Mahler Symphony No. 4

 

Mahler Symphony No. 4 concert. Riccardo Chailly conducts the Gewandhaus Orchestra in 2012 in the Gewandhaus zu Leipzig.  Christina Landshamer is soprano soloist.  Audio production by Sebastian Braun;  Director of Photography was Nyika Jancscó; directed for TV by Henning Kasten; produced by Günter Atteln and Paul Smaczny. Released 2013, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: D+

Over the years, Chailly recorded 7 of the 10 Mahler symphonies at the Gewandhaus (missing 1,3, and the unfinshed 10). Please refer to our review of Mahler 2 ("Resurrection") by Chailly and the Gewandhaus forces for a general discussion of what we look for in these recordings and especially how we grade their video content for the disease DVDitis. In writing this review, I assume you are familiar with our battle against this dread plague that has crippled so many otherwise healthy Blu-ray symphony recordings.

The chief hallmark of a good Blu-ray recording of a symphony is the presence of whole-orchestra (WO) views. Also the videographer should give us a good WO clip early in the symphony film. The screenshot next below opens subject recording, but it is not a WO view because the members of the band are so tiny---you can't make out much about the organization of the orchestra: 

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Most of the attempts at WO shots in this video look like the next screenshot below (made from the 3rd movement after the soprano came on stage). The angle is too low, and you also can't see from this shot how the orchestra is organized:

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We rail against instrument-only shots because, after spending tons of money on our TVs, we want all the information we can glean from them, including seeing the musicians playing their instruments. But there are exceptions. The sleigh bells are rarely used in classical music (except for Christmas favorites). But Mahler pulls a stunt by featuring bells early in the 1st movement. So the image of the bells below has high value (and is not counted as as an IO shot) as it alerts us to Mahler's surprise for us:

The next three shots are solo/small-scale views. There are 234 clips in this video like this. First is a portrait of a 2nd violin player:

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And here's a good shot of the contra bassoon in action---it's fun to see how much physical work is required to play this instrument:

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Now something from the trumpet section. Note one trumpet has a mute and the other doesn't. This is a good example of how video provides information about a performance that a CD can't easily convey:

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A good Blu-ray recording of a symphony will have as many multi-section and other large scale angles as possible. Next below is a multi-section shot with the oboes and flutes. Mahler wrote this for a relatively small orchestra, so you might expect 3 flutes. But there are four---you can just barely see the fourth flute on the left. There are a couple of other times when you get a fleeting glimpse of the fourth man, but it seems the video director never gets all 4 flutes clearly framed. Sorry my friend to ignore you like this:

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The next clip below qualifies as a section shot because it gets 7 of the 9 basses (more than half the total number in the section):

There are only 7 part-orchestra clips, and the view below is the best of the lot. You can clearly see all the 1st violins, all the basses, and the 9-member cello section:

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The next clip below is a "realistic" view of the soloist, soprano Christina Landshamer.  We say this is realistic because it's something a member of the audience could easily see, and it shows the singer in her environment. Isn't she beautiful in this opening view! (Subtitle in English: We enjoy the heavenly pleasures...):

Next below is an "unrealistic" close-up of Landshamer. We welcome close-ups of the soloist. All we suggest is that half or more of the soloist shots should be realistic. (Saint Peter in heaven watches ...):

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The text of the soprano's song is the poem Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. It's a children's song with 48 lines of extremely tricky German text sung fast. There are few safe-harbor repeats---this must be terrifying even to native German sopranos. Landshamer (from Bavaria) pulls it off impressively singing from memory. So with all this going for you, why --- oh why--- would you suddenly switch to showing Landshamer's backside in multiple shots such as the next two clips:

We lead an angelic (nothing to do with Britain) life:

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Cecilia and her relations:

And why would you compoundthe sin by showing her in an architectural context? (Saint  Luke slaughters the ox...):

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Or show the rear of your star over the backs of the entire orchestra? (Saint Martha must be the cook ...)

The next screenshot below is, of course, a portrait of Riccardo. There are no fewer than 80 similar portraits of the conductor for you to watch, and many of them seem to be among the longest clips in the film:

And there are also 39 long-range shots of Chailly made over the backs of musicians similar to the next two clips below:

I worked up a Wonk Symphony Worksheet.

There are 53 minutes, 42 seconds of music here divided into 430 video clips. This yields the (too rapid) pace of 7.5 seconds per clip.

Here's the clip breakdown:

  • Conductor shots = 80
  • Conductor-over-backs shots = 39
  • Soloist not realistic =8
  • *Soloist realistic = 4
  • Solo and other small-scale clips = 234
  • *Large-scale clips = 11
  • *Part-orchestra clips = 7
  • *Whole-orchestra clips = 10
  • Instrument-only clips = 29
  • Other low-value shots = 8 (including 6 anthills)
  • *Other high value=0

There are only 32 "supershots" (add up the * numbers above of 4+11+7+10). So the supershots are only 7% of the total clips. Conductor shots total 119 (80+39), and conductor shots use up 28% of the clips (119/430).

HDVDarts.com has established the following rules-of-thumb to identify a Blu-ray with DVDitis:

A good symphony 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 (way less really) than 20% of the clips in the video. When there is a star singer, at least 50% of these soloist shots should be realistic.

Subject title fails badly on all four tests. As far as video content is concerned, this title was dead-on-arrival the day it was released.

Now for a grade. I start with A+ and reduce the grade to A for lack of 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling. SQ is good with all the sections and instruments well represented in the mix. PQ is acceptable even if resolution is not as sharp as possible and a bit pasty at times. But subject title flunks all 3 main tests of video content. This brings us to a C.

Further,  there is no good orienting WO shot (or enough substitute part-orchestra shots).  Then there are 29 lazy instrument-only shots; and finally, we encounter the mysterious degradation of Landshamer's performance with too many short clips exacerbated by rear and anthill views. (This treatment of Landshamer  damages the DVD just as much as it hurts the Blu-ray.) Finally, there are only 53 minutes of music on this disc, which is skimpy.

All this drags this recording down to say, D+! Under our grading system, this says, "Don't buy this unless you have a special reason. Be patient and wait for someone to make a better video. Or you might consider the Mahler 4 from the Lucerne Festival series. It also suffers from a gruesome case of DVDitis, but at least it has as warm-up music 5 Mahler Rückert-Lieder that we graded B+. 

Here's the official trailer (sorry, it's in SD):