Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6


Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 ("Pathétique"). Seiji Ozawa conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in Berlin in a disc aimed at the Japanese market (there's a little English on the keep case and the disc menu). This title has not been distributed in Europe or the U.S. It's probably the first HDVD recordings made with 96 kHz/24 bit sound-sampling technology. Directed by Goro Kobayashi; produced by Setsu Mikumo; technical manager was Oleg Anton; video engineer was André Schumann; sound engineer was Felix Kundt, recording engineer was Rainer Höpfner.  Released  2008, disc has 50 minutes of music and 5.0 PCM sound. Grade: A+

This is one of the  best recordings of a symphony ever made. Even though this was recorded far from Japan in Berlin, NHK (the Japanese National Broadcasting Company) made the investment to get an impeccable product.

Recording the sound with 96 kHz/24 bit sampling technology gives this production a head start in audio fidelity over ordinary HDVDs. The  engineers managed to keep a clean and clear rendition of individual sounds while also building up  a warm sound stage for ensembles, sections, and the entire orchestra. Add to this remarkable dynamic variation in sound level and the result is a gripping trip in the home theater.

The video is also superb.  There was plenty of room for the cameras. The lighting in the Philharmonie building was expertly prepared to match the capabilities of the camera gear. The PQ is outstanding with fine resolution, accurate color rendition and balance (observe how real the sheet music looks and how beautiful the skin tones are), no glare or reflections, and no picture artifacts. When Ozawa enters the stage he walks briskly across the front of the orchestra. The camera follows Ozawa and captures him with no motion defects in the images of the orchestra in the background---something that few video directors can achieve. Later the video director uses panning only a couple of times; the cameras move so slowly that there are no motion artifacts. Zooming is used sparingly and slowly. Focus is always perfect and the depth of field-of-focus achieved is impressive.

Best of all, the video director planned his video for HDVD only. (This performance was not released in DVD.) This title is therefore a model or standard against which other HDVDs of a symphony performance can be judged. So let's look more closely at the the video content on this disc.

I count 207 cuts in the video. Here's a rundown on these cuts starting with shots that could be used both in HDVD and DVD:

43 shots of the conductor only
7 shots of the conductor made over the backs of musicians
15 solos
31 small-section shots (4 or fewer players)
29 part-section shots
2 low-value shots of the building

Next, here are the "super-shots" that look great on HDVD but are too long-range to look good in a DVD (due to the lower DVD video resolution):

12  large-section shots
17 multiple-section shots
36 part-orchestra shots typically showing 80% or more of the orchestra
14 whole-orchestra views showing the entire band filling 100% of the screen

The first thing you will notice about this video is its dignified, measured pace. The average cut lasts almost 15 seconds, which is 3 times more stately than the pace of a typical DVD. Many of the 79 supershots (groups 7 thru 10 of the above) last for 30 seconds or longer. This approximates "being there" in a way that allows you to relax or to explore yourself the views given you by the director. In the whole-orchestra shots you can follow "waves" of music passing thru different sections of the orchestra just as you do when you are in the live audience. (Contrast this experience to the typical DVD which has only a few super-shots. This typical DVD is loaded up with hundreds of fast clips (5 seconds or less) of close-ups of the conductor and small groups of players. Following such a DVD puts an unnatural strain on the poor viewer's brain).

The abundance of supershots in subject video gives you many opportunities to see whole sections and groups of sections working together as the video director follows the score. There are few similar opportunities in the typical DVD.

In addition to the super-shots, subject video also has plenty of beautiful shots of solo players, small sections, and the conductor. I normally suggest that 15 conductor shots is enough for a symphony. Ozawa gets 3 times that many here, but this is tolerable because Ozawa then video is otherwise so strong.

Thanks for being patient. Now to screenshots. Below is a typical part-orchestra view. The angle depends on which instruments are playing. This view comes from the opening moments of the symphony when the bassoon, the double basses, and violas are deployed. This angle picks up the bassoon soloist in the upper left and the strings are to the right. It  might be hard for you to see this in the single still image below. But on your HDVD display, it's easy to see who is playing (moving) and connect what you see with what you are hearing. It really is pretty close to being there:

Next below is a magnificent whole-orchestra view. These shots typically last for a long time. On my display I can easily follow visually and aurally which sections are involved:

Below you see a section shot---all the 1st and 2nd violins. Most DVDs would not attempt to show this kind of large-scale formation. Many DVDs rarely show all the 1st violins and totally ignore the poor 2nd violins. But with HD video, this is an easy shot:

Next below is a pretty multi-section view of all the heavy brass and almost all the other winds. You won't see this on DVD very often:

Now we are getting into shots that you could expect on DVD also, but isn't this a beautiful view of the horns?

Good HDVDs will have plenty of solo and small section shots, but only when the musicians depicted are really the center of attention:

98% of the cuts in this title could have been included with the exemplary views shown above. But nothing is perfect. To help sharpen your understanding of good and bad video practices, I'll give you next a few examples of weak clips from subject title. First is a dreaded "backs" shot. It's insulting to show the backs of the great musicians who play with the Berlin Philharmonic:

Another weak angle: an odd shot of headless torsos, the backs of music stands, crotches, and lopped-off and out-of-focus heads:

And why waste our time on this instrument-only shot? Well, this is the only such shot in the video, so we can't complain:

If you have made it this far and want to learn more about good symphony video, read our special article on this subject.

The performance here was also something special.  Ozawa was standing before one of the best orchestras in the world in its home venue. The musicians seemed to be aware of the investment NHK was making in this. They responded to Ozawa with their usual skill and with huge dramatic passion. I've seen this title now many times, and I still show it off to friends and relatives.

Subject disc is not the same performance as that of the Pathétique by Ozawa and the Berliner Philharmoniker published as a  part of the Karajan Memorial Concert title. I will assume that the same orchestra and conductor would sound similar in playing the same piece in different places. Subject NHK performance has has distinctly superior PQ and SQ, so the result is a better performance of this piece than is found on the Karajan Memorial Concert.  

This title is costs more than the normal symphony Blu-ray because it's an elite product you have to order from Japan.   If you are an audiophile or a music professional with an interest in the state-of-the-art, you have to have it. For the rest of us, it's still worth the money. If you don't know Japanese, you will have to stumble through the menus, but you can hack it.

Now for a grade. We start with A+. Any weaknesses mentioned, including the number of conductor shots,  are more than made up for by the slow pace,  large number of supershots, small number of instrument-only shots, and absence of errors. So the grade stands at A+.

Click here if you care to see the Work Worksheet for this title (the terminology varies a bit between this story and the worksheet, but the numbers add up the same).