3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand," with its massive orchestra and multiple choruses, presents a challenge to recording technology that is seldom met, usually resulting in at least some degree of disappointment. Not so, here. This may very well be the best recorded, visually and aurally, concert performance I have ever seen or heard. The immediacy of the video is almost startling, and the audio is both expansive and focused, with excellent imaging, frequency response, and dynamic range (much more on this further down my review).
The performance is "musical," i.e., characterized by attention to nuance, beautiful phrasing, well-judged ritards, accelerandos, diminuendos, and crescendos; well-paced, and exciting; and straightforward in the sense that there is neither fussiness nor manipulation to distract from the music's inexorable pulse and force. If I had never heard Bernstein's performances on CD & DVD, I would have thought Chailly's and the Gewandhaus Orchestra's to be just great; but the excitement of Part 1 in the Bernstein performance will pretty much knock you out of your seat; and on top of that, there's the magical symbiosis of Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic, and a roster of soloists who are a shade better than those on the Chailly disc. Still, Bernstein's advantage over Chailly is not as great in this symphony as it is for some of the others that are more sardonic and angst-ridden. Symphony No. 8 is atypical in that Part I is a hymn, and Part II a rather lengthy and meandering scene from Goethe's play--programmatic music stronger on description than rhetoric. I think the soloists make more of a difference than the conductor in most of Part II, and they are on the whole very close to the quality of Bernstein's. During the long contemplative sections, the immediacy of the audio and video on this disc kept my attention better than the Bernstein. To sum up, Part I: advantage Bernstein; Part 2: advantage Chailly.
Also, the recorded sound on the Bernstein DVD doesn't really do this gargantuan work justice; and the video, which isn't even wide-screen, looks pathetic next to this Blu-ray. The crystal clarity of the Blu-ray production brought me right into the room and into the "action." I don't buy into the oft-expressed notion that only the quality of the performance matters, that technology is beside the point. The technical excellence of both the video and audio gave me a sense of immediacy that I believe transported me deeper into the music. On the other hand, film can be a more artistic medium with its warmth and softness, as contrasted with the stark realism of state-of-the-art digital video. Consistent with the more dreamy quality of film, the director in the Bernstein made more use of extreme close-ups on the instruments and of deliberate blurring of the focus at times. The atmospheric film and the realistic Blu-ray video are two entirely different and barely comparable experiences, and each individual will have his/her personal preference. I do have to note, however, that the Bernstein film as transferred to DVD has a bit of wobbliness and rapid fluctuations in brightness that I found distracting.
Like others in this forum, I rue the fact that we have no video version by Claudio Abbado with which to compare this. I found, however, in comparing Abbado's and Chailly's Mahler Seconds that Chailly was definitely in the same league as Abbado; and I have already commented on the musical virtues of Chailly's interpretation.
Getting back to the Chailly/Bernstein comparison, if one could own only one recording of the Mahler Eighth, it would be a very difficult choice. The Chailly Blu-ray rectifies every disappointment earlier technologies have inflicted on this piece; but the Bernstein has a slight edge in musical interpretation. I can't arrive at a clear preference, but I hope that I have given you enough information with which to make a judgment.
I said in the beginning that this is the best concert video I have ever seen; but there are many things that can make a production "great": it might be in showing the fluidity with which von Karajan's conducts, for example, or its historical value, or visual embellishments such ballet or scenic landscapes. In this case it's only a contemporary concert with an extraordinarily vivid and immediate visual image and the best sonics you'll hear anywhere other than live from the conductor's podium itself; and in that sense, this is the best concert video I have ever seen--well, apart from this same production team's Mahler Second.
This recording makes almost all others sound claustrophobic and canned by comparison. Because the audio quality is key to what makes this disc so special, let me elaborate on what makes this sound great:
(1) Dynamic range. Except for subtle spotlighting of solo instruments, this seems to me to have the full range of a concert-hall experience; and I've attended hundreds of orchestral concerts in my time.
(2) Powerful bass. Not the boomy kind that muddies things up, but the kind one can feel from the feet up.
(3) Intelligent use of surround. Early surround recording usually fell into one of two extremes: (a) very front-centered with the surrounds used exclusively for hall ambience, or (b) spreading the instruments all around the listening space. This recording uses surround to widen the sound stage beyond the left-and-right front speakers, and uses just the right amount of front center channel to create a smooth spread across the entire width. In addition, the positional imaging is very believable, locatable but not pinpointed; and all individual instruments and sections occupy a natural sonic space, not artificially localized.
(4) The right amount of reverb. It's probably artificially enhanced but doesn't sound it. It provides a pleasant aura without diminishing clarity.
(5) Well-judged miking and mixing: every instrument, every section, every choir is in perfect balance.
All the above is quite apart from the technical advantages Blu-ray audio provides. As I will explain below, I have not even heard this audio to the full extent of DTS-HD MA's capabilities. Even though I am a lover of technology, it's more the art of engineering than the science of it that accounts for the exceptional beauty captured here, human skill more than the electronic equipment, important as that is too.
As of this writing I don't see where any fellow reviewers have complained that the sound recording is hyped up and/or unnatural; but I couldn't help but be reminded that at one point in my life I would have scorned such a recording as having employed too many mikes and having presented an aural viewpoint that doesn't exist in real life. There is no seat in any concert hall from which one could hear sound like this since acoustics are never perfect there; and no one person in one location can hear what a profusion of microphones scattered throughout the orchestra and chorus can pick up. This is super-reality if you will, and yet one that convinces you that it is natural.
As a final word on the audio quality, I have a note for potential DVD buyers, since Amazon sometimes combines the reviews for multiple formats: In theory, the losslessness of Blu-ray's DTS-HD should partially account for the extraordinary audio quality, but my experience has been that the advantage DTS-HD MA over its DVD counterpart is rather subtle. I base that opinion upon comparisons I've made between DVD and Blu-ray copies of some of the Abbado Mahler series back when I had a setup that allowed me to hear the DTS tracks fully decoded to DTS-HD MA standard. As it happens, a change in Blu-ray players combined with an older receiver has resulted in my now only being able to hear DTS-HD MA downconverted to DTS 5.1 (the two versions of DTS are compatible; a receiver incapable of supporting DTS-HD MA automatically converts it to the lossy version of DTS). I am here to report that even with the presumed losses in the downconversion process the audio is still the best I've ever heard and is for all practical purposes as good as what I used to hear when I had the full DTS-HD MA capability (maybe some "golden ears" will disagree). Thus I was surprised to find in some of the reviews here that the DVD version's sound quality was disappointing. Apparently the producers of the DVD were careless with the DTS audio, which is a shame; it's not really the fault of the DVD medium itself. Blu-ray's visual advantage, while very important to me, is not so important to some music lovers; so it's too bad that it may be necessary for them to purchase the Blu-ray version just to get superior audio.