Gloria in excelsis Deo

 

Gloria in excelsis Deo concert of Bach sacred music. In 2013, Masaaki Suzuki conducts the Bach Collegium Japan orchestra and chorus in performing 4 famous Bach choral selections. Soloists were Hana Blažíková (soprano), Robin Blaze (countertenor), Gerd Türk (tenor), and Peter Kooij (bass).

The concert celebrates the conclusion by the Bach Collegium Japan of its marathon project of recording all 55 of the Bach sacred cantatas. Mixed in with the music are comments by various authorities about the cantata project. Here's what's on the disc:

  1. Opening comments by Masaaki Suzuki
  2. Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele, BWV 69
  3. 5 minutes of comments from various members of the orchestra and choir
  4. Freue dich, erlöste Schar, BWV 30
  5. 5 minutes of comments from soloist singers involved
  6. Gloria in excelsis Deo, BWV 191
  7. 5 minutes of comments from the President of BIS Records, the President of the Bach Collegium, and the President of Kobe Shoin Women's University.
  8. "Dona nobis pacem" from Mass in B minor, BWV 232

BIS (out of Sweden) is a highly regarded publisher of audiophile-level music. The sound producer was Jens Braun; the sound engineer was Thore Brinkman; the director of photography for the performances was Shoichi Nishikawa; the executive producer was Robert von Bahr. The music was recorded with 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling. It appears there will be no DVD of this. Grade: B-

I'll start my review by jumping straight into screenshots. My first view below is of conductor Masaaki Suzuki:

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The venue was the Kobe Shoin Women’s University Chapel. The chapel was built in 1981 with acoustics designed for recording. All 55 of the Bach Cantatas were recording here for BIS. Next below is a good shot of the whole orchestra and chorus:

Next below is another whole-orchestra view:

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When the camera zooms in, we get a nice part-orchestra shot:

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This is what we call a realistic view of a soloist (here the bass Peter Kooij):

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The picture of the soprano next below is unrealistic because no member of the audience would be close enough to see her this well. We welcome a few shots like this in a modern video for emphasis and variety, but most of the soloist shots should be realistic:

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We consider this a healthy large-scale shot of the chorus because it has all the sopranos as a section:

And this next view below is another large-scale shot of the chorus:

And here's the exact same angle in small-scale. If a videographer is making a DVD, then he will have many small-scale shots in his film. This is because DVD cameras don't have enough video resolution to make attractive large-scale views. We are happy to see a few shots like this in a Blu-ray recording, but we want the video to take full advantage of high-resolution cameras by mostly making large-scale images:

Next below is another DVD-style small-scale view:

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Shots of solo players in the orchestra are small-scale, but they can be very dramatic and therefore desirable for emphasis and variety:

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But this shot of the solo keyboard player below is completely boring:

Ah! This is much better!

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Next below is a video error as the bassoon snout covers the musician face. This is sadly regrettable. A professional musician at the level of the Bach Collegium is not allowed to ever make a mistake (that you or I could detect anyway). If Shoichi Nishikawa is allowed to be Director of Photography for the Bach Collegium, then he has the obligation to never mar the beauty of a player in this way. The poor bassoon player can't fight back! The obligation of the videographer is yet further heightened by the fact that it's not too hard to avoid this error, as you can see in the next view below. Still, we have to feel compassion for Mr. Nishikawa. Making a good video is not easy---it is devilishly hard. People have been playing Bach on the bassoon now for 300 years. But people have been making videos of classical musicians for only about a decade. So maybe it's not that surprising that video errors are all too common today in our classical music titles:

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The correct way the frame the bassoon player:

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I end our screenshots with two instrument-only (IO) shots below. Too often these shots are just lazy ways to provide some mindless filler in the video. It's better to see the musician and the instrument together playing as a unit:

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The musical performances on this Blu-ray are exceptional and very enjoyable. And I was happy to see that the recording used 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling. In judging this Blu-ray and arriving at a grade, I start with an A+. I would have no deduction for PQ, SQ, or performance concerns.  But before arriving at my final grade, I must consider two mildly troublesome issues: (1) a weakness in video content and (2) a problem (for me anyway) with disc authorship.

