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Herbert Blomstedt - Bach h-Moll Messe, Beethoven 5. Sinfonie [Blu-ray]
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Recorded live at St Thomas's Church, Leipzig, 9 October 1999
Von 1998 bis 2005 leitete Herbert Blomstedt als Nachfolger von Kurt Masur das Gewandhausorchester
Leipzig und hat in 486 Konzerten mit 243 Werken von 69 Komponisten einen Sound kreiert, wie ihn die deutsche Orchesterlandschaft derzeit kein zweites Mal bietet. Das Vermächtnis des Herbert Blomstedt war, dass er die Schwächen des Orchesters abstellte, ohne die Stärken zu gefährden. Unter dem Titel „Vermächtnis IV“ fand auch das Abschlusskonzert des Bachfestes 2005 stand, bei dem Blomstedt sein Können anhand von Bachs hmollMesse zeigt, die – trotz der akustischen Nachteile eines Gotteshauses – die in einem strahlend, schlanken Klangbild und dennoch voll emotionaler Wärme ertönt. Die großartige Besetzung mit Ruth Ziesak, Anna Larsson, Christoph Genz und Dietrich Henschel, die vom Gewandhaus Kammerchor und dem Thomaner Chor Leipzig begleitet werden, macht dieses LiveKonzert aus der Thomas Kirche Leipzig zu einem besonders eindrücklichen Erlebnis.
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Watching the performance on Blu-ray makes you feel like you are there in the church watching the performance while walking in and amongst the orchestra and choir. The video is fairly well done and edited well. You have a chance to absorb and relish a scene before moving on. Quick, frantic cuts...the norm in cinema today...are not to be found here. My enjoyment of music is greatly enhanced when I am able to watch the musicians too. And this Blu-ray delivers quality in both video and audio.
The Blu-ray video quality is good though not excellent. The MPEG-2 encoding reveals mild compression artifacts on skin tones which leads to posterization. I'm not sure why a more "modern" encoder was not used nor do I know why the video is 1080i instead of 1080p. Nevertheless, the video is detailed with good, steady contrast and is not detracting from the overall performance. Bit rates hover between 20-25 Mbps.
There are two audio flavors: a 2 channel DD mix with a 320Kbps bit rate a 5.1 DTS True-HD mix with an average 4000 Kbps bit rate. The DTS mix is well done and brings this music to life in your living room. The surround sound mix does sound much better than the CD.
I have already watched this Blu-ray a number of times and see it as a bargain as opposed to going to the symphony. I feel like I'm watching these performances live and in person and highly recommend this disc to any fan of of the genre.
UPDATE 8/30/13 I've watched this about 10 times since I bought it and I would upgrade the rating to six stars if I could. I thoroughly enjoy watching this Blu-ray and the music is magnificent! Another great Blu-ray is "Bach: St. Matthew Passion" (ASIN: B008P76VP8).
We see the program contains not only the Bach B-Minor Mass, but also the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on organ, a handful of other items including a Bach Motet, violin solo, some Mendelssohn, and the Beethoven 5th. Wow! All at the St. Thomas church!
Well, firstly it turns out the Mass in B Minor is not done by the Thomanerchor at all, but rather by the Gewandhauskammerchor. It really is an excellent performance of the B Minor Mass, and they are a fine choir, but note, they are an adult mixed choir, not the Thomanerchor which is a boys choir. But more on the Thomanerchor later.
Now we really get into the "Truth in Advertising" problems. And you can't tell me to "read the fine print", because there is no "fine print".
ONLY the B Minor Mass is from the St. Thomas Church. The remainder is an entirely different concert, recorded in the St. Nicholas Church. The Bach motet, violin solo, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the Mendelssohn, and the Beethoven 5th are all done in the Nikolaikirche. Which is not a crime, but it must be said, the Mass in B Minor is available separately on DVD, and part of the reason I popped for the expensive Blu-ray is because of all these extra items. And because I am an organist, I did really want to hear the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor from the Thomaskirche, where Bach had been Director of Music for the last 27 years of his life.
