Liszt Piano Concertos


Liszt Piano Concertos concert disc contains the following:

  1. Wagner A Faust Overture
  2. Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2
  3. Wagner Siegfried Idyll
  4. Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1
  5. Liszt Consolation No. 3
  6. Liszt Valse oubliée No. 1

This was performed 2011 at the Philharmonie Hall in Essen as part of the Klavier-Festival Ruhr. Daniel Barenboim is the pianist. Pierre Boulez conducts the Staatskapelle Berlin. Directed for TV by Enrique Sánchez Lansch; Director of Photography was Nyika Jancsó, Audio Producer was Georg Obermeyer; edited by Steffen Herrmann; produced by Paul Smaczny. Released in 2012, music was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling and disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: C-

A Faust Overture

The warm-up is A Faust Overture.  The conducting, playing, PQ, and SQ are decent to excellent.  But the video content is disappointment as this segment has a bad case of DVDitis. This Faust Overture video would maybe be appropriate for a DVD; but it is unacceptable for an HDVD.

For complete information on DVDitis, see our standards for a symphony orchestra recording in HDVD. Briefly, the low resolution of a DVD forces the cameraman shooting an orchestra 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. With an HDVD, you should start off with long-range shots and move in only when the score calls for it.

Well, this video of A Faust Overture from Lansch and Jancsó does not have a single whole-orchestra shot even thought it is the first number on the program. (By whole-orchestra shot, I mean a shot that shows every player in a frame that takes up 100% of the TV screen; i.e., as close as you can get and still see it all.) As you see in the screenshot below, we do get, before the concert starts, a shot from the back of the hall in which the players take up about 15% of the screen:

But the image above doesn't count as a whole-orchestra shot. At this range, even the HDVD image doesn't have useful resolution, and you can't tell much (if anything) about any ant-sized player on the stage.)

The next step down from a whole-orchestra shot would be a large-part-of-orchestra shot. This A Faust Overture video has exactly one of these, and you have to wait 10 and 1/2 minutes to get it (at 10:38) as seen next below. This 85% shot is quite nice, and suggests that 100% shots were easily available to the director: 

One step further down would be a whole-large-section shot. This Faust Overture segment has 5 of these, mostly the 4 bass fiddles. There are also 6 shots of entire smaller sections. But we never get even one clear shot of all the violins, the violas, or the cellos.

So if we are not going to get to see the orchestra, what do we get for our money? Well, we get 48 shots of the conductor. 24 of these are close-up shots of Boulez that show you what he's doing (which at his age is as little as possible). The other 24 shots are made over the backs of at least 7 players and in some cases over the backs of something like 40% of the players. These "backs" shots are a usually a waste of time as far as seeing the conductor. They are positively insulting to the players, who are the only folks on the stage making any noise. Next below is a typical "backs" shot:

Next comes 29 part-section shots, many of which involve confusing panning and zooming amidst a sea of heads and string instruments. There are also 21 solo shots, another DVD favorite because it's so easy to get the focus right with one object in the frame.

To be fair, there are some good shots embedded in this morass of DVDitis.  At 9:05 is this neat shot of multiple wind sections:


Below at 10:43 there's a decent shot of the trumpets, bones, and tuba:

My favorite shot is a solo at 12:41 of Mathias Baier, the principal bassoon. This image, with its startling PQ and colors, is as arresting as a Van Gogh painting. This may not be fair to Mr. Baier (who did not sign up to be a movie star), but you imagine that he might just be as sweet, brusque, and quirky as the instrument he plays:

And let's be thankful for that one 85% shot mentioned above. We are grateful for what we can get; but, alas, it only lasts about 2 seconds.

So now you see that everything is turned upside down in this A Faust Overture from what an HDVD of a symphony should be. This drags down what could have been an "A" grade to a "C" or "D" for the overture.

Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2

I just checked: Barenboim has been involved in 49 HDVD recordings (as of February 2016) as conductor or pianist (and sometimes both). Nobody else come close to this prodigious output. In this concerto he demonstrates tremendous percussive strength, but I thought he was hitting rough patches in some of his runs and jumps. Still, I would say the conducting, playing, PQ, and SQ are all reasonably enjoyable. Alas, DVDitis in the video content again renders this segment obsolete the day it was released.

The Faust Overture warm-up is over, and this concerto is a main event. But still there is not a single 100% whole-orchestra shot in this segment of the program. (Sorry, the long distance shot at 30:46 doesn't count as explained above.) There are no shots of the violins, violas, or cellos as single sections. Granted, in a concerto, there will usually be much less for the larger forces of an orchestra to do than in an overture or symphony. The  instrumental soloist is the center of attention, and the orchestra is often in a quiet supporting role. But when the orchestra does weigh in, you want to a comprehensive view of the performance, not just more single players or small sections.

