Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3 and Stravinsky Le Sacre du printemps

Sir Simon Rattle conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker 2009 in Berlin at the summer Waldbühne concert sometimes called "Russian Rhythms." Works performed were:

1. Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker (brief excerpts)

2. Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Yefim Bronfman

3. Stravinksy's Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)

4. Nutcracker and Berliner Luft encores

Directed for TV by Henning Kasten. Produced by Paul Smaczny. Released in 2010, the disc has 5.1 PCM surround sound. Grade:  A for the Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3. Grade B for everything else.

The Waldbühne ("Stage in the Forest") is a giant Nazi-era amphitheater (seated 22,000 for this concert) in Berlin. The seating portion of the Waldbühne is a megalomaniac version of the theater at Epidarus. The stage is an ugly industrial box topped by an even uglier double-peaked circus-style tent made from stark white material. At the back of the stage is a huge concrete wall. For this concert, about the only decoration was various colors projected on the concrete. All this seems rather drab to me; but the Berliners love it, I'm told. I have noted before that HD video often yields bad results when shot at outdoor venues designed to seat large crowds. At the Waldbühne a phalanx of giant speakers in front of the stage adds more visual clutter to the HD recording. And when the camera turns (often) to the audience, you see talking, eating, drinking, littering, smoking, smooching, sleeping, changing diapers, singing along, dancing, making flash pictures, burning sprinklers, and finally, putting up 10,000 umbrellas and huge plastic tarps when it rains during the second half of the show. I understand how folks are willing to put up with all this to hear a concert through big loudspeakers in the woods. They want to get out of the house. But do you want to drag all this into the comfort of your home theaters? I've already suggested that the event itself is a distraction from the music, but I'll  also allow that the event has its own drama and beauty. You be the judge.

The Nutcracker excepts were presented as bonbons, but the crowd loved them and many of the orchestra members were smiling as they played. But the rest of the program was more serious than a typical pops concert. Both the Le Sacre du printemps and Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 are staples in the concert halls.

Even with huge augmented forces, this Le Sacre sounded to me a bit bland compared to the other version we have on HDVD played by the Mariinsky Ballet under Valery Gergiev on the Stravinsky and the Ballet Russes disc.  And the Mariinsky disc includes an excellent production of the the complete ballet. Why listen to a concert version of Le Sacre when you can hear it while watching a ballet to the music? Well, if you want to focus on the music, then this video gives you many delights like seeing the doubled double-bassoons, the bass flute, and a percussion section going crazy. You can't see this kind of stuff in a ballet video.

The best performance on this disc is probably the Rachmaninov piano concerto with Yefim Bronfman . I asked my neighbour, Bill Wilkin, who likes Rachmaninov and has experience with live and recorded performances of his works, to view the Bronfman recording with me. Bill said that both the sound and video was the best he had ever experienced with a Rachmaninov recording. (This is more evidence of the surprisingly high quality of Blu-ray sound). For my part, I was pleased to be able to hear the piano clearly throughout the performance. Too often the soloist gets covered up by the orchestra in the recordings of these blockbuster romantic piano concertos.

The sound was recorded with a sampling rate of 48kHz/16-bit and the disc has PCM surround sound output. But I think the excellent sound that my neighbor liked probably came more from great miking and mixing than anything else. There were a lot of microphones on the stage and it appears each violin and viola was provided with its own mike wired through to the string bridge. The result was a soundstage in which I could hear both the sections and the soloists playing with special clarity. 

I have technical objections to the video shot by Henning Kasten. Making a video at the Waldbühne is no doubt a daunting task because of the vast spaces involved and the difficulty of finding good places to locate cameras. Video resolution is soft throughout even though color balance is good.

Alas, this title suffers from DVDitis from start to finish. Most of the symptoms of the illness are there: the failure to provide whole orchestra and section views, the overly fast pace of video cuts, the combination of too many conductor shots coupled with an endless succession of pictures of soloists and small groups, incessant moment of the cameras in panning and zooming around, and shots of the conductor made over the backs of orchestra musicians.  For more on DVDitis see our special article explaining it all in detail.

Stated differently, you might say this title is a DVD that was repackaged in a Blu-ray keepcase with somewhat better video resolution and better sound. Incremental improvements in video and sound might justify buying this Blu-ray instead of the cheaper DVD. But in HD format, this video content is obsolete. (I don't think I have any criticism of Henning Kasten, who was probably following instructions from higher-ups. My beef is with orchestra managements and producers who don't understand the value of HD video or who have decided that the HD market is still too small to truly serve.)

Now to grades. I usually give a "C+" to HDVDs with DVDitis. But the ravages of DVDitis are usually less in a concerto with a soloist. For this reason and due to the nice sound, I give an "A" to the Rachmaninov piano piece. Because of the nice sound, I bump the rest up to a "B."