Classical Corner Featured — 11 April 2012


To See or Not To See

The experts tell us that we are visual animals. That 95% of all the data we take in comes via our eyes.

Do audiophiles belong to a different species? I have been quite happy for most of my life just hearing great music in the comfort of my living room (or media room, or car, or airplane seat). Oh, sometimes I did add a visual element, but that was usually a music score, or else a semi-engaged flip through the liner notes. (How can anyone listen to music and read really good liner notes at the same time?)

Recently I’ve had occasion to re-think my attitude. Here’s why.

Point One: The biggest argument for Blu-Ray is not the picture. It’s the sound. If you’re like me, the first thing that registers is the vast improvement in what you hear. Then you notice, oh, right, the picture looks pretty good too. Because of the varied setups in my home, until quite recently sometimes I heard the newer audio codecs but sometimes I only got the “core” tracks through an old-fashioned SPDIF path to receiver or pre-amp. Even so, it sounded better than a typical DVD soundtrack.

I was primed for better sound on Blu-Ray partly because of my negative experience with DVD. You may have noticed that when decently videotaped opera releases were re-released on DVD, the sound was often degraded. It had less air, less flow, less warmth. In short, it sounded like badly compressed “digital,” because that’s what it was. You can’t squeeze over three hours of Le nozze di Figaro onto a single disc with video and two soundtracks and expect it to sound good. Add to that the vagaries of live recording and mixing, which often favored the orchestra over the voices, and you had a sure-fire strategy for disappointment.

With its much greater data-storage capacity, Blu-Ray has forever altered that dynamic. Now there is no reason to compromise either picture quality or sound. This new era in the mediation of classical music also reflects the industry’s accumulated half-century of practice at directing opera for video production, not to mention various improvements in camera and microphone technologies. Major orchestras and festivals are climbing aboard the bandwagon. This may be the game-changer the genre desperately needs (sorry about the cliché).

Point Two (i.e., Counterpoint): This new emphasis on visuals doesn’t come without a downside. A couple of years ago a friend brought me a Blu-Ray of Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte in a relatively new Glyndebourne production, and I was blown away. The young, good-looking cast sang impeccably, moved with grace and meaning, and were supported by a world-class conductor and orchestra. The sets and costumes freshened the opera’s “look” without introducing irrelevant or distracting elements. Above all, sound and picture seemed to establish new benchmarks for excellence. I was hooked—although I had never been a big fan of opera on video, I was ready to give it more space than before.

Recent new releases from the same sources—Glyndebourne, Opus Arte—have confirmed that, short of really good seats at a live performance in a decent hall on a good night with a great cast, you can’t beat Blu-Ray. Here comes The Rake’s Progress (Opus Arte BD 7094D), Stravinsky’s last large-scale foray into Neoclassicism, and Glyndebourne has delivered it with a revival of David Hockney’s 1975 design components, unrivalled in the way they echo the mordant humor and moralizing in the music and libretto (from W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman). To add to the fun, soprano Miah Persson and tenor Topi Lehtipuu, two of the standout stars of the Glyndebourne Cosí, have returned as an ideal Anne Trulove and Tom Rakewell.

Allow me to introduce an exemplary moment from that production. In it, Anne laments Tom’s absence—he has been whisked off to London by the diabolical Nick Shadow, there to encounter numerous temptations and eventually end his life in poverty and madness. Because she senses he is too weak to withstand Shadow’s influence, Anne resolves to follow him. Her aria, “No word from Tom,” follows a formal strategy common to many Classic and bel canto operatic scenes: first we get a lyrical meditation on the character’s dilemma, then a faster closing section, a cabaletta, that drives home the decision she has made. Whereas the aria’s structure and its radiant melodic quality—not so different, really, from the virtuoso music Persson tackled as Fiordiligi in Cosí—recall earlier musical eras, the astringent wind writing that opens the scene, and the motoric rhythms of the cabaletta, belong very much to mid-century Stravinsky.