So what do we see in this video? There are 100 cuts of Barenboim, mostly quite short. In my view, it would be better to have, say, 25 to 50 cuts, each of which lasts longer. True, this is a fast-moving, exciting concerto. But when I see this live, I see it in exactly one cut. Each time the video presents a new angle, there is mental overhead as I have to figure out what is happening. I find doing this 100 times in a 23 minute piece more than a little tiring. If the director would simplify the video, it would be easier for me to enjoy what Liszt and Barenboim are trying to tell me.

Following the DVD pattern of the road-runner race, we see here, in addition to Barenboim, 22 shots of the conductor, of which 9 show mostly the backs of players. Then there are about 55 shots of individuals or part sections, which are often marred by confusing panning around.

I do note one improvement in this video over the opening A Faust Overture. For this concerto, we do get about 8 solid 85% part-orchestra shots such as the image at 19:18 shown below. They are always too short. But they do provide some counterbalance to the high fragmentation of the rest of this piece:

And there is some good stuff to brag about. I liked the shot at 18:36 where the camera shows how extremely powerful bass notes can be played by the right hand. Barenboim reaches over, rotates his hand 90% to the keyboard, and strikes notes with three fingers on one key. Maybe this is all routine to a professional piano player---but to me it's pretty impressive. You can't pick up something like this from a CD:

And starting at 23:18 it's time for a cello solo. First you see Barenboim in focus and Andeas Greger, the principal cello, out-of-focus in the background. (With a telephoto camera in this situation, the field of focus will normally be shallow.) At exactly the right moment, the camera shifts focus to Greger, who then begins his famous mellow passage. It's touching to see how the visual as well as the aural center of attention shifts to Greger until his solo is over at 23:46. I'll try to show you this in the next two screenshots below:

 And at 35:18, we get to see most of the violins and celli together in a beautiful shot that is sadly too brief:

In summary then: the recording for the Concerto No. 2 is better than what we saw before, but a "C" is all I could give under our standards.

Wagner Siegfried Idyll

The Siegfried Idyll was originally scored for 13 players to be played in Wagner's home for this wife. In modern concerts, 26 or more players are often used. But this is still intimate. HD cameras could easily show the entire band in thrilling detail, so certainly we should expect plenty of whole orchestra shots in this HDVD presentation. Are you kidding? Lansch and Jancsó seem to be perversely intent on absolutely preventing anyone who buys a Blu-ray from Accentus from ever clearly seeing an entire orchestra---not on their watch! 

Well, there is a shot at 49:58 where I think I count at least some body part of 26 players:

And at 50:16 for a moment I think I see in the shot below parts of 27 players before the camera inexplicable starts to zoom in, reducing what we can see. Maybe both of these shots show all the players (and I'm counting wrong). But I think it's fair to say there is no shot in this Idyll that clearly shows you all the members of the orchestra and lets you confidently see who is where:

So what kind of video content do I see in the Idyll? For starters there are 54 shots of a petrified tree conducting. And if 37% of the shots in a video are concerned with such a relatively modest task, does this suggest that you are proud of the players?  Next you see an endless-loop rat-race of cuts from the conductor to a soloist, followed by panning through a few nearby players, and then a cut back to the conductor, etc. This is about all you can do with low-resolution DVD cameras---but it's inane to use HD cameras this way on a chamber orchestra.

Summary for Siegfried Idyll: this is the worst video yet of the 3 numbers reviewed so far. The grade for this is "F."

Liszt  Piano Concerto No. 1

This mini-review is getting too long! I watched the Piano Concerto No. 1 again without taking notes. The video content is similar to that of the Piano Concerto No. 2 reviewed above.

Some Expert Criticism

I'm only an amateur music critic. Jeremy Nicholas, a fully-qualified classical music expert, reviewed this Liszt Piano Concertos in the May 2012 Gramophone (page 81). Nicholas compares Barenboim's piano playing to old records made by Emil von Sauer, who was a pupil of Liszt and would really know how Liszt should sound. Nicholas concludes that Barenboim and Boulez are too old and staid to do Liszt piano concertos. But Nicholas on the other hand praised the filming and recording! As usual for the Gramophone critics, you can't tell if he saw the Blu-ray version or the DVD. (I claim to be a better critic of classical music HDVDs than the print critics. Their world-view still centers on LPs and CDs, and I suspect many of them still don't have a HD TV.)

Summary for Disc

The text of the review above originated in 2012. Since then no other Liszt piano concerto HDVD has been published.

 I'm going to blend my C grades for the concertos with the lower grades for the other items and give the disc a "C-." This video might make a "B" quality DVD. But merely publishing a DVD-style video in Blu-ray form doesn't hack it, even if the resolution is better. HDVD has superior capabilities than DVD. In the case of symphony music, HDVD makes vastly superior video content possible.

The industry has been glacially slow to recognize these advantages of HDVD in making symphony videos. Possibly the main reason for this has been that the market for DVDs is still bigger than the Blu-ray market. But with 4K arriving soon, the advantages of HD over SD should finally be evident to all and we should then start getting really great videos of classical music.