and I note that one of the trumpet players is left out of the  frame):

In contrast, here a great multi-section shot from the Bruckner 9 recording at the Concertgebouw:

Kasten has exactly 1 shot of an entire string section. The orchestra had 12 violas, and they are all in this view:

Kasten has provided just a pitiful handful of the long-range shots that music lovers want to see in an HDVD. So what does Kasten give us in his 500 cuts? Well, 247 shots (almost 50%) show either a single player (often a soloist of course) or a small group of 2 or three players. That's the best you can do with a DVD. I show you one of these single-player shots. Below is Patricia Gerstenberger playing as soloist the first note heard in the symphony from a horn (at 00:01:26). When I saw this, I almost fell out of my chair! I thought," The Staatskapelle Berlin has a teenage girl as principal horn?" It turns out that Patricia was not the principal. She was not even a member of the orchestra. She was a graduate student at the Staatskapelle Orchestra Academy (and probably in her early 20s). I'll just point out that if you were to listen to a CD of this performance, you couldn't guess that the horn solos are coming from a beautiful young lady:

At this point, I've demonstrated that Kasten has given us almost nothing that we lovers of HDVD symphony music want---these are sins of omission. Now let's turn to his sins of commission. One grave error would be the 86 shots showing Barenboim from the waist up waving his arms. But even worse than that are the 42 shots of Barendoim made from afar over the backs of the musicians.  I acknowledge that Barenboim is the greatest man of music alive today and that he's more interesting to watch than most conductors. But I don't want 28% of my symphony video to be devoted to him. If I had gone to the music hall for this performance, I would have seen exactly 0 views of Barenboim from the front. But TV directors of symphony DVDs love the conductor shots because they are so easy to make. This is, of course, what Richard Osborne complained of in Gramophone as "randomised infill":

Another sin of commission are the 57 "instrument-only" shots like the one below. Over 10% of the video cuts are wasted on this:

Back to Osborne's "randomised infill." I'll carry that thought further. Except when the cameras feature a soloist playing music that is clearing coming from that soloist, almost all of Kasten's video appears to me to be random viewing exacerbated by many examples of senseless panning and zooming through the orchestra. This results in way too many pointless and confusing views like my last two screenshot:

So let's sum up our diagnosis: this title has a near-fatal case of DVDitis. But I should hasten to say that it's probably not fair to blame this on Kasten. He's doing the job he was hired for---to make a DVD. Probably the real fault is that there are not enough customers now to buy symphony titles that can only be played on a Blu-ray machine. And maybe it's too expensive to ask the TV directors to shoot two different shows of the same performance. Or maybe the folks that run the record companies just haven't realized how weak their products are compared to what they could and should be.

Now I need to report on aspects of subject title other than video content. I agree with the Bruckner Society that the musical performance by the Staatskapelle is excellent.  Kasten's picture quality is also excellent with fine resolution, good color balance, and zero motion artifacts when Barenboim strides across the stage or when the cameras wander about panning and zooming. But the quality of the sound recording is only fair when compared to state-of-the-art today.  Quite often I would see the video focus on a particular instrument or part of a section, but I couldn't hear well what I was seeing. Too often the pizzicato passages (which Bruckner seems to love) sound dead. I think a symphony today should be recorded using 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling, which this title doesn't have. Finally, I note that 53 minutes is less music than most music lovers would expect from a disc that can hold 4 hours+ of material.

Grade: The A+ is reduced to A for lack of 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling and further to A- for weakness in sound recording. The dreadful case of DVDitis knocks the grade to C-. Good PQ gets me back up to a C. For most music lovers, it's a plus that this is the only Blu-ray video of the Burckner 6, but this is offset by the stingy amount of music. So I wind up with a C+ under our grading scheme. If you're a Bruckner fan, then the mere availablity of this could result in a higher grade, but I would suggest you also consider the DVD at a lower cost.

[Additional credits for performance filming: Producers were Günter Atteln (Accentus Music), Magdalena Herbst (Unitel), and Maria Stodtmeier (Accentus Music). Line Producer was Oliver Rieger. Balance Engineer was Toine Mertens. Audio Producer was Peter Hecker. Sound Technician was Janko Tenge. Director of Photography was Andrej Nicolay. Cameramen were Martin Baer, Rolf Gihsa, Gabriele Klerke, Christian Schulz, Anderas Splett, Volker Striemer, Kyrill Notz, and Karl-Heinz Nitschke. Lighting by Jens Schreiber and Henrik Thomas. Edited by Steffen Herrmann. Vision control by Vincent Slotta. Vision Mixer was Barbara Saxer. Post Production Managers were Claudia Groh and Sven Freitag. Assistant Director was Nicola Wichern. Production Assistants were Angelika Unger and Christin Linße. 

Additional credits for Accentus: Label Manager was Ulrike Gratz. Design was by Anna Lena von Helldorff. DVD premastering was by Versatil GbR. Booklet photos by Accentus Music.

Musicians of the Staatskapelle Berlin on June 22, 2010:
First Violin: Wolf-Dieter Batzdorf, Lothar Strauß, Axel Wilczok, Petra Schwieger, Lothar Weltzien, Susanne Schergaut, Ulrike Eschenburg, Susanne Dabels, Michael Engel, Henny-Maria Rathmann, Titus Gottwald, Eva Römisch, David Delgado, Tobias Sturm, Serge Verheylewegen, and Rüdiger Thal. Second Violin: Knut Zimmermann, Klaus Peters, Mathis Fischer, Daniela Braun, Johannes Naumann, Detlef Krüger, Ellen Bogisch, André Freudenberger, Beate Schubert, Franziska Uibel, Sarah Michler, Laura Volkwein, Ulrike Bassenge, and Birgit Seifart**. Viola: Felix Schwartz, Volker Sprenger, Holger Espig, Boris Bardenhagen, Matthias Wilke, Katrin Schneider, Clemens Richter, Friedemann Mittenentzwei, Wolfgang Hinzpeter, Helene Wilke, Stanislava Stoykova, and Peter Pal Lukacs**. Cello: Andreas Greger, Claudius Popp, Nikolaus Hanjohr-Popa, So Jung Lee, Egbert Schimmelpfenning, Tonio Henkel, Dorothee Gurksi, Johanna Helm, Noa Chorin**, and Jörg Breuninger*. Solo Double Bass: Klaus Stoll*. Double Bass: Manfred Pernutz, Mathias Winkler, Joachim Klier, Robert Seltrecht, Alf Moser, Kaspar Loyal, and Yasujuki Se**. Flute: Claudia Stein and Christiane Weise. Oboe: Fabian Schäfer and Tatjana Winkler. Clarinet: Heiner Schindler and Unolf Wäntig. Bassoon: Holger Straube and Robert Dräger. Solo Horn: Patricia Gerstenberger**. Horn: Ignacio García, Hans-Jürgen Krumstroh, Thomas Jordans, Sebastian Posch, and Axel Grüner. Trumpet: Martin Angerer, Peter Schubert, and Jonathan Bucka**. Trombone: Joachim Elser, Peter Schmidt, and Martin Reinhardt. Tuba: Thomas Keller. Timpani: Ernst-Wilhelm Hilgers.
* guest musician
** member of the Orchestra Academy at the Staatskapelle Berlin.]