Mahler Symphonies 1-10 box set. This box has all the Mahler symphonies plus Totenfeier and Das Lied von der Erde. The concerts were performed 2009 - 2011 by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Mariss Jansons and several guest conductors. The discs in this box are not sold separately.
RCO Live is the in-house publishing arm of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The box has 11 separate keepcases---one for each symphony and another for Totenfeier and Das Lied von der Erde. The individual cases are thin and have only skimpy editorial information printed on them. There is no additional printed matter for the box or individual titles. So, for example, you will not find the timings for movements noted anywhere. But the biggest problem is that there is no text added to the videos --- no subtitles for the soloists and chorus parts, no work/movement titles, and no credits. Audio production on all the titles were done by Everett Porter; lighting for all titles by Pascal Naber. The box was released in 2013. It appears the individual titles will not be offered separately.)
Here's the lineup of conductors, soloists, and choirs for the set:
- Symphony 1 - Conducted by Daniel Harding. Directed by Hans Hulscher.
- Symphony 2 - Conducted by Mariss Jansons. Features soprano Ricarda Merberth, mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, and the Netherlands Radio Choir (chief conductor Celso Antunes). Directed by Joost Honselaar.
- Symphony 3 - Conducted by Mariss Jansons. Features mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, the Netherlands Radio Choir (chief conductor Celso Antunes), the Boys of the Breda Sacrament Choir (chorus master Henri de Graauw), and the Rijnmond Boys' Choir (chorus master Arie Hoek). Directed by Joost Honselaar.
- Symphony 4 - Conducted by Iván Fischer. Features soprano Miah Persson. Directed by Joost Honselaar.
- Symphony 5 - Conducted by Daniele Gatti. Directed by Joost Honselaar.
- Symphony 6 - Conducted by Lorin Maazel. Directed by Joost Honselaar.
- Symphony 7 - Conducted by Pierre Boulez. Directed by Peter Schönhofer.
- Symphony 8 - Conducted by Mariss Jansons. Features soprano Christine Brewer, soprano Camilla Nylund, soprano Maria Espada, mezzo-soprnao Stephanie Blythe, alto Mihoko Fujimura, tenor Robert Dean Smith, bartione Tommi Hakala, bass Stefan Kocán, the Netherlands Radio Choir (chief conductor Celso Antunes), the State Choir "Latvija" (chorus master Maris Sirmais), the Bavarian Radio Choir (chorus master Peter Dijkstra), the National Boys Choir (chorus master Wilma ten Wolde), and the National Children's Choir (chorus master Wilma ten Wolde).Directed by Joost Honselaar.
- Symphony 9 - Conducted by Bernard Haitink. Directed by Peter Schönhofer.
- Symphony 10 - Conducted by Eliahu Inbal. Directed by Joost Honselaar.
Das Lied von der Erde - Conducted by Fabio Luisi. Features alto Anna Larsson and tenor Robert Dean Smith. Directed by Dick Kuijs.
Executive summary. I had high hopes for this set. That's because the very best video of a symphony ever made in the history of the universe (at least up to April 2013) was made by this same Concertgebouw orchestra in their own famous concert hall. I'm thinking, of course, of the NHK Schumann/Bruckner title we have bragged about so much on this website. This wonderful title was shot and published in 2009 about the time the Concertgebouw started on their Mahler box. Further, NHK had shot the very best Mahler video in history in 2008 and published it in 2009. So the standard had been set, and RCO management must have known of this. But RCO management chose not to make the necessary investment to make an HDVD worthy of their fabulous musicians.
To their credit, RCO did use 96 kHz sound sampling, but there is a bit of a mystery about this. The box says, "LPCM Stereo 96/24, DTS HD Master 5.0". So no bit spec is claimed for the surround sound. When each of the discs is played on an Oppo BDP-93 and one pushes the "display" button, the player reports that the stereo sound was recorded at "96k 24b" and that the surround sound at "5.0 96k" with no bit specification. Is the absence of "24b" for the surround sound just a typo? Well, I suggest we have to believe what we read and conclude that the bit spec for the surround is less than 24 bit. But on the other hand, wonk Zoltan Glied, who usually is right about such things, reports that the surround sound was recorded a 24bits. In any event, having watched all the discs in this set, I think the sound on this set is very fine. This is commendable, and I attribute this to the fact that RCO has had a lot of in-house experience with sound recordings.
