Mahler Symphony No. 5


Mahler Symphony No. 5. Riccardo Chailly conducts the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig. Directed for TV by Henning Kasten; sound production by Sebastian Braun; produced by Günter Atteln and Paul Smaczny. Released 2014, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: C

This got a Gramophone "Editor's Choice" award in the November 2014 issue (page 31), so we know the performance was excellent. But Gramophone critic Rob Cowan, writing about this award, noted that, "the camerawork [is] largely unobtrusive and more often than not focusing on Chailly himself. He's a pleasure to watch, being neither overly-demonstrative nor affectedly matter-of-fact." H'm. This was a sure tip off that this video probably is infected with DVDitis. (If you are not familiar with the term "DVDitis", see our special article on this dread disease.)

So I did a Wonk Worksheet. There are 66 minutes, 38 seconds of music divided into 746 video clips. This yields the pace of 5.4 seconds per clip for the whole symphony. Here is a more detailed breakdown:

  • Conductor shots = 146

  • Conductor-over-backs shots = 64

  • Solo and other small-scale clips = 334

  • *Large-scale clips = 109

  • *Part-orchestra clips = 5

  • *Whole-orchestra clips = 13

  • Instrument-only clips = 64

  • Other low value shots = 11 (all anthill views)

There are 127 "supershots" (add up the * numbers above of 109+5+13). So the supershots are 17% of the total clips (127/746). Conductor shots total 210 (146+64), and conductor shots use up 28% of the clips (210/746). 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.

Subject title flunks the pace test badly with the average clip running 5.4  seconds, which is the pace of a typical DVD. It also fails the conductor test badly with 28% of the clips focusing on Chailly. Lastly it fails the supershot test, with 17%.

Now for a few screenshots. First we see 1 of the 13 whole-orchestra views. Alas, the angle is too low here to see the interior of the orchestra well:


Next below is one of 11 "ant-hill shots." This view shows the whole orchestra, but it's not a WO shot. A WO shot shows all the orchestra (well, say 85% or more) and takes up the entire horizontal field so that the image gets as close as possible to the performers. With a correct WO shot, the viewer enjoys a view of the performers as clearly as possible with the resolution available to the camera making the image. Usually the orchestra will take up half or more of the total picture area. In the shot below, the orchestra only takes up a small fraction of the area shown in the view. Because the camera is so far away, you can't distinguish much about the individual musicians in the picture except that they appear to be squirming like ants working on their mound:


Below are 3 decent large-scale shots. First is one of the better shots of the violins:


Here we have the double basses:


And finally we have a large-scale shot with a mix of woodwinds:


On occasion the solo-shots are particularly interesting, such as the clapper below. But there are also many score of shots of individual players that quickly become boring:


But even more boring are the 146 shots (almost 20% of the film) showing Chailly's torso:


And finally there are 64 exasperating conductor-over-back shots such as the next 2 views below:


And equally bad are the 64 instrument-only shots like the horn below. There are times when the instrument-only shot can provide a strong dramatic effect. But in this video the videographer is using IO views to get about 9% of his video made with little or no effort past pointing cameras at instruments at the right time:


Aside from the DVDitis, this is a well-produced disc. The sound is generally quite good even if recorded at only 48kHz/16-bit. Good miking and mixing handle well both the softer and the bombastic passages. The harp during the Adagietto is especially lovely. The picture quality is fine - it may be a bit soft at times, but never egregiously so. The sheet music looks realistic throughout.

The performance is also worthwhile. Of special note is the Adagietto, which is perhaps the most quoted movement of any Mahler symphony. It has become vogue to take Mahler's instructions for this movement ("sehr langsam" or very slowly) to exaggerated levels. The booklet notes that one of the earliest Mahler Symphony No. 5 recordings, with conductor Willem Mengelberg, has a seven minute Adagietto, while some modern versions nearly double that time. This can result in a funereal and dreary movement. Chially falls in the middle of these extremes --- about 9 minutes. This maintains the romantic appeal of the piece while providing the calm that Mahler intended with his "very slowly" instructions.

Now to a grade. We start at an A+. We go to an A for lack of 96kHz/24-bit audio encoding. We further deduct a whole letter grade each for failing the pace test, the conductor test, and the supershot test. This brings us to a D. We bring the grade back up to a C for an excellent performance as well as good PQ and SQ. It's the same, sad DVDitis story that we have seen many times before. For viewing on a HD TV in the home theater, this video was obsolete the day it was shot and was dead-on-arrival the day we bought it.

Hennig Kasten gets credit for the video on the box. But I don't think he's to blame for the poor result. The fault lies with management, which continues to try to foist off an inferior product onto Blu-ray customers who haven't learned yet what a proper Blu-ray of a symphony should look like. This damages the image of the recording industry. And it's harmful to the musicians in the orchestras who deserve to be presented in the best possible light.

There is a huge potential market for high-quality Blu-ray recordings of classical music. But it's up to the performing organizations and the recording companies to take the lead in showing the music-loving public how great Blu-ray music videos can be.