Miah Persson’s vocal acting alone would give us a potent characterization of Anne as a compassionate woman pushing back against the world’s malevolence and indifference. But the sight of her Anne, momentarily stymied, then strengthened by her decision, nails the scene. And we don’t have to strain to see her from the back of the hall.

The folks at Naxos USA have sent along another recent Opus Arte Blu-Ray (BD 7009D) that makes the case for visuals even more strongly. This is Amelia, a dance film originally choreographed and directed by Édouard Lock in 2002. The minimalist score, a setting of lyrics by Lou Reed from his Velvet Underground days, is by David Lang, known for his work with Bang On A Can and for the little match girl passion, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. Working with his Montréal-based dance company La La La Human Steps, Lock has used Lang’s music as accompaniment and commentary for a set of variations on movement, especially the sorts of movement he holds dear: extremely rapid, repetitive pirouettes and isolations; pointe work for both women and men; precision; stillness. Lock works with classical ballet techniques in the way that a DJ might, scratching and morphing the familiar steps, studding them with gestures taken from modern dance. In spite of the obvious citations, the end result seems quite fresh. We see inventive use of lighting, costumes (Armani suits, apparently), and an ingenious set that appears to be a totally enclosed space, a maple dance floor bending upward to form walls.

The dancers move. The camera moves. The set even appears to move. It is not possible to imagine this work apart from Lock’s film, and I am not sure I would find Lang’s score engaging apart from it either. On Blu-Ray, it’s extremely seductive. Here is one variation. If you’re curious, you can go to YouTube and sample as much or little of the film as you wish:

Wait a minute. I thought you said “downside” back there.

Yes. Yes, I did. Let’s get the obvious issues out of the way first. Number one, opera is not going to be all about the singers, ever again. At the very least those singers are going to have to look the part, move well, act. Would Caruso or Lilli Lehmann (pictured above, with her sister Marlena on her right) have made the cut? Actually, those two might have flourished. It’s the slightly lesser lights who would really have to hustle in a more visually oriented age. The Deborah Voigts of the future may have to pass the little-black-dress test before they are even asked to sing. (Not to imply that Voigt is anyone’s lesser light.)

Here’s a more subtle danger: this visual feast may lull us into allowing our individual Theatres of the Mind to atrophy from disuse. Whoa. That sounds really pretentious and abstract, doesn’t it?


Well, it’s a real threat, and one you may want to avoid. Let me give you a couple of examples. You will recall that I waxed enthusiastic about some new Mahler Blu-Rays late last year. The fact is, of the two Leipzig Gewandhaus videos I reviewed, I far preferred their Mahler Second (Accentus ACC 10238) to their Mahler Eighth (Accentus ACC 10222). Same conductor, same hall, same orchestra. My preference boiled down to the visuals.

But Mahler Two and Eight are also very different works.

Of course. There’s a lot more text, and more singing, in Mahler Eight. Its second and concluding movement is a setting of the final scene in Goethe’s Faust, Part II. This is what Goethe wrote to set the scene:

Forest sways, rocks press heavily, roots grip, tree-trunk close to tree-trunk. Wave upon wave breaks, foaming; deepest cavern provides shelter. Lions, friendly disposed, pad silently round us, honoring the sacred place, the holy sanctuary of Love.

This is not meant to be a literal description. Instead Goethe has come as close as words can here to suggesting the ineffable, a place of final redemption that no one has seen and few can imagine. Mahler gives these lines to the chorus, but in the deepest sense they belong to the mind’s eye, the internal theatre of the individual.

Now consider the Blu-Ray of the Leipzig production. The concluding movement opens with a shot of conductor Riccardo Chailly giving everyone the standard okay-everyone-here-we-go-eyes-up! look, after which he gives an especially crisp upbeat, so that the bass viols will enter cleanly and energetically on their first, pizzicato note. Soon after we get a shot of the flutes fiercely concentrating on their first entrance, first phrases. And so on. At one point, the camera closes in, tight, on the gleaming pistons and associated plumbing of a French horn as its player glides through a passage. Eventually the chorus enters, and we see some of the earnest citizens of Leipzig focus intently down onto the conductor, so that they don’t blow their first few notes, which offer a reprise of the opening bass-viol material. “Forest . . . sways . . .”