But there are three grave blunders with the video and disc authorship in this set. First, I note that a DVD version is also available of the Mahler box. This suggests to me RCO first set out to make a DVD and then later to try to pimp out their DVDs in Blu-ray dress. As we have pointed out many times, this is impossible. To make a good HDVD of a symphony concert, you have to shoot it for HD presentation alone. Because RCO decided to make a DVD, all the discs in the Blu-ray box suffer from DVDitis. Second, for inexplicable reasons, RCO also failed to get excellent resolution and picture quality for any of the 11 discs in the set. Thirdly, the decision was made not to provide text with the video. This move alone prevents the set from being taken seriously. The three blunders combined amount to a stain on the reputation of the orchestra itself and bring into question the competence of RCO management to compete as a video publisher.
So what kind of grade to give to the set? For the individual discs, I gave 2 "Fs", 4 "D+s", 1 "C-", 1 "C", 2 "C+s", and 1 "B-". Personally, I don't think this set should have been published by the orchestra thought by many to be the best in the world. But the performances and sound are impressive, so there will doubtless be music lovers who will welcome this as a bargain alternative to other offerings. They can just listen and turn off the video.
Grade for the box as a whole: D. (Don't buy unless you have a really good reason.)
Now that you have read the executive summary, you can reading my comments below on each disc:
Symphony No. 1. The performance and the SQ are very fine. I could hear the harp well throughout, which is apparently a hard thing to achieve in orchestra recordings. PQ is pretty good even though the resolution is soft. Color is good.
It seems to me that the video was made as a DVD. There were a minimum of cameras. At least one of the cameras could only shoot SD; the rest could shoot HD, but not very well. So there was no attempt to show the whole orchestra, large sections, or multiple sections playing. There are several whole orchestra shots between movements when the orchestra is resting, and the resolution for those shots would not be impressive in DVD or HDVD. So the video consists of many conductor shots (including shots over the backs of the musicians) plus a ton of close-ups of soloists, small sections, and part-section views. Still, as a DVD, the video is quite pleasant. The pace is moderate (rather than Road-Runner frantic), there is no irritating zooming and panning, and, thank Goodness, not a single instrument-only shot. The close-up shots are well-framed, in focus, and quite pretty. So if you have a HD TV and Blu-ray player, this would be more fun to watch than the DVD version. But from our viewpoint as fans of HDVD, this recording is obsolete.
The lack of text means that there is no announcement of each movement. But this is printed clearly on the rather simple keepcase; when I watched this the first time, I didn't notice the lack of text at all.
Now to grade this Symphony No. 1. We start with an "A+" performance and sound package. But soft PQ would knock this down to an "A-." The obsolete video knocks this down to "C-." But I'll move that back up to "C+" because the DVD is well made.
Symphony No. 2. The performance and the SQ are very fine. I've listened to the Resurrection many times; with this recording I kept hearing things I never noticed before. The director did a good job of showing the off-stage forces that are an important part of this work. I also liked the direction of the chorus. They remainder seated until the very end of the piece and sang from memory. When they did rise for the grand conclusion, they all stood up at the same time, something most choral groups seem to find difficult. The soloists were effective even if they are not household names.
