Faust Symphony and Overture


Liszt A Faust Symphony and Wagner A Faust Overture. Chrstian Thielemann conducts the Staatskapelle Dresden and Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden (Chorus Master Pablo Assante).  Endrik Wottrich is tenor soloist in A Faust Symphony. Recorded live 2011 at the Semperoper, Dresden. Produced by Günter Atteln at Accentus Music; directed for TV by Tilo Krause. Released 2011, music was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling, and disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: D+

One neat thing about HDVD is you often get brilliant travelog images of venues where famous orchestras play. The Semperoper building in Dresden is decorated with the piece below called "Faust" celebrating the Goethe poem and music inspired by it:

So when the Staatskapelle management was casting about for a Liszt commemorative program, it probably didn't take long to zero in on the Liszt A Faust Symphony. As chocolate chips for the cookie, they scheduled Wagner's A Faust Overture as warmup. This was more than just a good fit. The Wagner Overture was first played, with Wagner himself as conductor, in Dresden by the Staatskapelle (under an earlier name). You may recall that Liszt was Wagner's father-in-law. After Wagner dropped his plans to write a complete symphony on Faust, Liszt eventually took up the the task himself when he settled in Weimar, Goethe's home (not far from Dresden).

There are now many CDs of both of these Faust compositions. But subject HDVD appears to be the only video of both works together, and there are only a couple of older DVDs of A Faust Symphony. So now we have a fine performance of two symphonic works that have previously perhaps been neglected on film. Robert Cowan reviewed this title in the April 2012 Gramophone at page 47. He said the sound was on a par with the finest SACDs. He also praised the picture quality (although you can't tell from the article if he watched a DVD or the Blu-ray version).

Eine Faust-Ouvertüre (A Faust Overture)

Wagner was 31 when he finished A Faust Overture. In 11 meager minutes Wagner demonstrates his mastery of  orchestral composing. I agree with Cowan that PQ and SQ are excellent in this recording. But this title (and the Liszt A Faust Symphony) were also published in DVD form. Alas, in 2011, symphony recordings were typically shot as DVDs and then later republished in Blu-ray dress, leading often to the problem of DVDitis confounding the HDVD version published in Blu-ray.

As explained in an article just linked to above, 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 video 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.

Using a Wonk Worksheet, I ran the numbers on A Faust Overture, which flunks all the tests above for DVDitis. The pace is an almost unbelievably fast 4.6 seconds for the average clip. Only 14 percent of the clips are supershots.  And 32% of the clips (almost a third!) feature Thielemann and show nothing of musicians playing.

Now let's see some screenshots from A Faust Overture. The first two shots show the hall and the set up of the orchestra for the whole program. Everyone is in place except the organist and harp player who appear later in the Liszt symphony:

The view above is a weak whole-orchestra (WO) shot. The next view below is a better WO shot. But this view is never provided by Tilo Krause long enough for the viewer to get oriented to how the orchestra is seated. As the small-scale shots of tiny pieces of the orchestra reeled past, I was rarely in this segment able to clearly understand what I was seeing and often unable to grasp where the sounds I was hearing were coming from. This was a huge impediment for me because Wagner's musical concepts are unusual and fast moving. If I had been sitting in the audience, I would have been able to quickly see how the sections were set up and where the musical ideas were coming from:

Krause's organization and display of the video clips therefore basically defeats and cheats me of what I paid for: a chance to see the great Dresden orchestra play A Faust Overture. Here briefly are statistics on Krause's helter-skelter musical storyboard:

  • Conductor shots 35
  • Conductor-over-backs (C/B) shots 11
  • Small-scale shots 76
  • *Large-section shots 6
  • *Part-orchestra shots 8
  • *Whole-orchestra shots 6
  • Instrument-only shots 2

There are only 20 supershots (those marked with an *). And most of them are cut so short as to be largely worthless to the viewer. There are a total of 144 clips in this segment. 20/144 shots yields 14% supershots. There are 46 total often pointless and frustrating conductor shots. 46/144 yields 32% conductor shots.

Krause had the ability to make wonderful part-orchestra, large sections, and large-scale multi-section shots. The next view below is brilliant part-orchestra view showing all the 1st violins, the basses, and cellos:

This same camera can move in and and get all the cellos:

And next below is a great shot of most of the woodwinds:

But as explained above, we only get 14 such shots in this entire segment of the program. And many of the clips show a variety of video errors. What's wrong with the next shot below?

The problem with the shot above is that it's inane. The center of the picture seems to be a music stand. Around the stand is a cluster of the backs of a few people playing maybe 2nd violin and maybe violas--- it's hard to tell. And then you also see a few parts of several cello players. All-told, you see something of maybe 21 musicians. Bet what's the point of this view? There isn't one---it's a chimp shot. (What's a chimp shot? They say if you teach a chimpanzee to "type", he will cheerfully bang away. Within a year, he will come up with a complete sentence. Well, the video image above looks like it was produced by a chimp shooting at random---a chimp shot.)

What's the problem with the next shot below? This is easier to see: there are three bassoon snouts and faces of two musicians, all out of focus. How this this get past the editor?