Yes, I am well aware, Bach was responsible for music not only at the Thomaskirche, but also at the Nikolaikirche. And I am also well aware, even in the current Thomaskirche there is no organ that dates from Bach's time. (And I am aware, Bach was not even organist per se in Leipzig at that stage of his career.) I am aware of these issues. But please, Damen und Herren, advertise your DVDs accurately and allow me to make my own decisions. This is pertinent information: the Nikolaikirche is NOT the Thomaskirche, and that's where at least half the program takes place. That creates an element of disappointment in what otherwise would be a truly outstanding release.
Now a few observations about the music and performances,
1. Mass in B Minor at the Thomaskirche. Herbert Blomstedt is a truly great conductor and this is an amazing performance which needs few apologies if any, especially for a live performance. The tempos were just right to my ears, not too fast, and not too slow. Only in Cum Sancto Spiritu did the conductor succumb to the ever-prevalent temptation for speed, and ensemble suffered. Other than that, wow, everything was perfect. I especially enjoyed the interplay between the alto soloist and the violinist in Laudamus Te. That was just one of many wonderful moments. This Mass in B Minor is worthy of several more pages laudatory review, but will suffice for now to say it is excellent. Sehr gut!
2. Toccata and Fugue in D minor, at the Nikolaikirche organ. With due respect to the organist, this was not very satisfying. (My remarks may be tempered by the fact that it wasn't at the venue expected, as stated.) In any event, it was NOT at a historic console (maybe as early as the 1970s, with lighted stoptabs), and it was played thru basically fortissimo from beginning to end, on the first manual, with hardly any registration change, and manual changes only where it absolutely couldn't be avoided. Also the camera work was not very exciting, concentrating as they usually do on the pipe organ façade, occasionally zooming in on the pipe lips as if to show where all this mighty sound is coming from, ha-ha. And the organ façade here is not very interesting. Whether it is 1870s or 1950s I do not know, but is definitely not historic Silbermann or Schnitger or really much different than what we have on any college campus in the USA. So, with all respect, it was not much of the "true-Bach" experience expected.
3. Motet "Furchte dich nicht" by the Thomanerchor, in the Nikolaikirche (!) O dear, how I do not wish to pan the Thomanerchor, but considering this was recorded in 1999, maybe those particular kids are all grown up now and would not take offense :) There is nothing terribly wrong with the Thomanerchor, but they are simply not a world-class group such as might be expected from this mighty temple of art, the Thomaskirche ... where every Bach-lover in the world would like to make a pilgrimage at least once in his or her life. Yes and frankly, they are not nearly as good as the ___________ (fill in the blank, insert your own favorite boyschoir, probably English, correct?) But as I say, they are not bad, they are pleasant to listen to, but how I wish the performance could have been from the Thomaskirche where they belong. Psychological or not, it would have made a difference.
4. Chaconne from Partita for solo violin #2, by Viktoria Mullova, with the most excellent musicianship and technique. This piece is supposedly unaccompanied, but in this case accompanied by a choir warming up or rehearsing somewhere in an adjacent hall. Always a pleasant addition to any high-class concert with (no doubt) an equally high admission price.
5. Dona Nobis Pacem, a recap from the Mass in B Minor, this time by the Thomanerchor (again, still in the Nikolaikirche). I know, it is from a totally different concert of the full B Minor Mass reviewed above. But appearing on the same disc, yea, even on the same SIDE of the same disc, and not nearly as good as the earlier performance--that is simply anticlimactic.
6. A few odds and ends by Mendelssohn, which I am not familiar with, and sounded fine to me.
7. Beethoven 5th Symphony. This comes as a surprise, not having ever associated the Beethoven 5th with a church setting, or with a Bach concert in general, or even following a later composer such as Mendelssohn. Well, it is one of the best darn Beethoven 5ths I have ever heard, regardless.
In summary, I do not appreciate the inaccurate advertising (and I can accept it's probably a result of inept graphic designers rather than deliberate dishonesty by the record producers, but the carelessness by those involved is deplorable, whatever the excuse) ... but in any case, overall it's a great pair of concerts.