PQ is just OK. The light level was probably a bit too low for the cameras used. Resolution is too soft, which made it hard for the video director to get HDVD-quality shots of the whole orchestra. Color is a bit too warm. The camera at the rear of the hall was not high enough off the floor to get a good picture. Picture content suffers from DVDitis. There are only a few shots that show the whole orchestra taking up 100% of the frame or of multiple sections---but there were enough of these shots to demonstrate that the the video director could have tried for a decent HDVD video with the cameras used. There are way to many conductor views, shots made over the backs of players, and instrument-only shots. (There are about 25 repeats of the same inane view of the lower part of two bass violins being bowed. Whoever is responsible for these lazy shots should receive one lash for each repeat.) One camera was positioned so that the two harps would interfere with most views the camera could reach. There's too much zooming and many focus and field-of-depth-of-focus issues.
The lack of subtitles is a big problem for this title with its 3 important vocal parts. But if you have this disc, you can find the text on this website in German and in English. Alternatively, if you are only interested in Symphony No. 2, you can buy the exact same recording on this Mahler Symphony No. 2 disc from C Major which includes English and German subtitles.
Now to grade this Symphony No. 2. We start with an "A+" performance and sound package. But soft PQ would knock this down to an "A-." Then comes the DVDitis and the decisions to omit printed material and video text. This brings me to "D+".
Symphony No. 3. Performance and sound are fine. The PQ is slightly better than what we reported for Symphonies 1 & 2, but this is still below industry standards. Picture content is slightly better than a pure DVD because there are a few long-range shots including, for example, whole-orchestra shots at 13:56 and 14:53. But then there are too many "backs" shots, too many instrument-only shots, and the TV director still can't get that harp completely out of his way. If you happen to be a post-horn player, you will have to get this title for the off-stage shots provided for two post-horn solos---who would have thought that a post-horn could be so pretty! The lack of subtitles for the singers is a real problem for the consumer. The "Gib acht!" text would be easy for you to find because it's a famous, short poem by Nietzsche. But the text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn might be tricky to pin down because that is an old, now-obscure book of folk literature. So I wind up here with the same "D+" I gave to Symphony No. 2.
Symphony No. 4. All the general comments above for Symphony No. 3 would apply also to Symphony No. 4 except that they moved the harp to the middle so it will no long interfere with so many camera angles from the side. Miah Persson has gained a bit of weight since her glory days as Fiordiligi; but she was a beautiful as ever, and the audience was crazy about her. Her song, also from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, is cheerful and fast; even though I speak German fairly well, I couldn't understand a word without subtitles. Symphony No. 4 is relatively short and the orchestra is smaller than normal for Mahler (a "Mahler chamber orchestra"). So a decent HD camera could easily get good whole-orchestra images for a video of No. 4. But the video director failed to take advantage of this to improve the HDVD. Another "D+."
Symphony No. 5. Once again, the performance and sound recording seem fine. PQ seems to have fallen back to what we experienced with the 1st and 2nd symphonies.
Video content is a strange mixed bag. I do see one step forward: a greater effort to use long-range shots of the whole orchestra. But the soft resolution of the cameras keeps this from being very successful. Alas, there are also other steps backwards in picture content (in addition to the usual too many conductor shots, over-the-backs shots, instrument-only views, and focus failures). Picture content errors completely new to me are near-shots of musicians on the stage with a large, way-out-of-focus image in the foreground of the conductor's back, neck, and head ruining the picture. There are also quite a few sharply-focused views of the conductor's back, neck, and head with everything else out-of-focus as well as shots showing only the conductor's (expressive?) hand that is not holding the baton. And remember the harp they keep moving around on the floor? Well, this time it's slightly off center and far enough back to be out of the way of a properly-placed elevated side camera. But now a cameraman on the side floor shoots about 10 shots, through the out-of-focus frame and strings of the harp, of musicians on the other side of the harp from the camera! Why didn't all these goofy errors get edited out?
Now to a grade for Symphony No 5. I'll start with the "C+" I gave to the 1st symphony. I'll let the good and bad mentioned in the previous paragraph wash out and stay with "C+" for Symphony No. 5.