Did it really help to see all this? Here and there, perhaps. I became aware of Mahler’s use of delicate cymbal crashes (yes, there are such things) as structural cues. And I have seriously begun to wonder whether seeing the brass section, all lined up, lips on mouthpieces, somehow helped me “hear” the warmth and detail in their sound. Some kind of perceptual brain trick, perhaps? Overall, I was much happier once I stepped away from the tv screen to write these lines, wireless headphones still bringing me the music but minus the shots of the oboes and such.

When the solo singers dominate the action in this Leipzig Eighth — as they frequently do — I get particularly restless. Some of them have faces and body language “made for radio,” as the saying goes. (The tenor bothers me the most.) But in goes the camera for its cruel close-ups, regardless. And then occasionally back to Mr. Chailly, perspiring profusely as he shepherds his charges through this magisterial, but lengthy and arduous music. The audience in the hall is fortunate that they can’t see most of his very necessary cheerleading and traffic-directing.

I wouldn’t want to be without these videos. They are terrific performances, and there are places in which the visuals contribute, or at least don’t jar—the mezzo-soprano who sings “Urlicht” in the Second, Sarah Connolly, manages to look as beatific as she sounds, drawing us further into Mahler’s vision (!). But I think I am going to watch some chunks of the Eighth with my back to the screen from now on.

Makes sense. And concert works can manage without video, always have. But doesn’t the new, Blu world pretty much sound the death knell for audio-only opera?

Not necessarily. The situation is more complicated and interesting than that. Simple economics have dictated that almost no all-star studio recordings of operas have been made for quite a while now. Videos and live-broadcast audio have become the rule anyway. But people keep finding new twists for the old formats. For example, PentaTone has launched a new audio-only series of Wagner opera recordings, its completion timed to coincide with the Wagner bicentennial in 2013. They recently sent along Die Meistersinger, four hybrid SACDs bound with a 354-page program booklet (PTC 5186 402). And that booklet opens with greetings from Prof. Dr. Norbert Larmmert, President of the German Bundestag, who praises the very nature of the enterprise:

The operas were recorded live on stage in concert form, and thus everyone was able to concentrate exclusively on the music. . . . There is no drama on stage to compete with the flow of the music, no direction to support or ruin Wagner’s poetry. . . . Instead of this, [conductor Marek Janowski] invites a clear reflection of the essentials, of the music. . . . I am sure that Richard Wagner would enjoy this project, as will many of his steady supporters.

Besides a libretto in three languages, the booklet includes Steffen Georgi’s erudite deconstruction of the historical and literary roots of the opera. The message seems clear: anyone who’s serious about Wagner will choose this realization, rather than that of some dimwitted director-of-the-moment, indulging his or her ignorance (and desire to pander) by updating the action to, say, Asbury Park in the disco era. No Regietheater allowed here!

I’m not sure what Wagner would make of all that. He wouldn’t have had much use for “updating,” of course, but he was committed to total integration of music, text, and theatre, which he termed Gesamtkunstwerk. Given the modern corruption of the stage element, perhaps he would also have sanctioned audio-only. In any case, this Meistersinger is highly recommendable. It appears to have been captured at a single live performance, and so the music comes attended by the thrill that only such situations provide. Janowski paces things admirably, while the spacious multichannel sound allows us to hear everything with good balances, imaging, and soundstage depth. The singers are well cast too. I’m sure someone out there can cite Golden Age recordings with some stronger individual performances, but I thoroughly enjoyed my four hours in medieval Nürnberg. Here is an excerpt from the Act 3 quintet in which each of the principals sings of his or her dawning realization that some cherished hope is close to fulfillment:

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Did I miss the visuals? What I missed, actually, was supertitles or subtitles giving out Wagner’s text, which is quite talky. Having gotten used to watching opera videos over the past few years, I now found it hard to use a program book. I kept losing my place.