In the next view below, we get a better picture of the bassoon players. But due to shallow depth-of-field of focus, only one player is in focus. Now in motion picture thrillers and fine-art photography, shots like this may be considered effective and even sophisticated. Was this done on purpose? I doubt it. But if it was, I condemn it as videographic terrorism. While watching a symphony video, my poor brain has enough to do grasping the big picture. I don't need for the TV director to blow up the orchestra and send video shards like this flying at my visual cortex:

This next shot below appears quite often in this video. It's unpleasant to see because the angle is poor and the lens used has compressed the 6 musicians so it appears they are all sitting on a bench about 3 feet long:

And who are the folks below? They are 7 1st violins sitting in the rear of their section. The shot was made from the back of the orchestras with a camera pointed at the the wall of the hall to the left of the audience. Compare this to the 3rd screen shot above to see how wildly compressed and distorted this image is:


Now let's grade A Faust Overture. I deduct a + for lack of 96kHz/24bit sound. This segment flunks all 3 HDVD tests, so the grade drops from an A to D for DVDitis. The good PQ and SQ is offset by numerous video errors, and the grade rests at D. I note that ArkivMusic recommends the DVD version of this title but doesn't recommend the Blu-ray. Still, if you are going to buy this video anyway and have the money, the Blu-ray will have a better picture and maybe also better sound. And there may be no other video of this music available.

A Faust Symphony

Liszt is not famous for genius at large-scale symphony orchestration. But this should not prevent you from enjoying this ever-energetic, never-boring 70-minute symphony with a male chorus. Any if you are a fan of the wonderful Mayerling ballet, you already know much of this symphony well.

Using a Wonk Worksheet, I ran the numbers on A Faust Symphony, which also flunks all the tests for DVDitis. The pace is 7.5 seconds for the average clip. Only 18.5 percent of the clips are supershots.  And 28% of the clips feature the conductor. Here's a breakdown of the 567 clips in the video of this segment:

  • Conductor shots 101
  • Conductor-over-backs (C/B) shots 58
  • Small-scale shots 277
  • *Large-section shots 49
  • *Part-orchestra shots 18
  • *Whole-orchestra shots 36
  • Instrument-only shots 25
  • Other low-value 1
  • *Other high-value 2 (shots of the building)

There are only 105 supershots (those marked with an *). There are 567 clips total. 105/567 shots yields 18.5% supershots. There are 159 total conductor shots! 159/567 yields 28% conductor shots.

So the pace is too fast, there are too few supershots, and too many conductor shots.  The supershots don't last long enough and this leaves too much time to fill in with small-scale and conductor shots. But the DVDitis isn't as bad as was the case with Wagner segment. Also, the chorus at the end tends to somewhat improve the quality of the video. But overall it's a big disappointment and opportunity lost to have great video of music that has rarely been filmed.

Now for a few screenshots to help you decide if you have a special reason to want to buy this title. Next below is  the best WO shot on the disc. The organist and harpist join in:

Next below is a beautiful shot illustrating the power of the HD camera. It's hard to see this in a still shot, but  the principal cello, the flutes, and the harp are taking the lead with a few other winds in the support. When these bars play out, it's easy at this range to see what is happening because the human eye is exquisitely tuned to detecting motion. One doesn't need close-ups in an HDVD to follow what's going on with small groups of musicians! Using close-ups in the video of a symphony doesn't generally aid the viewer in following the music. To the contrary, close-ups tend to interfere with the power of human perception:

Finally the chorus stand in the last few minutes:

And we get a beautiful view of the harpist:

I too always keep a pencil handy:

Now for some weaker shots. This recording has no less than 58 conductor-over backs (C/B) shots of the conductor. Why? Well, by using these mindless images, the TV director gets 10% of the video done without thinking about a thing: 

I would make an exception for this C/B shot because it happens to produce such a sharp image of sheet music:

When the pace is too fast, the cameramen are rushed and the result can be poor framing. For example, see the next view below, where instruments block the view of most of the musicians:

Or even worse, the cameraman produces a frame where nothing is happening. Oh, yes, this is also an instrument-only shot, isn't it:

We will conclude with two more baffling instrument-only shots:

Liszt's chorus ends the symphony with the last eight lines of Goethe's Faust. Here is the text in German (which is not in the keep case booklet):

Alles Vergängliche
Ist nur ein Gleichnis;
Das Unzulängliche,
Heir wird's Ereignes;
Das Unbeschreibliche,
Hier ist's getan;
Das Ewig-Webliche
Zieht uns hinan.

Here are the English subtites furnished by C Major:

All things transitory
Are but parable;
Here insufficiency,
Becomes fulfilment;
Here the indesribable
Is accomplished;
The ever womanly
Draws us heavenward.
Fair enough, but how ugly!
Give this a try:
All that passes is
Same under the sun;
Here unattainable
Becomes fact instead;
The inexplicable,
Here will be done;
In woman's crucible
We all become one.

Grade time. Following the same process I used to grade the Wagner segment, this A Faust Symphony gets a D. But all the ratios do improve here in the main course, and there's a fine chorus finale. So I'll move the grade to D+ for this segment and the whole disc. If you can get over the video content train wreak, this might be a disc you can enjoy. And to get something better, you might have to wait quite a while.