First let's focus on video content. This disc was apparently released only in Blu-ray. So I would expect the video here to take full advantage of HD cameras. For more on this subject, see our special article about making a good video of an orchestra or choral performance for Blu-ray presentation.

Following the process outlined in our special article, I "ran the numbers" on Lobe den Herrn, meine Selle, which is representative of the entire disc in terms of video content. For Lobe den Herrn, meine Selle, I found a total of 194 video clips which break down as follows:

  • Conductor clips = 23
  • Conductor-over-backs clips = 0
  • Not-realistic soloist clips = 21
  • *Realistic soloists clips = 15
  • Small-scale clips = 89
  • *Large-scale clips = 13
  • *Part-orchestra clips = 10
  • *Whole-orchestra clips = 12
  • Instrument-only clips = 11

There are 50 "supershots" (add up the * numbers above of 15+13+10+12).  The supershots are 26% of the total clips (50/194). Conductor shots total 23, so conductor shots claim 12% of the film (23/194).

Lobe den Herrn, meine Selle lasts for 19 minutes, 30 seconds, or a total of 1170 seconds. It follows that the "pace" of the video is 6 seconds per clip (1170/194).

HDVDarts.com has established the following rules-of-thumb to identify a Blu-ray video with fully satisfactory video content for a choral work:

A good choral HDVD should have a slow pace with more than 10 seconds per video clip on average. 20 to 40% of the clips should be large-scale "supershots." Conductor shots should be less than 20% of the clips in the video. More than 50% of the soloist shots should be realistic.

Gloria in excelsis Deo clearly fails the pace test --- the video is too volatile.  The video also fails the 50% test for realistic shots of the soloists (only 41% are realistic [15/36]). But this flaw is relatively minor. All this is sad since it would have been easy to make longer and larger-scale shots of this group than what we see here. This appears to be yet another missed opportunity caused by the fact that the videographers have too many bad habits learned while making DVDs in the past.

Now I turn attention to my disc authorship concern: Because of the interviews interspersed between the cantatas, this disc does not feel like a “concert” to me.  An internal source with BIS confirmed that this title was intended primarily as a public relations/commemorative video of the Bach Collegium Japan and their achievement in recording all of Bach’s Cantatas.  That is how this title should be approached.  I suppose it is easy enough to use the “skip” button on your remote control to move through the commentaries, but I find that the overall effect is changed.

For me, the commentaries do not contain sufficient depth of content as to warrant multiple viewings.  For example, the President of the university states how proud they are to have been able to play a role in the project.  A musicologist waxes about the quality of the playing of the Bach Collegium Japan.  The musicians talk about special memories of the recording project, including the significant number of years that have passed to record all 55 volumes.

Now for the final grade. As explained above, I'm still at A+. The title meets the % supershots and % conductor criteria.  But, alas, it fails the pace criteria.  Under our rules, I assert a full grade deduction to B+ for the very quick pace. This title also fails the test of the % of realistic soloist shots. But I have elected to apply only a partial deduction to B-, as the excessive close-ups of soloists does not seem too distracting in this show.  It could be argued that the grade should be moved higher due to the quality of the performances. But it could also be argued that the grade could be reduced due to the presence of the public relations material. So that leaves me at B- for my final grade.

Here's an alternative for you: The music on this Blu-ray is the same (with the exception of the excerpt from the Mass in B minor) as a BIS audio recording released in 2013 as BIS-2031 SACD “J.S. Bach - Cantatas, Vol.55 (BWV 69, 30, 191)”.  (For now, the SACD booklet can be downloaded from http://www.eclassical.com/labels/bis/js-bach-cantatas-vol55-bwv-69-30-191.html, complete with notes on the works and performers. We don't provide actual links out from this website as we have learned that links are made to be broken.)