Maybe you’re just getting old.

No, I got carried away by the music! Anyway, I think the average twenty-year-old would have the same problems. As Queen Victoria said after a performance of Elijah: very nice, but one does become fatigued after having to concentrate for so long on such things. It’s not always that easy to create a Theatre of the Mind.

Does that mean you’re not ready to renounce video?

Of course I’m not going to renounce video. I still haven’t seen all four of the Valencia “Ring” Blu-Rays, which Kal Rubinson recommends so highly. I liked Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung very much. The staging manages to be innovative but respectful of Wagner’s intent, and the singing and acting are superb. And the orchestra! I’m sure we’re going to see an increasing number of good Blu-Ray releases, not just opera but concert music as well.

And perhaps all re-done in 4K in a couple of years.

Bite your tongue.


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About Author

Lawrence Schenbeck

Lawrence Schenbeck lives in Atlanta Georgia, is into high-end and has a doctorate in music performance and literature. "I have spent most of my grownup years either teaching, conducting, or writing about music. A lot of that writing was directed at other professionals, but some was meant for civilians. I always tried not to sound pompous (that was hard) and not to condescend to my readers. Back in the days when I gave pre-concert lectures for the Atlanta Symphony, I would invariably meet audience members whose knowledge of concert music far exceeded mine in certain respects. Whether you're casually exploring classical music or passionately committed to it, I hope this column will be useful."

(5) Readers Comments

  1. Really nice piece! Thanks. You’ve put your finger on some of the issues I’ve felt but been unable to articulate with regard to the wonders of the better-than-front-row perspective you get with some of these discs. This was also part of the reason I didn’t re-up after a year’s subscription to the Berlin Philharmonic online – it’s a lot of work to both watch and listen, and one often distracts (and sometimes detracts) from the other. I found myself wishing for a high-res download of the music only, so I could turn off the physical visual processing part of my brain and let the “theater of the mind” take over.

    • Thank you, Mark. Tonight after work I put on a new recording of some Glazunov string quartets (Praga Digitals PRD/DSD 250 281) and not once did I wish I could also see the players. I felt that I could already “see” everything that was necessary to enjoy the music. There’s a blessing in concentrating on the sound. (And BTW interesting, insightful comment about the Berlin Philharmonic’s streaming efforts — I have been tempted to subscribe but always held back, perhaps fearful of the constraints on my time.)

  2. Where I come from, I was taught that what constitutes music must contain four elements; melody, harmony, tonality, and rhythm. That has always made a lot of sense to me, it coincides with my experience. All musical sounds have tonality however pleasing or annoying (unfortunately usually the latter.) Since music is experienced in time, virtually all music by its nature has rhythm although there are some few 20th century composers who’ve managed to even bring that into question. Harmony (and dissonance) will occur whenever two or more musicians play together and a single musician can produce harmonies on many instruments, especially string and percussion (including keyboard) instruments. Solo horns (wind and brass instruments) and solo vocalists singing a cappella can’t but if the other elements are sufficiently appealing it may not matter. Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise well performed is an example. This recording is not a cappella but would be no less pleasing to me if it were