Symphony No. 6. The performance and sound recording are fine. Resolution is modestly better and color is distinctly better (especially in close-ups) than before. Picture content is also improved from before with a distinctly greater number of whole-orchestra shots and shots of large portions of the band. Instead of just shooting a DVD with higher resolution, the video director is trying, I think, to shoot content (for the first time) will take better advantage of Blu-ray capabilities. The pace is moderate, there are fewer shots over the backs of musicians, and few focus errors. But on the other hand, there is still too much panning and zooming---when zooming out, the cameraman frequently moves too "far back" in the whole-orchestra shots so that we see too much of the building while the resolution of images of the musicians drops off. The harps got moved to the side again---which interferes with close-ups of the whole horn section. The center-rear camera remains too low. Grade: "B-."
Symphony No. 7. With Symphony No. 6, things were improving. But my expectations of an even better Symphony No. 7 were dashed. Performance and sound recording are fine. Alas, the video is horrible with fuzzy resolution (like a DVD or even a VHS tape) and a strange sepia-looking color palate with rose and yellow all but totally wiping out any blue or green. The musicians often look ghastly with pasty skin. Picture content is afflicted with a roaring case of DVDitis. How on earth did the Concertgebouw management allow this to happen? Grade: "F."
Symphony No. 8. Music still fine. For this "Symphony of a 1000" the entire stage, including the seats often filled with concert-goers, is filled with orchestra and chorus members. Although still soft, resolution is improved over Symphony No. 7. Still this does little good. To see all the performers on stage, the camera must stand so far back that the picture is not acceptable. Color balance is back to normal although the picture looks a bit dirty. When the camera moves in closer, the picture quality is pretty good, and sometimes quite beautiful. DVDitis is generally evident and maybe unavoidable with such large forces to cover. The singers in this unusual piece are just as important as the orchestra and are deployed roughly half the time. So lack of text in subtitles is worse than merely irksome. I checked my Accentus disc of Symphony No. 8, and it has subtitles in Latin, German, English, and French. I think the only way to enjoy this disc would be to get a score so as to try to follow the singers. Without a score, good luck! The 4 harps are moved over to the side right next to the fire exit, so at least they don't get in the way of the cameras. I'll start with the "B-" for Symphony No. 6 and reduce that on account of the lack of text to "C-."
Symphony No. 9. Now we are back to something like the video for Symphony No. 7, only darker, so that most of the musicians look like they have terrible sunburns. Grade: "F."
Symphony No. 10. Performance and sound recording fine. Resolution still soft. Although the lights were dim and video a bit dark, PQ and color is roughly back to what we have seen in the better recordings described above. The orchestra for this piece is relatively small, so there was a chance here to try for whole-orchestra and part-orchestra shots that would take at least minimal advantage of Blu-ray capabilities. Indeed, there were a number of whole-orchestra shots, but these were cut short and given little weight. And there were also many extreme close-up shots and strange instrument-only shots with odd focus defects. So the result is another case of DVDitis. Grade:"C."
Totenfeier and Das Lied von der Erde. Totenfeier was written as an independent piece and later became the first movement of Symphony No. 2. This is the first recording of Das Lied von der Erde to come out in Blu-ray. I thought the performance of Das Lied by the orchestra and alto Anna Larson was exceptionally good. The video on this disc is similar in quality to that of Symphony No. 10. But this disc with so much singing on it is crippled by the lack of subtitles plus absence of printed material with the box. So only an expert viewer with a score can really follow this recording completely. Also I should mention that the Concertgebouw folks messed up the menu on the disc so that the tract numbers on the disc and on the keepcase are different. Grade "D+."
See above for an executive summary and grade for the whole box.
Update on 2015-01-15 by Henry McFadyen Jr.
It's now January 2015. Sure enough, a number of consumers writing reviews on Amazon websites praised this box for the good music and cheap price. These traditional music lovers just don't know how good the symphony video can be and how far off the mark these recordings are. The way is still wide open for some good orchestra and an astute record production company to come up with a Mahler 1-10 set made especially for HDVD with 96kHz/24-bit sound and great video designed for a high-definition display. Such a set would leave everybody else wallowing in the mire.