    That brings us to melody which to me is the single most important of the four elements. Melody is like the plot of a story. Without a plot there is no story. No matter how cleverly written, sounds without melody is not music for me. Melodies can be highly convoluted for example as in jazz improvisations but if they are present, then they are real and they can be found, appreciated, enjoyed. On the other hand, poorly written music often has weak melodies or none at all. This as I posted in another thread was what I found as a distinction between Mendelssohn’s violin concerto and his piano concerto, between Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto and his second and third. It’s what I found objectionable about most but not all of what Wagner wrote. And it’s the reason why I enjoy Mahler’s first symphony but not his second. Much of what was written in the 20th century that was purported to be, even lauded as great music lacked melody as far as I could tell and therefore did not constitute music by my definition (like much other so called “modern art.”) There’s just no way around it. You cannot substitute progressions of chords, arpeggios, clever orchestrations, phrases, changes in key signatures, and other various and sundry techniques which may ordinarily embellish fine compositions but alone all of which go nowhere for an actual melody. A character description without a plot is a boring read, it’s not a story. It is IMO the result of the efforts of those who have no real talent for writing music or for those who do but are in a dry spell, often working under pressure to meet a deadline to produce output. I think of Puccini’s La Rondine, supposedly according to some the sequel to La Boheme as Puccini writing under contract. It had one great melody near the beginning and then you might just as well get up and leave the opera house for all you’ll get from the rest of it. It was also a boring story line but that’s a different thing altogether. I think that’s why Schoenberg said in effect all tonal music had been written already, he knew he didn’t have the capacity for writing melodies and therefore had to redefine what constituted music in order to sell a product he could create.

    As for the technical means for making recordings of music, you’d think by now with the ability to analyze what can and can’t be heard by human beings, that clinical psychologists would have already accumulated a mass of evidence affirming or refuting Nyquist’s theory regarding the adequacy of RBCD standards to produce all possible musical sounds indistinguishably from more stringent technologies that are invariably more expensive (although far less so than they were only recently.) My experience is that it is adequate and that whatever the shortcomings of CDs, they are not related to limitations of the recording/playback technology itself. This would be a critical issue considering how many billions of recordings in that format have been sold and are in use and that replacing them would be a staggering expense just the way it was to replace vinyl. However in a world where only a very small percentage of the market for recordings cares about sound quality it hardly seems to matter. The blu-ray standards will be adopted because the video technology is superior and its cost will be very competitive with older technologies. However, whether it matters or not, while I find much very unsatisfactory with the contemporary technology of electronic sound reproducing machines, limitations of the RBCD format if they exist at all are not among the more objectionable ones.

  3. Well said. Regarding melody, I’m certainly a fan. Some non-Western musics emphasize it to an even greater degree than do we: witness the Indian raga tradition, for example. But our combination of pitch-through-time (melody), pitches-in-space (harmony) and time-management (rhythmic order) is a big advantage, I think.

    Not sure I would agree that if you can scientifically confirm or refute Nyquist, you’ve settled the issue of RBCD adequacy. Too many ghosts left in the machine — that’s where the inherent purity of scientific theory meets up with the messy realities of engineering. Maybe we can imagine a player that executes Nyquist’s plan flawlessly, but we do seem to have trouble actually building one.

    • “Not sure I would agree that if you can scientifically confirm or refute Nyquist, you’ve settled the issue of RBCD adequacy.”

      The task of confirming or refuting the audible adequacy of hardware and systems based on meeting the engineering criteria in Nyquists theory (unassailable so far) is not the provenance of audiophiles or others involved in listening to recordings but of professionals in the area of clinical psychology. They specialize in testing the limits of human perception on a scientific basis. They must devise and conduct carefully controlled blind tests using equipment specifically engineered for their needs used under very carefully controlled conditions where their results are subject to peer review. Only the variables they are testing for can be changed during the tests and the results are compared showing the existance or lack of it in the ability to distinguish two sounds heard repeatedly with and without the Nyquist acceptable limitations. To draw conclusions if there are significant findings would be to determine where the criteria fall short, to what percentage and sub group of test subjects (excellent hearing accuity in well defined aspects of hearing for example) and what the acceptable minimuim criteria are either to a commercially significant subgroup or to all individuals. Were high end recordings and sound rerproducing equipment still a viable highly profitable large industry, the results might matter and those seeking to profit from introducing new better technology would have a vested interest in proving it is usably superior. But that is not the case. Testimonials or reports based on preferences or experience with a relatively limited number of trials can’t carry any weight as there are so many other variables in play at the same time.

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